ISTANBUL — All along the broad highways connecting Istanbul’s European center with the sprawling neighborhoods on the Asian side of the city are buildings covered with giant banners featuring the face of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the word “Evet” — yes. There are no similar signs saying “no.” As the referendum on wide-sweeping changes to Turkey’s constitution goes down to the wire and 55 million citizens go to vote on Sunday, you can cross entire districts of the country’s largest metropolis without seeing a sign or a sticker of the parties opposed to the attempt to transform Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential democracy.
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“Yes or no, it doesn’t matter,” shouts an old woman who has been standing for hours in the blinding sun flashing off the Bosporus, handing out “Evet” stickers. “I am voting for Erdogan because he has done wonderful things for this country,” she says. In Kasimpasa, the district where the president grew up and played semiprofessional soccer, there’s no need for a sophisticated campaign. On the main street, a hundred youths march behind a sound truck, simply chanting his name. In the local park, the final campaign rally consists solely of a huge screen broadcasting a speech of Erdogan in Umraniye, a working-class district on the Asian side of the city and a major stronghold of his Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“We are voting ‘yes’ because of Erdogan and all the great things he has done for our neighborhood and city. But not just that,” says Anas Odger, a pharmacist in Kasimpasa. “We are also voting for the new constitution because we have to change the system.”
That is one of the secrets of Erdogan’s success: After 14 years in power, he can still persuade voters that it’s him against the system — Erdogan, who until two years ago led a peace process with the Kurdish minority and is now fighting a bloody war against them in the southeast. Erdogan, who early in his rule pushed for Turkey to join the European Union and is now calling European leaders “Nazis” and accusing them of waging a “crusade” against Turkey. Erdogan, who at the start of the civil war in Syria called for the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad and helped the rebels, and who is now cozying up to Assad’s protector, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This is Erdogan, who continues to convince voters in every election that everyone is against him — Turkey’s many enemies from abroad and the “deep state” at home — those generals who tried to topple him and the movement surrounding the exiled Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen. Once Erdogan’s ally against the generals, Gulen allegedly conspired with them in last year’s failed military coup.
“Erdogan has stayed in many ways the mayor of Istanbul, only now he’s the mayor of all Turkey,” says Ceren Kenar, a Turkish journalist. “He’s good at two things — winning elections and building roads.” Erdogan’s serial electoral victories and ambitious infrastructure projects, which changed the face of the country and heralded an era of economic growth (that has been stuttering of late), came at the expense of any attempt at social cohesion. The canny politician has been adept at playing different parts of the Turkish public off against each other and chipping away Turkey’s fragile civil rights.
Some hoped that Erdogan would calm down a bit once the fear of the military coup subsided, that in the run-up to the referendum he would try some consensus-building. It didn’t happen. Fifty thousand people who were arrested after the coup on various sedition and terrorism charges are still in jail. The purges that cost over 100,000 people their jobs in education and the public sector continue. Dozens of news organizations have been shut down, and those that remain toe the government line. Ninety percent of television coverage of the referendum campaign was devoted to the “Yes” camp. Around 140 journalists remain under arrest, awaiting trial. Three pundits who criticized Erdogan were indicted last week, with the prosecution demanding that each receive three life sentences.
There was no wide public consultation before the changes to the constitution were drafted, just a short process in a parliamentary committee dominated by AKP members. The ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) party, which was recently given a share of power, agreed to support the 18 articles of the referendum. The voting took only 20 days and then a short campaign, after which the Turkish people have to decide whether to grant their president unprecedented powers.
On the European side
In the middle-class enclaves on the European shores of the Bosporus there’s a feeling of a democratic contest. At the main junction, activists of both sides good-naturedly jostle and hand out leaflets. Above the square there are chains of flags of the ruling AKP and across from them those of the Kurdish opposition HDP party. But they are far from equal. HDP’s leader, Selahattin Demirtaş has been in jail for months, over allegations of supporting the PKK Kurdish underground, along with dozens other HDP parliamentarians and mayors.
On the sidewalk are tents of the different parties, but most of the action is beyond them, where the “yes” and “no” campaigners mingle with passersby. Both sides are using the face of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of the Turkish Republic, on their sings, boosting patriotism. “They are manipulating the image of Ataturk” says Dilek Ulger, a fashion designer, volunteering for the “No” campaign. “They do not represent the true Turkish Republic. If Erdogan wins, he will use it as a mandate to deepen his authoritarianism.”
“I feel for Turkey’s future”, says her friend Beerkauy. “If Erdogan wins no minority here will be safe. Not the Kurds, the Alevis, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans community, no one who is not part of their camp.”
The opposition parties are fighting the referendum with their hands tied behind their backs. It may look like a democracy in central Istanbul but in other towns and cities the opposition has been prevented from holding rallies for “security” reasons and activists have been harassed and even arrested.
“It is very difficult to campaign when your party leader and many senior members are in prison,” says Garo Paylan, an HDP parliamentarian of Armenian descent. “It’s hard also because people have lost the courage to oppose the government openly because of everything that has happened over the last two years — the fighting in the southeast and then the coup.” He is aware that even among Erdogan’s opponents, including some Kurds, there are those who think it may be better to vote in favor. “A happy Erdogan is better than an angry Erdogan,” says a Kurdish resident of the mountainside Gezi neighborhood at the city’s edge. “Anyway he has the powers, without a change in the constitution.”
“People have to realize that dictators are never satisfied and will always want more,” says Paylan. But he is fully aware of how hard it is in this campaign to connect with audiences who do not usually vote for his party. He criticized the main opposition party CHP for “sending blonde women on high heels” to try and convince religious conservative voters.
One source of optimism for the “No” camp is unlikely alliances between left and right, minorities and nationalists in the opposition to the new constitution. Metal Aksener, 60, a former interior minister, has emerged as an unlikely woman of the moment. She has come out against her colleagues in the right-wing nationalist MHP who are supporting the changes. Aksener is traveling the length and breadth of the country, addressing conservative audiences in their own language, urging them to vote no. If Erdogan loses Sunday night, it will be to a large degree due to Aksener.
The polls on the eve of the referendum showed a slight advantage to the “Yes” camp. But most pollsters in Turkey are working for the parties and are not seen as very reliable. As it is, sampling the electorate for a referendum where many voters may not vote according to their usual party affiliation is very difficult. In the 2015 election, AKP and MHP together took about 65 percent of the vote, but not all these voters are expected to vote in favor on Sunday. Some of Erdogan’s traditional supporters may not be too eager to give his presidential successors huge powers. While many nationalists have not been convinced by Erdogan’s style of anti-European nationalism and still view him as a dangerous Islamist.
The opposition camp is hoping that due to the tense times Turkey is going through, many voters are afraid to tell the pollsters they intend to vote “no” and that the situation is even, perhaps with a slight advantage for them. Ultimately, Turkey’s future is a question of whether the admiration and respect for Erdogan are stronger than the fear of his transformation into an omnipotent Ottoman sultan.