Burhan Ozbilici/AP
A day after the referendum, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses a rally of supporters outside the Presidential Palace, in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, April 17, 2017.

For Turkey's Erdoğan, new powers present fresh challenges

The aftermath of Erdoğan's narrow referendum victory – marked by protests, arrests, and divisive rhetoric – is revealing the magnitude of his coming challenges, not least of which is unifying the Turkish people.

Dressed all in black and with a string of prayer beads wrapped around his wrist, the bearded election monitor in Istanbul's conservative Fatih district predicted that a “yes” result to expand presidential powers would heal Turkey’s deep divisions, and usher in an era of utopian calm.

“Turkey will be a more understanding, tolerant, and sympathetic country,” said Ülker Abdullah, an Istanbul security guard appointed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to watch a polling station for the landmark referendum April 16.

“If the result is ‘yes’ … people will live with each other with more respect, with more diversity,” said Mr. Abdullah, of his expectations of investing Turkey’s charismatic but divisive leader with sweeping new powers.

The “yes” camp won, but its razor-thin margin of just 51.4 percent – with virtually every major urban center voting “no” – is not bringing calm. So far the result is instead yielding greater uncertainty, some street protests, a wider crackdown on those protesting the “yes” result, and more divisive rhetoric.

Perhaps most importantly, the aftermath of the vote is also revealing the daunting challenges that Mr. Erdoğan still faces in the future to unify his citizens, improve the economy, and lower the toll from battling Kurdish and Islamic militants on three fronts, in terms of casualties, terror attacks, and new migrations of refugees.

Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, whose job will eventually disappear with the constitutional changes, promised “a modern era of permanent stability.” But last week, scores of activists opposing the referendum results were arrested nationwide – some in dawn police raids – accused of fomenting unrest.

'Responsible for everything'

While the referendum delivered Erdoğan’s dream of an executive presidency, and the possibility of legally extending his 15 years at the top of Turkish politics to 2029, analysts say this victory is in many ways a poison chalice. For Erdoğan, all the power means taking all the responsibility for what goes right – and wrong.

“Now he’s responsible for everything,” says Asli Aydintaşbaş, an Istanbul-based Turkey analyst of for the European Council on Foreign Relations. “If there’s a flare-up in the violence in southeastern Turkey, if the economy doesn’t go well, if Turkey’s relations with the West go south – all of these things, he will be directly responsible for what happens.”

And, the analysts add, the high expectations among his supporters of a more tranquil future are unlikely to be met anytime soon.

“Post-April 16 Turkey is becoming more difficult to manage for Erdoğan, and while he has a history of pragmatic U-turns, I am not sure if it is possible now,” says Ziya Meral, a Middle East analyst for the British Army’s Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research in London.

Among the challenges, he notes, are a nation “dangerously divided, with almost half of the country certain that the election results were rigged”; the vulnerabilities of a slowing economy; pressure from conflicts in neighboring Syria, Iraq, and southeast Turkey; and a “crisis of trust” within the AKP itself.

“Given it is a close victory for the AKP – with questions over the reliability of the vote counts – the combative political polemics and clampdown on opposition will continue,” says Mr. Meral. “There are also clear signs of contentions within the AKP, ranging from people not happy about the direction of the party [to] votes lost to power clashes.”

'Unlevel playing field'

Opposition parties have called for a recount and taken the government to court, charging that rigging, ballot-stuffing, and a mid-election-day rule change that allowed uncertified ballots to be counted means the contested number of votes far exceeds the margin of victory. Turnout was 85 percent in Turkey, a NATO member that has aspired to European Union membership for decades.

Observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticized the vote, saying it took place on an “unlevel playing field” and involved the “misuse of state resources.” The OSCE also noted the “obstruction” of the “no” campaign, and that top officials had equated the “no” camp with being terrorists.

Erdoğan has praised the vote as the "most democratic election” of any Western country, and faulted the OSCE. He told the European monitors to “know their place” and that he did not “see, hear, or acknowledge” their concerns. “The Crusader mentality in the West and its servants at home have attacked us,” he said.

The AKP monitor’s voting-day prediction of a new era of calm was contradicted by another monitor, appointed instead by the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), whose leaders and scores of lawmakers and mayors have been in prison for months.

Turkey was headed toward “much bigger chaos” in case of a “yes” victory, said Aysel Borak, a Kurdish musician wearing bright colors and much mascara.

“What’s going on is a ‘Gray War,’ a lot of people could protest,” said Ms. Borak. “We’re going closer to a general civil war,” she added. “Eventually people will take up arms against this.”

Erdoğan critics have for years decried what they see as Turkey’s slide into authoritarian rule, and the increasing erosion of democratic norms.

And yet for Erdoğan, the moment of reforming Turkey’s Constitution by popular vote was meant to serve as the crowning achievement for his rule. A “yes” vote would do away with fragile and restrictive coalition governments and ease vicious political discord, the president and AKP officials promised, and would somehow end an “era of coups” that have dogged Turkey for decades – including a failed attempt to topple Erdoğan last July.

Where Erdoğan didn't prevail

For months Erdoğan and the AKP used state resources to blanket media, the airwaves, and public rallies and spaces with “yes” propaganda, even while severely restricting the “no” campaign and arresting some of its proponents. But still, 48.6 percent of Turks voted “no.”

“The fact that [Erdoğan] lost Istanbul, a city that he effectively ran for 22 years, and all the major population centers and cities, is very telling and must be extremely disturbing for him,” says Ms. Aydintaşbaş, who is also a columnist for Cumhuriyet newspaper.

“It’s a problem that the more educated Turks are, the less inclined they are to vote for him,” she says.

“He has to come up with a new story … about the Erdoğan reign, and the new promise,” Aydintaşbaş says. “He will have to demonstrate that he can continue the growth story – which has been the hallmark of Erdoğan’s movement here – but there are going to be hard times, tough times.”

That new story will require “acknowledgement that Turkey’s best asset has been, in terms of producing wealth, its democratic potential,” she says.

While supporters suggest Erdoğan may try to translate victory into a more conciliatory and unifying message for Turks, critics point to the president’s continued abrasive language since the vote as proof that combative politics will continue as usual.

“He is not concerned about being unifying,” wrote Mehmet Yilmaz in a column in the Hürriyet Daily News, titled “Will President Erdoğan change?”

“But let’s not forget that his primary target is to stay in power; to set up a one-man rule,” wrote Mr. Yilmaz. “While doing that, some might get offended. I don’t think he would make any issue of that.”

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