Anger erupts over Turkey's rigged referendum

Tom Gagné and Alan Maass report on the vote that Turkey's president hoped would let him tighten his grip--and the protests that threaten to spoil his power grab.

Crowds of people have come out in Turkey's cities to protest vote fraud in the constitutional referendumCrowds of people have come out in Turkey's cities to protest vote fraud in the constitutional referendum

TURKEY'S RECEP Tayyip Erdoğan is claiming a narrow victory in a referendum to amend the constitution to give the president sweeping new powers. But evidence of brazen fraud led to nightly protests following the April 16 vote, spoiling Erdoğan's hopes to celebrate a popular mandate for his increasingly authoritarian rule.

The official result was 51.4 percent voting "yes" on the constitutional changes versus 48.6 percent voting "no"--a much closer outcome than Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had hoped for.

But even this narrow victory is in question. Turkey's Supreme Electoral Commission reversed itself after voting had begun and said it would count ballots not stamped as valid by officials unless they could be proven to be fraudulent. That reportedly applied to as many as 1.5 million ballots, more than the 1.38 million difference between "yes" and "no."

Videos circulating on the Internet show outright ballot stuffing, and the government had the gall to announce that cities with large Kurdish populations in southeastern Turkey--where Erdoğan has intensified savage repression against a persecuted minority--had voted "yes" overwhelmingly.

Demonstrations against the rigged referendum started the night of the vote in Turkey's major cities and continued each evening afterward. One favorite chant was reportedly "Başkanım değil!," or "Not my president"--a conscious reference to the protests against Donald Trump in the U.S. following his election in November.

The protests continued despite a state of emergency--extended again just before the vote--that gives police broad powers to detain people for dissent. According to the New York Times, at least 38 people, mainly known activists from left-wing organizations, were arrested or charged after early-morning raids on April 19.

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THE REFERENDUM was an attempt to amend key sections of Turkey's constitution to shift to an executive-style government, rather than a parliamentary one. The official justification is to avoid future unstable governing coalitions that exacerbated political crises in Turkey's past, though not since the AKP came to power in early 2003.

The real reason is to consolidate power in the hands of the ruling party and its president. Early in his political career, Erdoğan famously quipped: "Democracy is like a train; you get off once you have reached your destination." Clearly he hoped last Sunday's vote would be the exit door.

Under the amended constitution, Turkey's president gains the ability to issue executive orders, control the budget, and appoint vice presidents, ministers and other high-level officials. Erdoğan himself would be able to stay in power until 2029 if he wins two more votes. He's been prime minister or president since 2003, so the referendum could push his reign into Hosni Mubarak-like territory.

It's a power grab that Donald Trump would admire--which is probably why he was the only Western leader to call Erdoğan and congratulate him on his referendum "victory."

When the date was set for the referendum, Erdoğan clearly expected an overwhelming "yes" vote to legitimize his rule over a weakened opposition.

After surviving a botched coup attempt last July--apparently engineered by sections of the military loyal to the Gülenists, an Islamist social movement that had been an ally to the AKP when it first came to power--Erdoğan and his government carried out a massive purge.

The Gülenists, who had become political rivals, were the chief target, but the arrests, jailings and mass firings went much further. The left-wing People's Democratic Party (HDP), based among the oppressed Kurds with support from left-wing organizations, also felt the brunt of the repression.

Independent journalist Patrick Cockburn reported that some 145,000 people have been detained or arrested and another 134,000 fired for supposedly being connected to the failed coup. Almost 150 media outlets have been closed. As Cockburn wrote:

All of this will be familiar to anybody familiar with the toxic politics of one-party or monarchical states anywhere in the world. Syrian elections to this day and Iraqi elections up to 2003 invariably returned overwhelming majorities in favor of their regimes, and some found it a mystery why their rulers bothered to hold a vote at all. The answer was that the vanity of autocrats is bottomless, and they want to see reports in their state-controlled media that they and their policies are the people's choice.

Weeks after the coup attempt, Erdoğan was able to preside at a massive pro-government rally of well over a million people in Istanbul.

The Republican People's Party (CHP)--the largest opposition party and, before 2003, the dominant force in Turkish politics between periods of direct military rule--mobilized in support of the government. The other main secular nationalist party, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), with its openly fascist "Grey Wolves" youth organization, was also represented.

Yet less than a year later, Erdoğan seems to have needed massive fraud to muster a majority in the constitutional referendum.

The CHP joined in a call with the HDP for the vote to be annulled. The Supreme Electoral Commission rejected all appeals by a 10-to-1 vote, and AKP Prime Minister Binali Yildirim issued a not-so-veiled warning to CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu to "act more responsibly."

On the other hand, the bond between the AKP and the MHP--which at one time celebrated the persecution of the Islamist predecessors of the AKP--has continued, with the ultra-right nationalists mobilizing supporters for a "yes" vote, though at the cost of an inter-party battle that could split the MHP.

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SO TURNING to repression and nationalism hasn't allowed Erdoğan and the AKP to overcome Turkey's crisis.

For the past three years, the many dimensions of the war in Syria have spilled across the border into Turkey. Kurdish militias in northeastern Syria have successfully defended themselves against ISIS--with increasingly open support from the U.S. government--serving as a rallying point for the Kurdish movement.

The Erdoğan government tried to turn a blind eye to ISIS's movements between Iraq, Syria and Turkey precisely out of fear of the Kurdish question, but it has been under pressure from the U.S.--and now, ISIS terror attacks that take place on nearly a monthly basis are claiming more and more victims in metropolitan areas. Then there is the strain of the refugee crisis as desperate Syrians seek refuge outside their country's borders.

Meanwhile, Turkey's economic problems persist. For the past year, the country's currency has been in a free fall, contradicting the AKP's claims that Turkey was becoming a regional economic powerhouse.

The deep-seated bitterness with the grim reality behind Turkey's neoliberal success story has erupted before, culminating in the 2013 Gezi Park protests that were called the Turkish Spring.

The movement began as a modest occupation to defend one of Istanbul's last green spaces against the AKP's relentless economic development schemes, but when the government used harsh repression against occupiers, solidarity demonstrations spread across the city and around the country.

The mass protests receded after a time, but the political awakening didn't, contributing to the unprecedented success of the left-wing HDP in June 2015 elections. With support from a revitalized left and other ethnic minorities, the HDP became the first party based among the Kurds to win enough votes to gain representation in Turkey's parliament.

The HDP's success caused the AKP to lose its parliamentary majority for the first time since 2003. His long-held plans for constitutional changes in danger, Erdoğan had a second election called and intensified an already growing war on Kurdish armed rebels, with the aim of regaining political leverage.

The AKP won back a majority in parliament, and it seemed to have momentum with it in the aftermath of the failed coup last summer. But the referendum outcome reveals that Turkish society is starkly polarized.

As three writers from the Turkish left, Guney Işıkara, Alp Kayserilioğlu and Max Zirngast, wrote this month at Jacobin:

The AKP is weaker than it's been in a long time...[H]alf the populace openly opposed it in the referendum, despite repressive, dictatorial methods and widespread fraud...That 49 percent opposed Erdoğan in such a critical poll--and this according to the fraudulent tally--means that the country literally is split in two; those who said "no" are in absolute, determined opposition to the government...

The longer the demonstrations and contestation of the election results continue, the greater the chance they will become a storm, swirling toward the AKP. The longer we put up the fight, the more morale and fighting power we will win for the struggles to come, and the wider the space for future mobilizations will be.