Besides giving the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a huge boost the referendum results in Turkey prove once again that organization beats ideology every time. In a referendum that became a vote of confidence in the government, the nationwide political organization of AKP simply overwhelmed the opposition.
Many outsiders like the European Union were quick to call this result a ‘victory’ for further democracy in Turkey. Others, like the leader of one of the opposition parties, see the outcome as the beginning of ‘dark days’ for Turkey. Whether or not this referendum actually improves democracy in Turkey or leads to a single part autocracy is a question that will take time to answer. What is clear right now is that AKP is the only political party in Turkey that has demonstrated the ability to create a wide base of support that delivers winning votes time after time. AKP has benefited enormously by portraying itself as the ‘outsider’ to the traditional Turkish political and economic elite and as the standard-bearer for the underclass. It has backed the opposition parties into the uncomfortable position of defending the discredited elite that had dominated Turkish politics for several decades.
Almost 58% of the voters, far above all published polls, approved complicated changes to the constitution that are supposed to improve democracy in the country. Sixty-two of Turkey’s 81 provinces gave a resounding YES to the changes. The NO votes were restricted largely to the West and South coasts of the country while AKP cleaned up in the interior. Istanbul, the largest province with 6.6 million people who voted, approved the changes by almost 55%. As journalist Cengiz Candar noted in a column in the newspaper Radikal on September 8, many of those votes were going to come from the extensive lower income areas of the city. It is in these areas where AKP has been particularly successful in recruiting voters.
These results are almost a repeat of the 2009 local elections and demonstrate clearly that AKP has mastered the arts of domestic politics. Use of computers, updating voter lists, local offices, training sessions for local party leaders, refining the message to appeal to the broad base of Turkish voters rather than focusing on the traditional elite all play key roles in maintaining AKP’s electoral strangle-hold.
The opposition parties simply have not done the nation-wide groundwork required to change anyone's mind. Their main campaign strategy is entirely negative, warning voters of all the alleged bad things that will happen if AKP continues in power. Whatever positive message there may be is buried in the torrent of threats and warnings. What is their plan for the future? Where do they want to take Turkey? How are they going to solve the ticking time-bomb of unemployment? In short, they have failed to create any positive reason to vote for them. Until they come up with a positive message and a nation-wide organization they will continue to be a minority party limited to the coastal regions.
While grandiose claims will be made about the importance of this referendum let us remember that, more than anything, it demonstrates clearly the power of a strong political machine over a fractured and intellectually bankrupt opposition.