‘If there is one man in power, he can cut through the mess’: a Turkey divided ahead of key poll

Will Turks opt for a strongman presidency in the landmark constitutional referendum? We report from Istanbul, on why the result remains in the balance.

Women at a ‘Yes’ pro-government referendum rally on March 5, in Istanbul. Ozan Kose / AFP.
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Kadiköy is one of the only districts in Turkey’s largest city to have been transformed for the better, while the rest of the country wallows in a terrorism-induced economic slump. Dozens of cafes, restaurants and bars selling everything from bowls of cereal to tattoos with coffee have opened. On weekends, the area’s seaside parks and alleyways have become a haven away from the drone of politics, a place where the city’s youth can just "be", something that is increasingly precious for those who oppose Turkey’s authoritarian turn.

And yet, even in this republican heartland and traditional base of opposition for 15 years, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is out in force, campaigning ahead of the April 16 constitutional referendum.


Turkish referendum


“It doesn’t matter where we campaign, only that we go into every district, street, alleyway,” says AKP Kadiköy representative Kerim Bilgili, from inside a marquee emblazoned with prime minister Binali Yildirim’s image. He says that although the district has never been a successfully hunting ground for the party – general elections in June and November 2015 led to the ruling party winning just 18 and 21 per cent, respectively, the second-lowest results in all of Istanbul – the proposed changes to the constitution transcend party lines.

“People are not voting for a political party this time; this is a referendum to change the political system.”

Nearby, a six-storey poster of a model hugging a teddy bear has been replaced with a portrait of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan staring pensively into the distance. The slogan reads: "Yes, to decide the nation’s promise."

“In the past, I couldn’t go to university and wear my hijab. Now I can get educated,” says Zeynab Toparli as she hands out flyers to passers-by urging a “yes” vote. "Voting ‘yes’ is important because it would ensure that we don’t return to those days, to the past.”

On April 16, the results of a referendum changing the course of Turkey’s history will be out. Whether Turks vote for or against the constitutional changes to centre political power in the hands of president Erdogan, the fallout will have major consequences inside and beyond Turkey’s borders.

If the president gets what he has campaigned day and night for, in dozens of cities – a victory for “yes” – Turkey, a parliamentary democracy for its entire modern history, would give birth to a system of governance resembling a Sultanate. Though Erdogan has over the past decade taken control of all de facto levers of power, the former prime minister and mayor of Istanbul, isn’t satisfied: he wants his right to rule to be enshrined in Turkish law. A “yes” victory would further embolden him to reshape the country, perhaps the region, in his image.

Should the “no” camp prevail, the conspiracy theories and mass purge of real and imagined opponents that have marked life here since before last July’s botched coup attempt could be expected to deepen further. It may also keep alive the remaining sliver of democratic governance in Turkey.

Although Turks are fatigued by the glut of election cycles since 2015, the April 16 vote is unlike any in recent years: Previously, president Erdogan and the AKP he once headed could count on their grassroots political machine to get out the vote in towns and cities. This time, however, the motivation comes squarely from the halls of Erdogan’s presidential palace in Ankara, not from MPs fighting for their parliamentary seats; on April 16 it is not the latter’s political careers at stake.

What’s more, the debate on whether to back the changes has not focused on how the specific constitutional amendments would serve Turkey. Many Turks have been sucked into the politics of fear, the type of conversations that dominate nightly television shows or newspaper headlines. Instead of hearing what the proposals are, the debate has been hijacked by conversations around what the AKP has done for the country, Ankara’s ties with Europe or Turkey’s role in the war in Syria. Campaigning (like any country) has been dumbed down to catchy one-liners that prey on voters’ fears.

On the large plaza abutting one of Kadiköy’s ferry terminals, the “no” camp has gathered a more traditional setting. Led by the opposition CHP and HDP parties, its campaign has centred on securing democracy for today’s children and for future generations. Commuters crossing on ferries from European Istanbul are faced with a swarm of volunteers with flyers at the ready. Traditional music and dance are a mainstay attraction. The scene almost has a carnival feel.

“There is no way that ‘yes’ will win for two reasons,” says the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) member of parliament for Istanbul, Baris Yarkadas. “First, people don’t want a one-man regime, people want the Turkish state to continue with a parliamentary system with checks and balances.

“Look around you,” he says, pointing to the civil society groups that have gathered to promote their message both for and against the proposed changes. “We want to live like this, where every voice coexists, where no one is disturbing anyone else. We want this to continue.”

Yet given the spate of terrorist attacks and the silencing of dissent by the authorities, coexistence appears less and less likely. There are widening divisions across Turkish society – between Turk and Kurd, secular and devout, pro- and anti-Erdogan.

More than six million people voted for the Kurdish-rooted HDP (People's Democratic Party) in the last parliamentary election and the party holds 58 parliamentary seats. Yet many of its deputies, including co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag are now imprisoned and may never see the light of day again. Others have fled overseas or face detention.

The crackdown on Kurdish politicians and separatists emerged when the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in June 2015. Kurds felt they were left at the mercy of ISIL militants, in killings of civilians in Ankara and Suruç, and Kurdish militants embarked on a campaign of suicide bombings and police assassinations. The escalation of violence convinced many Turks that a stable government with the AKP at the helm was needed, resulting in a return to the ruling party’s single rule in the snap election in November 2015.

Last July’s failed coup – blamed on Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who lives in self-imposed exile in the US – presented the authorities with yet another opportunity to clear out opponents. At least 100,000 civil servants have been dismissed, while more than 40,000 people have been detained and dozens of media outlets shut. Turkey has jailed more journalists – 81 – “in retaliation for their work” than any other country over the past 25 years, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Opposition parties have decried how the “no” camp has been allocated almost no television coverage from broadcasters.

Turkey’s European relations have also been hurt. When authorities in Germany cancelled rallies for a “yes” vote, Erdogan compared German actions to those of Nazis. He made similar accusations against the Netherlands when it blocked Turkish ministers from entering the country. There are a million-plus expats in Europe who are registered to vote and Turkey feels it has a free card with Europe because of the latter’s dependence on Ankara’s stopping the flow of migrants into the continent following a deal signed last year.

With so many opposition voices silenced, in recent weeks cavalcades of government figures and their media mouthpieces have taken to the highways and sleepy airports of rural Turkey to try to convince voters that stability under one leader is in their best interests. Even the head of the Turkish Football Federation has campaigned for the “yes” vote, a position that could see him sanctioned by Uefa, Europe’s governing football authority.

But because the unrest – attacks at nightclubs and airports – has not only waned but worsened, Turks’ support may have shifted away from Erdogan; and because a simple majority will win the day on April 16, the result remains very much in the balance.

By one poll's estimation, 55 per cent of Turks registered to vote will oppose the proposed changes – enough to defeat Erdogan's plans. If the flop of the recent film biopic Reis (The Chief), of the president's life is anything to read into, maybe, just maybe, people have had enough. Were the "no" camp to win, it would be the clearest sign that despite improved standards of living enjoyed by millions, the violence and division that has wracked Turkey has come at too high a cost.

Turkey’s economy is on the rocks and a US$30 billion (Dh110bn) tourism industry is in the doldrums. There was a 40 per cent slump in visitors last year. Some are hoping therefore, for the “yes” campaign to win, if only to boost their own flailing fortunes.

Under the Galata Bridge, in the AKP-held Fatih district of Istanbul, businessman Zeki Tufekci makes an impassioned case for the merits of authoritarianism. Tufekci runs businesses in property and tourism across Istanbul, including a restaurant on the Galata Bridge, and says he will vote in favour of the constitutional changes.

“The constant changing of political leaders is the problem. When there is instability, one leader in, another out, the currency (lira) loses value, interest rates increase, and that’s bad for everyone,” he says. “It’s the big projects – the third [Bosphorus] bridge, the Marmaray [rail transportation], the [under-construction] new airport – that what’s keeping the economy running.”

He says whoever is in power makes no difference. “The most important thing is that we have respect for each other, but if there is one man in power, he can cut through the mess, make decisions, make progress.”

Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who has lived in Syria and Turkey since 2007.