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‘Optimism of the Intellect’? How to Stay Hopeful in the Wake of Turkey’s Referendum Results

[ ["NO" supporters. Image via Wikimedia Commons.]

Following the constitutional referendum in Turkey, which resulted in a narrow victory for the “Yes” camp (with fifty-one percent of the voters approving the constitutional changes that grant President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unprecedented powers), pundits rushed to portray a grim picture, mourning “the death of Turkish democracy.” In an op-ed for Foreign Policy, titled “RIP Turkey, 1921-2017,” Steven Cook claimed that with this victory, Erdoğan not only “permanently closed a chapter of his country’s modern history” but also closed off the prospect that Turkey could become a democracy. Similarly, Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker argued, “after fifteen years of riding the train of democracy, Erdoğan and Turkey are finally stepping off.” Writing for CNN, Frida Ghitis joined this chorus by declaring that, “Turkey’s democracy has died.”

Although I understand the underlying logic that gives rise to these gloomy analyses and I share their concerns about the future, I also beg to differ and to put forward a more cautious reading of the Turkish referendum. I believe that there are three important caveats one should take into consideration before jumping to depressing conclusions about “the end of Turkish democracy.” 

First, as most analysts agree, Turkish democracy has long been in a sickbed. In fact, save for the ballot box, Turkey has historically lacked the crucial elements needed to be considered a “democratic” country; human rights abuses, military involvement in politics, and discrimination towards ethnic and religious minorities have all, unfortunately, been regular occurrences throughout the Turkish Republic’s existence. More importantly, Turkey has been under de-facto authoritarian rule since July 2016, when the government, in response to the failed coup attempt, declared a state of emergency. Since that time, the country has been governed mostly through statutory decrees. In the last nine months, around 134,000 public employees—including state officials, bureaucrats, academics, teachers, judiciary, and military personnel—have been dismissed from their professions (around 80,000 had their passports revoked); 560 foundations, 1125 associations, and nineteen trade unions have been shut down; 157 journalists have been jailed; 178 news outlets and publishing houses have been closed. As such, the referendum results have only made de jure what has already been in practice since July 2016.

Second, as detailed in reports by opposition parties, as well as by national non-partisan organizations such as Oy ve Otesi and Hayir ve Otesi and international monitors such as the OSCE, the “victory” of the Yes camp is overshadowed by serious allegations of electoral fraud. On late Sunday afternoon, shortly before polling booths closed, Turkey’s Supreme Board of Elections (YSK), acting upon a complaint letter by Recep Ozel, the governing Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) representative on the board, issued an instruction to count as valid unstamped ballots, which, by law, should be considered invalid. According to the OSCE, these instructions, which changed the ballot validity criteria on election day, seriously “undermined an important safeguard and contradicted the law.” Although it is not possible to tell precisely how many unstamped ballots were accepted (because no records were kept), Alev Korun, an Austrian member of the Council of Europe observer mission, has claimed that “up to 2.5 million votes could have been manipulated.” If one bears in mind that the Yes votes were only about 1.3 million more than the No votes, it becomes quite clear why the decision of the YSK shattered any legitimacy this referendum might have had in the eyes of a considerable number of voters, as well as of the majority of the international community.

Third, even if any claim of fraud is unfounded, the solid reality is this: In a country which is currently under a state of emergency and which has been so since July 2016; in a country where thousands of people have been detained, arrested, or forced into exile; in a country where journalists, prominent intellectuals, and academics are being jailed, repressed, and censored; in a country where the two co-presidents and eleven MPs of the third largest political party in the parliament (the pro-Kurdish, leftist HDP) are imprisoned; in a country where “No” campaigners were constantly stigmatized, labeled as “traitors” and “terror supporters,” physically abused, and even detained; in a country where the referendum campaign took place on a distorted playing field, where the opposition had very little television time or mainstream media coverage while the ruling party had the benefit of constant live broadcasts and television appearances to promote their position; in a country where Erdoğan has slowly but surely managed to get ahold of almost all the institutions (from the judiciary to the Higher Election Board to the Directorate of Religious Affairs—the imams of which allegedly advocated for “Yes” in Friday sermons); in a country where Erdoğan pulled every single string available to win this referendum, the amount of Yes votes turned out to be only fifty-one percent.

So rather than mourning “Turkish democracy” and wondering “How and why did the Turkish people vote for authoritarianism?” the right question to ask is: How is it possible that under these circumstances, against all the odds, so many people were courageous enough to say “No”? Putting the situation in these terms forces us to reframe the way we look at the referendum results and invites more caution in reaching pitch-black conclusions about Turkish democracy. It also forces one to respect and acknowledge the resilience and willingness of (at least half of) the Turkish people to fight against the further entrenching of authoritarian rule in their country.

At the end of the day, if democracy is ever to flourish in Turkey, it will only be thanks to those people who, despite the ongoing atmosphere of fear and repression, not only voted “No” against the presidential system, but also are using all democratic means at their disposal—from filing complaints about fraud allegations to taking to the streets—to defend their votes with the slogan “No, this is not over.” As scholars and analysts who are too often taken by “pessimism of the intellect,” we could, once in a while, benefit from using “optimism of the intellect” in order to be more sensitive to historical contingency as well as to the capabilities of collective human agency: In Turkey, the referendum might be over, but the fight for democracy is not.  

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