Turks Here Question Referendum Results

In a razor-close referendum vote (51-49 percent) on April 16, the Turkish people gave new powers to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turks living in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, many of whom voted against the referendum, questioned the results of the vote in Turkey, and expressed grave concerns about the future of their country.

The referendum, some say, was deliberately held while a state of emergency still was in force in Turkey following last July’s coup attempt to overthrow the Erdogan regime. The constitutional reform package received 51.4 percent of the vote, but opposition parties have contested the results due to the use of unstamped ballots.

Opposition leaders have demanded the review of a large number of allegedly problematic ballots. During the referendum, advocates for a “no” vote had little on-air time, almost all the media outlets are under the direct control of the government, and many deputies and co-chairs of the Kurdish party were and are still behind bars.

Associate Professor of Sociology at John Jay College Mucahit Bilici said in an e-mail: “The state of emergency combined with the overwhelming power of the government-controlled media could in itself account for the imbalance.”

Turkey has already, for some time, been under a plebiscitary dictatorship, according to the Turkish academician. “It has now been formalized and legalized,” said Bilici. “President Erdogan exercises majoritarian rule in a time when the rule of law has been vitiated. Turkey will continue in this condition until the religious middle classes start to suffer the consequences.”

For some Turks in New York, the result is an affront to their democratic beliefs. Said Mehves Kocak: “I believe in democracy; every vote counts. So we got ready weeks before – canceled our work and planned to vote in New York for our country’s future. We voted by the rules and with the rights we’ve been given; we followed those rules step-by-step while voting in the U.S. Also, New York Turkish Consulate employees and all of the volunteers did so much work during the election, everyone exercised their democratic right to vote in a peaceful and just manner, without any problems,” she said. On the other hand, “while I and a lot of people were very careful with our votes, allowing unstamped votes in Turkey, illegal votes, and the pressures and threats prior to the elections are unacceptable.” Kocak added, “Despite all of this, we, as a people who love democracy, will defend democracy and justice in our country.”

Another New Yorker, Haydar Mayruk, noted that official results showed that 84.4 percent of the Turkish citizens voting in the U.S. voted against the referendum. Mayruk said, “I said ‘no’ too. I am peaceful. I am happy. I didn’t fool anyone. I didn’t manipulate anyone. I know very well that I did not lose, because history will show, I won.”

Now Turks worry about the fallout from the results. Political instability is likely in Turkey, they believe. Belief that the government may have committed fraud is one reason, says Esra Tuncer, a Connecticut resident. And the narrowness of the win is problematic. “The approval of the new constitution with a ratio of just 51 percent, which is slightly more than the opposition vote, clearly shows that no social reconciliation has been achieved,” she said.

Tuncer noted that the “Turkish constitutional referendum was held under the state of emergency conditions in which [Turkey’s accordance with] the European Convention on Human Rights was suspended and thousands of people who are journalists, bureaucrats, academicians and ordinary people were arrested. People weren’t able to freely discuss the draft of the new constitution for fear of being arrested.”

Deeper social and political divisions?

Tuncer said public resources and public facilities were used on behalf of a “yes” vote by the government. Meeting places and public squares were closed to the opposition party representatives when they wanted to make speeches about the referendum and she noted that the president campaigned even once electoral bans and restrictions had been imposed.

As the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) representatives have expressed, the referendum was not accomplished with equal and fair conditions, said Tuncer. “One of the most talked-about aspects of these elections is the unsealed ballot papers. In all determinations of the Supreme Election Board (YSK), unsealed ballot papers have been deemed invalid until now… Nevertheless, the YSK accepted the unsealed votes as valid after the request of the government. It is surprising that the unsealed votes amounted to about two and a half million votes, and almost all of them were used in eastern and southeastern regions of Turkey. There are rumors that all of the unsealed ballots were in favor of the new constitution. If this is true it seems that the Kurdish votes were manipulated.”

All of this, Tuncer worries, could deepen social and political divisions and further destabilize Turkey.

Another New Yorker, Sevda Ulas, pointed out that “For weeks, ‘no’ voters were called terrorists and were threatened blatantly, yet now they are being called ‘brothers.’ Of course, I do not accept the results of this referendum, but what can be done? Protesters were being taken into custody and the reactions of the main opposition party were so weak.”

“Interviews show that people mostly did not know the substance of the referendum,” says Ulas.

Ergun Yilmaz, who lives in New Jersey, pointed out that the referendum was held while Turkey was still under the extraordinary conditions of a state of emergency. “It was by no means a fair competition of any sort – the opposition had almost no sufficient on-air time; almost all the media outlets are under the direct control of the government.” For the last several years, Erdogan’s political party, the AKP, has been known for its outstanding maneuvers to ensure victory; but they were never as brazen as they were this time,” said Yilmaz. “In the past, they had power cuts in some major cities; they did not allow observers into polling stations, etc. But this time, they stamped new ballots in favor of the government, and they did that while they were being recorded!”

He stated, “It is so sad to see our home country become almost as isolated as North Korea in the hands of a self-delusional dictator who over the years has re-engineered Turkish society to be extremely polarized. My only consolation is the high percentage (84 percent) of the Turkish-American citizens who voted ‘no’ on Sunday.”

For some Turks, the probability that the referendum would pass, whether through fraud or intimidation, made them wonder whether it was even worthwhile to cast their vote. Behcet Caglayan, a Turkish citizen living in Boston, said: “This time around I was hesitant to go and vote because I had a feeling that the result was pre-determined so our votes wouldn’t matter. Erdogan used everything you can think of including government money, public television, and all of the media outlets to spread his message to Turkish citizens. Opposition parties had little to no voice on any media during the campaign.”

The result was expected but the margin was too close, he said. “Imagine if this referendum was done during normal times and opposition parties had equal representation on Turkish media, the results would have been completely different. I just worry about Turkey and I think Erdogan will call for early elections to implement the new constitution,” he added.

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