Dr André Barrinha, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, comments on the recent referendum in Turkey in which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed victory.

Nine years ago the Turkish Constitutional Court decided, by a very slim margin (one vote), against the closure of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The accusation, the same that led to the end of Necmettin Erbakan’s rule in 1997 and the closure of AKP’s two predecessor parties – the Party of Well-Being (Refah Partisi) and the Party of Virtue (Fazilet Partisi) – was that Erdoğan’s AKP had called into question one of the most fundamental principles (i.e. secularism) of the Turkish Republic.

In 2007, the AKP had decided to appoint Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül, a man of strong religious convictions, as next President of Turkey, leading to huge demonstrations across the country, and to the online publication of a threatening text by the Armed Forces (known as the E-memorandum). The solution found by then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party was the convening of early elections that he would win with an absolute majority. A month later Parliament would appoint Abdullah Gül, for the last time, as President.

At each and every obstacle along the way, and there have been many, Erdoğan’s main weapon has been his popular support. Since November 2002, the AKP has won all the elections in which it has participated – legislative, local and presidential – as well as three referendums. The latest, held last month, was perhaps the most ambitious in giving the AKP the necessary institutional structure to consolidate power for at least the next decade. The 18 amendments to the constitution approved by the referendum offer the President the de facto control of Turkish politics. These constitutional changes are also the zenith of the AKP’s attempt to confer a structural dimension to its dominance of Turkish politics. And this is a fundamental aspect to understand the political path of Erdoğan and the AKP over the last 15 years: with the victory in this referendum, Erdoğan ensures that what happened in July 2007 does not happen again.

There is, however, throughout this strategy of power consolidation, a factor whose control is not fully assured: the Turkish people. Despite repeated electoral successes, Erdoğan has seen the margins of victory decline and accusations of interference in results increasing. Erdoğan, who had hoped to get 55 percent of votes in this referendum, did not secure more than 51.4 percent of the vote. This, in a campaign in which the media have been completely dominated by supporters of the ‘yes’ camp, in which important political figures of the opposition were in prison (as is the case of the leader of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtas) and in which a climate of fear means many have preferred silence rather than campaigning for the ‘no’ vote. It must be taken into account that since the failed military coup last summer, more than 130,000 people have lost their jobs and almost 50,000 are in prison.

A victory by such a small margin (all major Turkish cities voted ‘no’) in a campaign dominated by the ‘yes’ camp reveals a Turkish electorate more divided than the AKP itself envisaged. If we add to this a modest economic growth, a high unemployment rate and a very tense geopolitical context, it seems clear that Erdoğan does not have too many reasons to smile.

Dr Andre Barrinha is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology, Politics and Sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University. Dr Barrinha’s comment piece has also been published in the Portuguese newspaper Público (original article in Portuguese).