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Referenda

Apr 18, 2017

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The symmetry is uncanny. Last June, a major country on the western margin of Europe voted narrowly to leave the European Union. Now, ten months later, an equally large power on the opposite edge of the continent votes to turn its back on Europe, by an almost identical margin.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won his referendum on Sunday on a new constitution, but only just: the yes vote was 51.6%, 0.3% less than last year’s “leave” vote in Britain.

(The widely reported figure of 51.4% is just from voting within Turkey; adding the external votes, which ran 59.1% in favor, brings it up to 51.6%. You can see the full results here – “evet” is “yes” and “hayir” is “no”.)

And the pattern of results is the same: each was a victory for the insular, conservative part of the country and a defeat for the cosmopolitan and the well-educated. The big cities voted “no” – Istanbul 51.4%, Ankara 51.2%, Izmir 68.8% – just as London, Manchester and Leeds had voted for “remain”. It was also a defeat for national minorities: the Kurdish areas of the south-east were as strong for “no” as Scotland was for “remain”.

Turkey remains officially a candidate country for EU membership, but for all practical purposes that candidacy is now dead. Erdoğan’s reaction yesterday was to put reinstatement of the death penalty on the agenda, which if nothing else would be a deal-breaker in Brussels.

The partisans of “Brexit”, of course, don’t want to hear that Erdoğan is one of them. To them, he is one of the bogeymen: an “Islamist”, of all things. But the truth is that Erdoğan’s Islamism has become, if anything, less pronounced as he has tightened his grip on the country. As Dani Rodrik says, “His own sensibilities and personal cultural orientation are Muslim for sure. But he is first and foremost a political opportunist.”

There is one very important difference between Turkey’s referendum and Britain’s. Although the supporters of “remain” in Britain had to contend with biased and hostile media, at least they knew that the organs of the state were neutral and the process itself was impeccably democratic. Turkey’s “no” campaigners had no such assurance. Cezar Florin Preda, head of an observer mission from the Council of Europe, said “The legal framework was inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic process.”

Not surprisingly, the opposition has cried foul and called for the results to be annulled. But the chance of their complaints being seriously listened to seems remote.

Erdoğan’s Turkey is more commonly compared not with Britain but with another state on Europe’s borders, Vladimir Putin’s Russia; I drew the analogy myself three years ago. But Putin by comparison looks much more secure.

Turkey is a deeply divided country, and Erdoğan’s support consistently amounts to only about half the population. He won 51.8% in the 2014 presidential election, 49.5% in the last parliamentary election, and now 51.6% for constitutional change. A large minority is clearly not happy with the direction the country is taking.

None of that will matter much if Turkish democracy is as dead as the opposition maintains. But the closeness of the result is a call to not give up on democracy just yet. If the assorted opposition forces can work together and put up a quality candidate against Erdoğan at the next election (due by 2019), they may still be able to stop his authoritarianism in its tracks.

And if that happens, of course, then the concentration of power that Erdoğan has built into the new constitution will work in his opponents’ favor. A presidential system delivers great power from a single election, but what is gained can be lost the same way.

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