Turkish Referendum

Turkey’s Yearning for Yesterday

Istanbul Roofscape
Mr. Erdogan's narrow victory in the constitional referendum raises questions about the divisions in Turkish society. Source: Getty Images

He won in the end, but the referendum results must feel like a defeat to Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to the preliminary vote count, the ayes scraped by with a mere 51.4 percent. Worse still is that the majority in Turkey’s big cities, such as Ankara and Izmir, voted against the president’s political plans. Mr. Erdogan couldn’t even carry the vote in his home town of Istanbul, where he was also mayor for four years. Earlier in the campaign he said of the transcontinental city, “if you win Istanbul, you win all of Turkey.”

The narrow victory for Mr. Erdogan’s constitutional changes, which include replacing the parliamentary system with a presidential one, have revealed more than just the deep splits in Turkey. It’s a global phenomenon. The yearning for the perceived “good old times” is threatening to split societies into two halves: one open to the world, the other reactionary.

But the results revealed something else, say government insiders in Ankara. Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) completely underestimated the young voter base. Many first-time voters turned away from the AKP and its constitutional plans. Minorities like the Kurds, who made up a substantial part of the party’s support, also voted no in large numbers. The Kurdish-dominated city of Tunceli in the country’s east did so by around 80 percent.

The trend is dangerous. A democratic and plural society may make room for anti-progressives but the reverse is not the case.

Young and well-educated urbanites living in culturally diverse cities with all their social cultural and economic advantages weren’t buying the promises of a flashy politician bloviating about long-lost power.

Those who apparently did heed Mr. Erdogan’s retrospective rhetoric are the ones who feel left behind. For the most part, they are older, part of the mainstream and live in the countryside. They long for a time when liberalism was just a theoretical concept; when the right to individuality and the possibility of having a say played no big role and when people kept to themselves and looked at foreigners with suspicion.

Brexit in Great Britain and Donald Trump’s elevation to the U.S. presidency followed the same pattern. It was the people living in rural areas and economically-neglected regions who succumbed to populism and voted for a step backward. Germany hasn’t escaped the populist call either. While refugees were being greeted with applause at Munich’s main train station in the fall of 2015, refugee homes in small Saxon towns were burning. It’s no coincidence that right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany voter is moving into the parliaments in the country’s lesser-populated federal states. On the other hand, AfD voters in cities are a rare breed.

The trend is dangerous. A democratic and plural society may make room for anti-progressives but the reverse is not the case. Mr. Erdogan believes he no longer has to concern himself with such issues. He has the majority’s backing to restructure the political system. He will now gain sweeping powers in the new presidential republic. And he believes his referendum victory will be a victory for all Turks, because they will soon be better governed. In fact, everything will become worse. The educated population is emigrating, leaving behind relatively unproductive segments of the population. That isn’t discrimination, it is a fact that African heads of states could fill books about.

Turkey will remain important because of its geostrategic location. But its society will become more divided.

We can already observe similar patterns in US, Hungary and Great Britain. In the aftermath of Brexit, the number of Brits asking for residency permits in EU countries increased sharply. US President Trump, on the other hand, is having a hard time remaining true to his America First policy. And Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wants to shut down his country’s best university because it is too liberal for him. Mr. Orbán is a graduate of that same university.

Turkey will remain important because of its geostrategic location. But its society will become more divided. The liberally-minded will continue to seek out education, progress, and self-realization, just not necessarily in their own country. On the other side of the divide, will be the ones dreaming the dream the “strong Turkey” that Mr. Erdogan has promised. At the same time, new economic data published yesterday put Turkey’s jobless rate at one of its highest levels. And the trade deficit continues to grow.

 

To contact the author: demircan@handelsblatt.com