Erdogan knows that his greatest asset is a fragmented opposition.
“It doesn’t matter if you win the match 5-0 or 1-0,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in an interview with CNN International after a referendum vote increased his powers. “The ultimate goal is to win the game.”
A row erupted April 16 — the day of the vote — over what was alleged to be widescale fraud as even unstamped ballots were declared valid by the High Electoral Board while voting went on. The protests increased when international election monitors said the referendum had taken place on an “unlevel playing field, with an inadequate legal framework.”
Such reactions passed over Erdogan’s head swiftly. In a typical reaction, he used Turkish proverbs meaning the same thing: ”Do not beat the air” and ”It is too late now.”
This is vintage Erdogan, who has mastered his skills in defiance of rules and regulations. Therefore, there was something awkward in the opposition’s reaction to his challenges, as if they were entirely new.
What has taken place since April 16 is a repetition of what happened when Erdogan won the presidential elections — again with a small majority, 51.7% of the vote — and refused, in defiance of the law, to resign immediately from his posts as prime minister and party leader. That was on August 10, 2014. It was the same opposition, led by the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), that cried foul and took the case to the Supreme Court, which eventually rejected it.
From then on, emboldened by a meek top judiciary, Erdogan led the country, in breach of the constitution, as a partial president. The recent referendum simply gave legitimacy to autocratic rule. Those in opposition, once more seeking justice in an apparently compromised top judiciary, will most likely end up with another defeat. The CHP has failed to draw the conclusions that legalism in a country where rule of law no longer applies is simply meaningless.
The core matter for the opposition was to find an efficient way to block the paths for the referendum to take place, such as en masse resignations from parliament, to force Erdogan’s hand by snap elections. However, it was doomed as soon as it accepted to be part of his game.
This is not to say that what the “no” camp on the referendum achieved is to be belittled. Against the odds, it managed to shatter the ground on which Erdogan stands. The anti-Erdogan camp showed that it constituted more or less half of the society and also made it clear to the world that the crisis-and-division politics led by the president left Turkey fragmented into three parts: Secular-centrist western Anatolia and the southern coasts, the pious heartland and a solid Kurdish south-east.
Regardless of the corrosive dispute over it, the result — 51.41% voted “yes” — that granted Erdogan unchecked executive powers leaves the questions: Will he be able to hold the country together and carry it through stability? To do that, will he lower his temperature and adopt a softer line vis-à-vis his domestic opponents and the international community?
Erdogan’s timetable makes them rather urgent to address. The passed constitutional amendments require that there be presidential elections in August 2019, possibly along with local and general elections. The April 16 results put him under additional pressure. Those who have carefully followed this masterful politician, who perfected skills to turn a defeat to a victory, may be right when they predict that there is nothing to stop him.
Erdogan knows that he has the European leaders on his side, albeit discreetly. “We need him,” said a top European diplomat. “There is much business on various areas, so do not expect any confrontation, no matter what.”
As compared to pre-coup attempt, Erdogan now has a perfect tool in his hands, the state of emergency, which he can extend as he pleases, with a powerful majority of his party in parliament. That the first step he took after the referendum was to extend the state of emergency by three months should be a hint of what to expect.
With most of the obstacles out of his way, Erdogan can focus even more deeply on a cleansing within his party. He most certainly will go on using fierce language against current and newly invented enemies, a tactic he sees as necessary to keep his supporting masses around him.
There should be no doubt that Erdogan will use emergency rule to continue to crush the opposition, including the secular CHP, as soon as he sees a threat for the next elections. His insistence on reintroducing the death penalty is meant to spread fear among dissenters.
Erdogan knows that his greatest asset is a fragmented opposition whose various factions are deeply hostile to each other. He would predict it to remain that way. He has succeeded to play them against each other and will probably see to it that the rest of the deputies of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) also end up in jail.
The Kurdish issue challenges the stability argument Erdogan has hunted votes for. While secular Turks will remain silently defiant to his rule, the conflict with the Kurds, within and outside Turkey’s borders, and a losing game with Syria, will be the main factor undermining stability and predictability. Erdogan is stuck with a militarist methodology and militarists surrounding him are entrenched like vultures.
Turkey has entered a dark tunnel, with no light at the other end. If the last year’s coup attempt was a blow to Turkey’s dreams for a democratic order, April 16 caused enormous trauma. Erdogan has won, Turkey has lost.