Turkey’s divisions run deep as referendum result shows

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The result of Turkey’s referendum was a cliff-hanger, which I witnessed at the main opposition party’s HQ where accusations of fraud were flying. At the polls I saw the deep divisions in the country, No supporters’ disdain for government supporters, Yes supporters’ fury at European “crusaders” and adulation of President Erdogan.

Polling officials await voters in Ankara Photo: Tony Cross

Friday 14 April 2017, Ankara

On arrival in Ankara, where I will report on the voting and the result, I meet the young man who is going to be my fixer, Cagdas Ersoy (without the diacritical marks and the knowledge of what Turkish ones mean you’ll never guess how to pronounce that first name).

It turns out he’s a story in himself.

He used to be a left-wing activist and was arrested, along with several of his comrades, on a protest at the death of a well-known teacher and activist, Metin Lokumcu, on another demonstration.

Prosecutors decided to charge them with membership of a terrorist organisation but they couldn’t decide which one.

So they left them in jail for six months while they made their minds up, eventually admitting defeat and releasing them.

The compensation was quite generous, at least, Cagdas says.

He has a nice line in prison anecdotes, especially since several of the common law prisoners were members of the Grey Wolves, the far-right militia associated with the nationalist MHP.

“If you’re a hired killer what do you when the work runs out?” Cagdas asks.

One explained his racist ideology by assuring him that the Turks are the world’s top race because they can shoot a bow and arrow on horseback better than anybody else, although the skill seems to be widely practised in modern Turkey than it was on the central Asian planes several centuries ago.

On another occasion a group of Grey Wolves were expressing their certainty that homosexuality is a sin that will be punished severely in the afterlife.

“That’s true,” one said. “But, let’s face it, who here hasn’t had sex with a tranny at least once ?”

The others were obliged to concede the point.

Saturday 15 April, Ankara

A No banner hangs on the front of the CHP’s national headquarters in Ankara Photo: Tony Cross

 

The search for politicians ready to be interviewed on the referendum resumes.

It has proved especially difficult to find Yes campaigners to speak to us, the MHP being split on the question and AKP cadres apparently being reluctant for fear that they unthinkingly contradict the party line and bring their careers to an unplanned end.

But officials at the party’s Ankara headquarters are helpful when we turn up in their lobby and we end up speaking to the man in charge of the No campaign in the city, Nedim Yamali, in his spacious and well-furnished office.

Nedem Yamali Photo: Tony Cross

The claim that the constitutional reforms are a product of Erdogan’s megalomania is “a big lie”, he says, pointing out that they will allow for the president’s removal and prevent him standing again after 2029, although laying less emphasis on his proposed right to appoint the cabinet, issue decrees, declare a state of emergency and so on.

He also shares the Yes campaign’s distaste for coalition government, blaming previous ones for the country’s hard times before the AKP came to power and claiming that the reform would mean such a state of affairs would never be repeated.

We then meet a former AKP MP, Emin Dindar, in a more congenial setting, a charming café with art deco touches where he appears to hold court.

Dindar is a Kurd and a former mayor of Cizre-Sirak. Cagdas tells me his brother was killed by the PKK.

He takes an original line on the referendum, arguing that it will Erdogan a free hand to reopen the peace process and resume the improvement in Kurdish rights that the AKP started in the early years of its time in government.

He’s also not keen on coalitions.

As we leave, a man jumps up to greet Dindar, kissing his hand and engaging him in an intense conversation at a table on the sunny terrace.

CHP vice-president Telim Bingol Photo: Tony Cross

In another imposing party office, the opposition CHP’s national headquarters this time, party vice-president Telin Bingol says coalitions are getting an unjustly hard rap from the Yes campaign.

“Today we have unemployment, low-level economic crisis, lots of problems in our foreign policy and they have been ruling the country for 15 years by themselves,” he says. “There’s no coalition today and there’s no stability, either.”

On a precinct in central Ankara, sacked university lecturers Nuriye Gülman and Semih Özakca are staging a sit-in protest over their dismissal.

They have been here for about 100 days and have been on hunger strikes for 38.

To read my report for RFI Yes and No camps explain their cases click here 

Sunday 16 April, Ankara

Market traders start work on referendum day in Ankara Photo: Tony Cross

Market traders are setting out their stalls as polling opens at Necla Kizilbag high school.

As the sun brings out the red in the rows of tomatoes, the green in a mountain of chillis, one of them explains the superiority of street markets to supermarkets – fresh, local produce, friendly service – to us.

This is a middle-class CHP-supporting area and the No voters are getting their disappointment in early, assuring us that fraud will deliver a Yes vote.

While the muhtar (mayor) Aydin Yasap, expects this area to vote No “because people are educated here”, journalist Nalan Aygun says she is pessimistic about the outcome because “we have a lot of uneducated people in Turkey” whom Erdogan knows how to manipulate.

This disdain for the “uneducated” is widespread among middle-class secularists and must surely impede the No campaign’s ability to win over the AKP’s working-class support base.

Opinion is more divided at another polling station, in Mamak district.

Here I am taken to task by Osman, a flashily dressed businessman playing with prayer beads, who takes my presence as an imperialist aggression.

“Do you think if I go to France and stand in front of a school, as you are doing, do you think I could do as you are doing freely?” he asks me.

He seems unconvinced by my assurance that he could, nor does my insistence that I am not personally responsible for the French or any other European government’s decisions cut much ice.

Like many AKP supporters, including Ankara party chief Yamali, Osman is enraged by the refusal of the Netherlands government and some German cities to allow Turkish ministers to address rallies on their soil.

The move worked for Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, so far as domestic politics were concerned, but it appears to have strengthened the resolve of many Turks to vote No and Erdogan has made the most of its potential.

Yasar Akalin and Zamazan Acar Photo: Tony Cross

At another polling station nearby, one AKP supporter refers to “crusaders” as muhtar Yasar Akalin predicts a 60-65% victory for Yes.

Having resorted to that venerable journalistic technique of talking to taxi drivers, we are surprised to find unanimous opposition to the reform.

Of course, it may be that some are telling us what they think we want to hear but the man who drives us back to my hotel has an interesting explanation, which may indicate that the AKP is losing its magic touch.

Taxi drivers and shopkeepers are feeling the pinch of a downturn in the economy, he explains, adding that he and his colleagues are also angry at hikes in petrol taxes and the government’s refusal to negotiate with their representatives.

The AKP “helps the poor”, Zamazan Acar told us at Mutlu polling station, citing free health care and other improvements in his life during the party’s time in power.

But some of the AKP’s support may evaporate if the economy continues its turn for the worse.

To read my report of polling in Ankara for RFI click here 

CHP spokesperson Bülent Tezcan claims there has been fraud at the party’s headquarters Photo: Tony Cross

And now the result!

At the CHP HQ journalists and party members gather around a TV screen.

As results come in from the east, where the polls opened and closed earlier, the Yes has a substantial lead.

But it declines as the hours tick by.

It’s an agonising process, the activists are on edge, cheering good results even when they’re partial but far from confident in their campaign’s success.

The impression that the CHP thinks it has lost is reinforced when party apparatchiks sweep into the lobby and denounce alleged vote fraud.

Another CHP vice-president Erdal Aksünger claims that the party’s own returns show a No victory and accuses the state-run Anadolu news agency of issuing false results to demoralise their supporters.

The activists explode in chants of “Mustafa we are your soldiers” and other rousing Kemalist songs of a martial tone.

But the Yes lead is still falling as Izmir, Istanbul and Ankara seem to be going for No.

Izmir is a CHP bastion but losing in the other two would be a big blow to Erdogan, who started his national career as mayor of Istanbul.

In another dramatic announcement, party spokesperson Bülent Tezcan slams the high electoral authority decision during the day to allow unstamped ballot papers to be counted on the AKP’s request.

After an agonising wait the official result is revealed.

CHP activists chant as the result come through Photo: Tony Cross

Izmir, Istanbul and Ankara have indeed voted No but the country, according to the television, has voted Yes by a wafer-thin margin of 51.3 to 48.7.

As it comes through, Aksünger is making another announcement, claiming that 1.5 million unstamped ballots have been counted, denouncing the official results as fraudulent and vowing to fight them.

Neither the electoral authority or the courts, run by a purged magistrature, are likely to back the CHP’s appeal but it keeps the indignation-fuelled adrenalin pumping and the activists chant their defiance again.

To read my report of the result and the CHP’s reaction click here

Monday 17 April, Ankara

Bearing in mind that the two parties who campaigned for the Yes vote won 60% in the last general election and the odds stacked against the No campaign, the result is actually remarkable.

It shows a decline in Erdogan’s support, possibly the result of the economic turbulence that has hit the country.

But it still reveals a country “sliced in two like a water melon”, as Cumhuriyet columnist Cigdem Toker tells me.

The narrowness of the margin is unlikely to restrain Erdogan, who has already said he’s ready to have another referendum, this time on restoring the death penalty, giving the political finger to his European critics and finally slamming the door on the admittedly unlikely prospect of Turkey ever joining the EU.

But this bitterly divided country has plenty of other challenges.

To read What now for Turkey after Erdogan’s narrow referendum victory? click here

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