The mild-mannered team leaders from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe put it with their usual circumspection: the Turkish constitutional referendum on 16 April “took place on an unlevel playing field”. I’ll say.
Enormous sums of public money were spent by the Yes campaign on television advertising. Every town in Turkey was hung with vast banners showing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the word “Evet”, meaning “yes”. By contrast, you had to search hard to find any sign of a No campaign: an occasional banner in more or less safe spots such as central Istanbul, stickers that some brave soul had pasted up on a wall, a couple of nervous kids handing out leaflets near the sanctuary of the modest No headquarters. It felt like an underground movement.
And yet, in spite of the intimidation, the dearth of No rallies and the overwhelming imbalance of publicity, Yes won by only a whisker: a million votes out of almost 49 million cast. And given that the election authorities suddenly announced on the morning of voting day that they would accept ballot papers that hadn’t been authenticated – of which, according to one estimate, there were more than a million – you can see that the OSCE’s expression “unlevel playing field” might have been a tad understated.
Even so, Erdogan exploded with fury. The OSCE should know its place, he roared to his adoring supporters in Ankara. Maybe he meant that the job of any official body is to bow down to power; or maybe he thinks that, given the cold shoulder Europeans have shown to Turkey, they have no right to question what happens here. Either way, the crowd cheered him ecstatically. It’s been impossible not to be reminded of the Trump campaign and of Brexit here during the past week or so. Evet supporters love listening to their man as he draws blood.
Yet the closeness of the result has made many people think. The right-wing press was surprisingly sober on the day after the referendum. One columnist, who usually supports Erdogan pretty unquestioningly, talked about “a warning from the electorate”. My team and I went to film in Tophane, a working-class suburb of Istanbul where emotions have been running high. There are particular tensions there. It’s an attractive area – where in Istanbul isn’t? – in the process of being gentrified. At the bottom of the hill, characters with beards and topknots hang out in cafés with girls wearing artfully slashed jeans; at the top, ancient men sit around watching passers-by resentfully and nursing glasses of tea by the hour.
Most of the old inhabitants refused to let us film them. “I won’t talk to German TV and I won’t talk to the BBC,” one said. But a group of three, sitting on upturned boxes outside a playground, were less forbidding. The interesting thing was how unsettled they clearly were by the close result. “The president told us he would win this easily,” said a greybeard, in a puzzled kind of way.
Erdogan’s aura of legitimacy has been weakened. Like Trump, like the Brexiteers, he only just managed to squeak through; like them, he and his allies are shouting loudly about the will of the people and the duty of everyone else to accept the result. And like them, his instinctive response in victory is to be aggressive. Expect him soon to threaten Europe with unleashing a new wave of refugees from Syria and Iraq.
If this was indeed a warning from the electorate, Erdogan is unlikely to go quiet and soothe the feelings of the losers. He will now have American- or French-style presidential powers, plus a great deal more. For instance, he will have the constitutional right to do what, up to now, he has done only by diktat: purge any judges who hand down verdicts he doesn’t like.
Middle-class, European-minded Turks, casting around for any faint reason to be optimistic, are starting to wonder whether the result will galvanise the feeble opposition into changing its leaders and uniting. Don’t hold your breath, is my advice. The last serious demonstration against Erdogan and his way of doing things took place in 2013 and the police responded so savagely that there has never been a repeat. The other day I spoke to someone who lost an eye that night; soon afterwards, his girlfriend was killed in another incident. Would you go out on to the streets again, I asked? His answer was about as forthright as the OSCE report: “Well, I’d consider it.”
What should the rest of us do – foreigners who love Turkey, and who find in Istanbul everything they want in a city? Cross the country off our list, now that the man who runs it could be there until 2029? Surely not. Somewhere under the new carapace of aggressive nationalism and religious intolerance, this is still the society that has been justly famous for its culture of coexistence: where women in hijab and others in the most revealing clothes could walk down the street without attracting any special attention, where people were free to say pretty much what they wanted about politics and faith. This freedom, in particular, is vanishing fast: people are careful now about what they say on the phone or in text messages.
The outside world has caught on to this fast. It’s shocking how few Western tourists you now see in the likes of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar; and this in a country where tourism is a big part of the economy. A recent poll in Germany showed that people were staying away from Turkey not so much because of terrorist attacks – where in Germany or Britain or France is free from those nowadays? – as because of the perception that Turkey is becoming a nasty autocracy with religious overtones. But boycotting Turkey and making it poorer will only speed up that process. It certainly won’t make Erdogan reflect whether he is right to want to stay in power for at least 12 more years. l
John Simpson is the world affairs editor of BBC News. @JohnSimpsonNews
This article appears in the 19 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble