Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrate in Istanbul following his referendum victory. Photo: Reuters / Alkis Konstantinidis

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s narrow victory in the recent referendum notwithstanding, the results have clearly shown that his celebrated political ideal of achieving “stability” through a centralized system will be an extremely hard nut to crack. Instead, what he faces is a polarized Turkey and a vibrant opposition vote that is unwilling to succumb to the “one-man rule” model that is emerging.

For the opposition forces, a victory by a margin of about 3% stands in stark contrast to the support Erdogan was able to elicit during the coup attempt last year. It marks a clear downgrade moment for a leader who has ruled Turkey for more than a decade, and who was able to win more votes during the last parliamentary elections than in the referendum. Hence, the question: has Erdogan accelerated the process of his own ultimate downfall and Turkey’s eventual drift to authoritarianism?

Out of Turkey’s 81 provinces, 31 voted “No.” It is important to remember that Erdogan’s erstwhile power base, Istanbul, and other major cities, three of which are governed by AKP mayors, voted “No.” Other major “No” cities include Ankara, the capital, and Izmir.

Also voting against Erdogan’s constitutional change was the region adjacent to the Aegean and Mediterranean coast, along with the mainly Kurdish southeast and east, areas ravaged by renewed conflict with the proscribed Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

For the opposition forces, a victory by a margin of about 3% stands in stark contrast to the support Erdogan was able to elicit during the coup attempt last year.

The number of “No” votes was strikingly high in most militant Kurdish towns, where the mayors had been arrested and their administrations turned over to trustees appointed by Ankara. Some of those towns had been reduced to rubble as a result of heavy fighting and have remained under curfew for nearly a year. The “No” votes in those towns were as follows: Cizre, 80%; Nusaybin, 79%; Silvan, 77%; Silopi, 75%; Lice, 85%; and Varto, 87%.

Support for Erdogan mainly came from the vast agricultural regions of central Anatolia, some central-eastern provinces, and most of the staunchly conservative, nationalistic constituencies along the Black Sea coast, symbolizing Erdogan’s alliance with the ultra-nationalists.

The referendum has, as such, given a concrete shape to political divisions in Turkey on a scale that seemingly existed only on paper before the referendum. This is especially true of the situation in mega-cities.

Despite being held under the shadow of a state of emergency that was imposed following the coup attempt, the narrow margin — the opposition’s allegations of fraud and vote-rigging notwithstanding — signifies what can safely be called a potential split of the nation into two camps.

This is obviously the case because contrary to Erdogan’s own hopes, not all Turks want to replace a democratic Turkey with a “stronger Turkey” under Erdogan’s leadership.

Therefore, despite all the state’s resources being at its disposal, overwhelmingly favorable media coverage, and the suppression of the “No” campaign, the ruling party was unable to prove the merits of its ideas and position itself in an unchallengeable seat of power.

In addition, the leader of the “No” campaign, Selahattin Demirtaş, was in jail, and as of now, there are 103 cases registered against the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party chief, who is now facing 500 years in prison.

This referendum has therefore raised fresh questions instead of resolving the old ones — and the most important of these are:

1) Will Erdogan pursue peace with the Kurdish region that has rejected him?

2) Will Erdogan’s party follow the same economic trajectory that it is known for?

According to the government’s own statements, a number of major investors withheld their investments until the referendum.

Will they re-invest amid rising concerns about Turkey’s drift towards one-man rule and in doing so relieve the pressure the country has been under for the past year? GDP growth in Turkey up to the third quarter in 2016 was negative 1.8 percent. The national currency, the lira, is one of the worst-performing emerging market currencies (against the US dollar) in the world.

Therefore, what Erdogan is facing is an uphill task in terms of establishing his authority in a country in which half which the population has refused to side with his vision.

Therefore, instead of changing things for the better, the future of Turkey under Erdogan’s rule looks all the more uncertain, especially for the millions of Turks who have chosen to say “No” to his vision of “centralized stability.”

Salman Rafi

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan based independent journalist and a research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His areas of interest include South and West Asian Geo-politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at