Contested Referendum Pushes Turkey Into Uncertain Future

As protesters walked past the bookshop he runs in Besiktas, a female customer asked for a book, any book, on how to be happy. Passing one on ways to avoid stress, the bookseller replied, “I would rather suggest a one-way plane ticket out of the country, though.”

Once shown as a model of synthesis between democracy and Islam under the pro-reform leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has quickly turned into a country where not even many of its own feel safe anymore. When Mr. Erdogan won the popular approval to clinch sweeping powers and a rule possibly extending into 2029 with Sunday’s referendum, it was the final straw that broke the camel’s back for this bookseller. It might just be the case for the country’s economy and its relationship with Europe, too.

Choosing to be identified only as ‘Insan’ because it simply means ‘human’ in Turkish, the bookseller said he cannot take anymore of “restrictions on basic rights” and “voluntarily blindfolded masses who just do not care about them.” And unlike protesters outside, he does not have “power to withstand and fight back” any longer. So he has already begun negotiations with a potential buyer for whom he is offering a “terribly reduced price” for his tiny store, just to be able to “leave no roots here” and go. But to where? “Europe preferably” he says, “but I’ll start with the Balkans; it’s cheaper over there.” He appears having firmly made up his mind, beyond Turkey’s borders.

Nationwide protests

In this majority-opposition and wealthy district of Istanbul, massive anti-Erdogan protests have been taking place since the referendum night. Mostly youngsters who have long felt alienated by the ruling AKP, demonstrators first converge onto the famous eagle statue at the very center of the district and then march, banging pots & pans and chanting slogans, up the busy Barbaros Boulevard for a few miles till Levent, another wealthy neighborhood overlooking the Bosporus bridge.

On the road, they pass by the headquarters of biggest pro-government media group Turkuvaz which is known to run popular outlets, Sabah newspaper and broadcasters ATV and Ahaber. There they spend an extra few minutes with heightened dynamism, believing that the referendum results were “rigged” primarily by two institutions — judiciary and the media. Similar protests – in which thousands join – are held across Istanbul and elsewhere in the country each day since the historic vote. Sometimes scene to violent scuffles with the police, those demonstrations do not seem to simply fizzle out soon, either.

More than 85 percent of 55 million registered voters showed up at polls on Sunday in Turkey and, according to unofficial results, 51.4 percent voted to change the country’s regime from a parliamentary system to an executive presidency where elected presidents would hold powers even beyond those of Vladimir Putin in Russia or Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.

The parties who led the ‘No’ campaign, secularist main opposition CHP and pro-Kurdish HDP, however, both have appealed the results, claiming widespread ballot stuffing. One major issue they find unacceptable is the fact that the country’s High Electoral Board (YSK) ruled to validate millions of unstamped ballots at the 11th hour. That, for both parties, has significantly altered the course of the referendum.

Ever since they remain defiant of the declared win for Mr. Erdogan. CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu wrote on Twitter on Tuesday, “We do not and will not recognize this election [sic] to be known in history as ‘the unstamped election’. The choice of the people must be respected and it must be redone.” Both co-leaders of HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, and Figen Yuksekdag, however, are jailed on terror charges since early November last year, so have not been able to comment on the reported irregularities. 11 more MPs from the party and nearly 80 elected mayors from sister pro-Kurdish groups also join them in prison, some for even longer but all in pre-trial detention without any conviction.

Growing feud with Europe

An Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) team authorized to monitor the referendum has also shared highly critical findings. At a press conference in Ankara on Monday, the monitors said, “In general, the referendum did not live up to Council of Europe standards. The legal framework was inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic process.” In particular reference to YSK’s last-minute change of referendum rules, they noted that the board’s decision “significantly changed the ballot validity criteria, undermining an important safeguard and contradicting the law.” It took only 24 hours before they received a strongly-worded rebuke from Ankara. Mr. Erdogan said in reaction to the OSCE: “Know your place. We would go on with our path. Tell [those accusations] to my hat. This country has held the most democratic election [sic] unseen in the West.”

Mr. Erdogan’s damning remarks came after National Security Council (MGK), he headed, recommended the government, formed by his own AKP alone, to extend a 9-month emergency rule for another 3 months, until late July. The extra powers given to the government during that process have been used to curtail some of the basic liberties such as freedom of assembly, close down nearly 150 media outlets, fire more than 150,000 public workers – judges, prosecutors, teachers, academics, journalists, doctors. The authorities also imprisoned nearly 50,000 people from all walks of civilian life, on terror charges based on the failed coup attempt in July last year. Since it was extended again, concerns have grown that the government’s rage would now turn to current protests on the streets and possibly to CHP, party of the Republic’s late founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, itself.

A day earlier, the powerful president also said he would approve the reinstatement of the death penalty if and when the Parliament passes a bill on it. So there are fears that Turkey now might choose a more troublesome path, with even capital punishment in pursuit of “justice” as post-coup bid measures. If that happens, a spokesman for Council of Europe (COE) Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland warned on Tuesday that Turkey’s membership to the international organization will just come to an end. On the day of the referendum after the final results were announced, Mr. Jagland urged the Turkish leadership “to consider the next steps carefully” in view of the close result of the vote.

To add insult to injury, all this is happening in the wake of a months-long campaign period that highlighted wide cracks in Turkey-Europe relationship as Mr. Erdogan even compared governments of Germany and the Netherlands, both founding members of the European Union to which Turkey aspires to join for decades, to Nazis because they did not allow his ministers to rally support among European-Turks for the referendum he has pinned so many hopes on.

Economy unable to find direction

The combination of widely-held suspicions about the result of the historic vote, protests organized in reaction and a never-ending fight with traditional European allies during a highly-restrictive emergency rule do not exactly offer the Turkish economy the best recipe for a recovery at a time of low growth, soaring inflation and spiraling unemployment. The previously-held optimism on a ‘Yes’ win in the referendum towards Turkish assets was already replaced with a rather cautious one as the post-vote process proved much thornier than it was expected.

The initial rally in national currency, Lira, turned into a roller-coaster volatility as USD/Lira rate fell as much as 3 percent from 3.72 to 3.61 but only to climb back to 3.71 in the course first 24 hours after the referendum. Unlike expectations based on a smooth transition in the aftermath of the vote, Turkish stocks gained only slightly on Monday. The benchmark ISE-100 index of the Istanbul Stock Exchange was up by a mere 0.21 percent as the day ended.

Between rock and a hard place

Had it not required to respect fundamental criticism towards the way the referendum was held and its results favorable to Mr. Erdogan, it would have been easier for Turkey to finally come to terms with Europe, peacefully appease the current protests and possibly not feel so obliged to extend the emergency rule again. But it looks like it does. After all, Insan might not regret his decision to leave.

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