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Turkey’s referendum result mirrors geographical divide

Ozan Kose, AFP | Supporters of a "No" vote protest in an Istanbul opposition stronghold after the government declared a victory in the April 16 referendum..

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government may have won a narrow victory in Sunday’s constitutional referendum, but lost in the major urban centres, marking another first for the Turkish strongman.


Shortly after Turkey's president declared the “Yes” camp had won the April 16 referendum, Istanbul’s Taksim Square was disconcertingly empty for a Sunday night.

The iconic plaza in the heart of Turkey’s largest city -- which in recent weeks had turned into a display post for giant “Yes” campaign posters – appeared to have simply turned in early for the night.

In many ways, Istanbul on Sunday felt a lot like New York City that fateful November night when Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential race.

It was the Turkish equivalent of the city that never sleeps hitting the sack.

The similarities between Erdogan and Trump’s electoral victories didn’t end just there.
Turkey’s electoral map displaying the results of Sunday’s vote has some parallels – in the Turkish context – with its US equivalent after Trump’s electoral college victory.

The red and blue zones in this transcontinental nation straddling Europe and Asia are noteworthy.

Turkey’s western coastal regions, as well as its urban centres, voted firmly against Erdogan expanding his presidential powers. The Kurdish southeast also overwhelmingly voted “No” to the raft of 18 article amendments changing the country’s parliamentary system to a presidential one.

The central Anatolian heartland predictably backed Erdogan, as they have since he came to power as prime minister in 2003.

Vote highlights a polarised nation

“We knew before the referendum that Turkey is deeply polarised. One of the referendum’s main achievements was to underline just how polarised it is. The three main urban centres in Turkey are Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. All of them voted against the measure,” explained Robert Parsons, FRANCE 24’s chief international news editor.

In Istanbul, 51.4 percent voted “No,” while in the capital, Ankara, that figure was 51.1 percent. The results in the Aegean coastal city of Izmir, with its historically multicultural mix of Jewish and Armenian communities, were particularly stark, with 68.8 percent voting “No”.

“For the first time in fourteen years, Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara voted against Erdogan," said Marc Pierini, former EU ambassador to Turkey and a visiting scholar at the Brussels-based Carnegie Europe.

Erdogan’s loss in Istanbul, the city that made his political career and elected him mayor in 1994, is particularly startling, according to Soner Cagaptay, author of “The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey” and director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute.

“A win for Erdogan, but also a defeat: he has lost Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city where he launched his political career,” Cagaptay tweeted on Sunday evening as the results were rolling in. “Erdogan started his political career in Istanbul in 1994 when he became its mayor, losing it now is the biggest setback for him since 1994.”

Contesting the extent of the Kurdish ‘No’

The vote distribution in the Kurdish southeast was even more revealing. While Diyarbakir -- the de-facto capital of Turkey’s Kurds -- voted 68 percent “No,” the figures in Sirnak and Tunceli were 71.5 percent and 80.3 percent respectively.

The southeastern towns of Sirnak and Tunceli were among the hardest hit by the state’s crackdown against the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) following the 2015 collapse of the Kurdish peace process.

Over the past two years, at least 2,640 people have been killed in the fighting between state security services and PKK militants, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

The conflict, which has destroyed several neighbourhoods in the region, has displaced thousands, sparking fears of the legitimacy of any vote results from the Kurdish areas.

Despite the high “No” vote showing in these regions, some analysts and opposition politicians have voiced concerns that the actual figures could be even higher.

“When the initial results from eastern Turkey were coming in yesterday, I was struck by the high “Yes” vote. A lot of nasty things have happened in eastern Turkey in the past two years with the PKK fighting, including mass displacements and the killings. I didn’t think it [the “Yes” vote] would be quite that high,” revealed Mortimer.

The pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), which was not allowed to send 150 observers to counting centres, is challenging the results of “hundreds” of ballot boxes, HDP spokesman and MP Osman Baydemir told reporters in Ankara Monday.

But it was not sure if any of the challenges would be upheld by the country’s Supreme Election Board. The opposition parties have 10 days to file their complaints before the official results of the vote are released.

If any of the cases work their way to the courts, the Turkish justice system has a poor record of overturning contested vote results. Unlike the US, Turkey has weak democratic institutions and a judiciary that has come increasingly under executive control, according to legal experts.

That may be the critical difference between Turkey and the US and for Turkish opposition supporters, it’s another challenge in the long night of their fight for democratic rights.

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