Turkey referendum shows secularism eroding – but still a potent force
Turkey's ruling party cast its referendum win as a vote of confidence for further democratic reforms. But the 42 percent 'no' vote signals a polarized nation.
Turkey's ruling party lost no time Monday in preparing to further expand democratic reforms, just a day after its big win in a referendum on amending the country's Constitution.Skip to next paragraph
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The European Union welcomed Turkeys' approval of 26 constitutional amendments that bring the country one step closer to possible EU membership. President Obama heralded the nearly 80 percent turnout as an example of the “vibrancy of Turkey's democracy.”
The 58 percent backing by Turkish voters Sunday was widely interpreted as a vote of confidence for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development party, known as the AKP. As it has long promised, the Islam-rooted AKP will now begin drafting a new civilian constitution to replace the current military one, which was imposed in the aftermath of a 1980 coup.
But the result of Sunday's referendum also marks how polarized politics have become. A vociferous “no” campaign mounted by opposition parties still garnered 42 percent of the vote – with particularly strong showings in Turkey's more secular west and southern coast – though the final result demonstrated how the power of Turkey’s secular establishment has been eroding.
“I’m not sure if the Old Guard are capable of coming to terms with reality,” says Ihsan Dagi, a columnist of the Today’s Zaman newspaper. “The process of democratization in Turkey is a change of power…and those who used to enjoy the power, the privileges, and the resources of the system, do not really give them up voluntarily." The result is more division “because the apparent losers in this game are not prepared to give up. They will fight to the end,” says Mr. Dagi.
Opposition scrambles to reshape message
While AKP officials heralded the vote, opposition members were left to wonder how they can reshape their message in time to convince more Turks to side with them before elections next year, in which Mr. Erdogan is expected to seek a third term.
Spearheading the “no” effort was Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the new leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which was founded by the man who in 1923 forged modern Turkey and its powerful state apparatus – Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Sunday marked the traditional power structure's third major defeat at the hands of the AKP since the party – with its roots in banned Islamic parties of the past – came to power in 2002.
While the CHP has less than one-third the seats that the AKP holds in parliament, the Kemalist party is still the second largest. Yet embarrassingly for its leader, Mr. Kilicdaroglu was forced to explain on Monday why he was not allowed to vote, because of a mix-up with his papers and residence status.
The leader of the next largest opposition party gave a stark warning.
“The AKP mobilization of state resources, resort to illegal tools – such as pressure, bribery, lies and threats to achieve political ends has become a dark page in our history,” Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) said in a statement. “Turkey has entered a dark period full of vital risks.”