President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey thought that Sunday’s referendum on a set of amendments to the country’s constitution would allow him to solidify his grip on power, uncontested. It’s not proving as easy as he and his supporters might have hoped.
Despite an uneven playing field, the “yes” campaign in support of the constitutional amendments failed to win with the wide margin that the president expected, and that he believed would legitimize his rule. Mr. Erdogan’s side won with a slim 51 percent. Drastic regime change — like moving from a parliamentary system to a presidential one, with no checks and balances — should normally require a clear national consensus. The 49 percent “no” vote to the proposed constitutional amendments, especially when there is major concern over foul play, denies that consensus.
Sunday’s vote also proves that despite years of Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian tactics, Turkish democracy still has a pulse. In fact, given the circumstances, the outcome of the referendum is a major victory for the opposition. Voters went to the polls under a state of emergency; the main opposition party was not allowed to mobilize its supporters; the most charismatic opposition leader is behind bars; and Mr. Erdogan has branded opponents of the presidential system as terrorists. The “yes” campaign received overwhelmingly more airtime, thanks to the government’s tight grip on the news media. The ruling party in many places took down posters and billboards advocating a “no” vote.
Independent election observers were not allowed to monitor the polls, and observers from opposition parties had their applications to observe polling procedures rejected by the election board. The same board made a last-minute decision on Sunday to make it harder to file allegations of ballot-box stuffing. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe said on Monday that “late changes in counting procedures removed an important safeguard.”
Despite all of this — just the latest acceleration in Turkey’s rapid descent into authoritarianism over the last few years — voters proved that they still believed in the democratic process enough to go to the polls.
That could change, though. Many Turks fear that Sunday’s vote was the last chance for their country’s democracy. The constitutional amendments have now passed, and Turkey officially has a presidential system with no checks and balances. Mr. Erdogan can rule until 2029 and has the authority to pick judges and ministers; directly appoint the heads of the military and intelligence agencies, university rectors and senior bureaucrats; and issue laws by decree with very little oversight.
How Mr. Erdogan will use his new powers will determine the fate of Turkish democracy. Will he listen to his polarized nation and try to heal the country by moving to the center? Or will he double down and continue his populist drive toward anti-Western nationalism? The razor-thin majority Mr. Erdogan captured calls for a reversal in his strategy ahead of presidential elections in 2019.
First, Mr. Erdogan might have to strike a deal with the Kurds, whom he has been demonizing since 2015. After his party lost its parliamentary majority that June, he sidelined the legitimate Kurdish political movement by jailing its leaders and pursued a heavy-handed military response to attacks by the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known as the P.K.K. That helped him win the support of hard-line Turkish nationalist voters who have a strong antipathy to the Kurds.
But Mr. Erdogan’s nationalist allies seem to have disappointed him on Sunday, as large numbers of them across the country voted against the constitutional amendments. He did, however, get more support than expected from Kurdish voters, among whom many conservatives believe Mr. Erdogan is the only politician who can broker a peace deal. If the freshly empowered president decides to return the favor in order to keep some of this Kurdish support, negotiations with the Kurds might resume before 2019.
Peace with the Kurds would not only bring votes — it would also stabilize Turkey’s shaky economy, and in the process rehabilitate Mr. Erdogan’s popularity. After several years of strong growth, chronic political risk and uncertainty have hampered Turkey’s development in recent years as foreign investors and domestic consumers both lost confidence in the country. Turkey’s tourism industry has been hit hard by the wave of terrorist attacks. Mr. Erdogan has plenty of incentive to want to fix this situation.
Sunday’s referendum also proved that Mr. Erdogan lost support in almost all major urban centers, including Istanbul, where he has never lost an election since he ran for mayor in 1994. Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., need a new strategy to lure back the urban, educated people who used to support them but now feel alienated by the president’s authoritarian policies.
This will not be easy. Throughout his career, Mr. Erdogan has thrived on polarization. After his party lost its parliamentary majority in June 2015, he managed to once again consolidate power by injecting fear, demonizing the Kurds and lashing out at the West. The failed coup attempt last summer helped him purge his opponents from state institutions as he projected himself and the presidential system as the only alternative to further chaos.
He seems to have succeeded in this objective. But Sunday’s vote also proves that he has lost ground. To be able to run a deeply divided country and ensure a comfortable win in 2019, he has to move to the center, set a less polarizing tone and heal the wounds the other 50 percent of the country has been suffering under his 15-year rule. Otherwise, more instability and chaos await.
Gonul Tol is the director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies.