Turkish diaspora vote crucial as referendum ‘could go either way’

A Turk in Hungary casts his vote in a referendum on constitutional amendments to expand presidential powers, at the Turkish embassy. Budapest, 9 April. [Noemi Bruzak/EPA]

Turks living abroad are turning out in greater numbers to vote in a referendum on changing the constitution to create an executive presidency, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said yesterday (11 April), a development that pollsters say could benefit him.

Voters in Turkey will go to the polls on 16 April to decide on the referendum that would give Erdoğan sweeping new powers. Voting for expatriate Turks began as early as late March in some countries and is due to run until Sunday (16 April).

“The vote could still go either way,” Asli Aydintasbas, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP, adding that whatever the outcome the winning side would only poll in “the low 50s”.

The referendum campaign has brought a rapid deterioration in relations with some of Turkey’s European allies over the banning of some rallies by Turkish ministers in the Netherlands and Germany on security grounds, something Erdoğan has denounced as “Nazi-like” tactics.

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In the Belgian capital, several people were injured and taken to hospital after supporters and opponents of the Turkish government clashed outside the country’s consulate where voting was held, on 30 March.

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The Bulgarian case

In Bulgaria, the EU country with the highest percentage of ethnic Turks, two local political parties stand for opposing camps in the Turkish referendum.

DOST, a new political party that recently broke away from Bulgaria’s long-established Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), sides strongly with Erdoğan. Conversely, DPS is urging its supporters to vote ‘no’.

Tensions first flared when Sofia accused Ankara of “meddling” in last month’s election by openly backing DOST over the 26 March parliamentary elections.

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DOST won 2.94% of the vote, not meeting the 4% threshold for parliamentary representation. DPS obtained 9.24% and will have 26 MPs in the 240-seat parliament.

DPS’ long-time leader Ahmed Dogan has lashed out at Erdoğan for trying to turn Turkey into “a sultanate”.

“Erdoğan wants to obtain unlimited power. The referendum is a threat to democracy,” the MRF said in a statement on Friday (8 April).

Traditionally Bulgarian Turks with the right to vote in Turkey back the CHP, the secularist Republican Party.

High turnout to boost Erdoğan?

A high turnout abroad is likely to boost Erdoğan, pollsters say, citing past elections, but at home it could hurt him as opposition voters traditionally make up a bigger proportion of those who tend to shun the polls on an election day.

“There is an amazing explosion of votes abroad. Around 1.42 million votes have been cast,” Erdoğan said at a ceremony in the southeastern city of Sanliurfa, calling on his supporters to flood the ballot box with “yes” votes in the referendum.

The figure Erdoğan cited suggests a turnout of around 50%, based on the 2.88 million voters registered abroad in the last general election in November 2015, according to data from the High Electoral Board (YSK).

In that election, the turnout was around 40% among expatriates, with 56% of those votes being cast for the AK Party, which Erdoğan founded more than a decade ago.

Polls show a close race days before the referendum, putting the “Yes” vote slightly ahead, but indicate that nearly half the country could reject the proposed constitutional changes.

Foreign vote results will be announced once the actual referendum is held on Sunday.

Bitterly divided

One polling company, Mak Danismanlik, seen as close to Erdoğan, said initial exit polls from abroad showed the “Yes” vote at 62%. It said the only country where the “No” vote had prevailed was the United States. It did not say how many people it had polled or where the research was conducted.

Pollsters Gezici, whose research has tended to overestimate opposition support, forecast 82-83% voter participation domestically and a “Yes” vote as high as 56% if the turnout is lower in Turkey.

The referendum has polarised the nation of 79 million. Erdoğan’s opponents fear increasing authoritarianism from a leader they see as bent on eroding modern Turkey’s democracy and secular foundations.

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Erdoğan argues that the proposed strengthening of the presidency will avert instability associated with coalition governments, at a time when Turkey faces security threats from Islamist and Kurdish militants.

It was not immediately clear what the turnout in specific countries was, but in the November 2015 election, around 40% of the Turks in Germany cast their votes while the figure was around 45% in the Netherlands.

Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung said Turks living there had cast 696,863 votes for the referendum, bringing turnout in Germany to 48.73%.