ISTANBUL // Turkey’s top politicians made a final effort on Saturday to sway undecided voters in a frenetic end to campaigning a day ahead of the closely-contested referendum on expanding president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s powers.
Both the Yes and No camps squeezed in a flurry of rallies as the clock ticked down to Sunday’s landmark poll.
At stake is the future of Turkey’s political system, with supporters saying the constitutional changes will herald a period of stability and prosperity, and detractors warning the reforms could lead to an autocratic one-man rule.
Opinion polls indicate a tight race, and fierce campaigning took place right up to the 6pm (7pm UAE time) ban on Saturday.
If passed, the new presidential system will implement the most radical political shake-up in Turkey’s recent history, dispensing with the office of the prime minister and centralising the entire executive bureaucracy under the presidency.
“Turkey will tomorrow make one of the most important decisions in its history,” said Mr Erdogan as he wrapped up an exhausting nationwide campaign with a rally in the Istanbul district of Sariyer.
Confidently predicting victory, he declared: “The polls look really good.” But he urged people not to succumb to “lethargy” in voting, saying “the stronger result the better”.
“A Yes that emerges from the ballot box with the highest margin will be a lesson to the West,” added the president, who has frequently railed against the European Union in the campaign.
Erdogan, who has dominated the airwaves in recent weeks with multiple daily rallies and interviews, gave no less than four rallies in Istanbul districts.
The standard-bearer of the No camp, Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, warned that Turkey was deciding if “we want to continue with the democratic parliamentary system or one-man rule”.
He described the new system as “a bus with no brakes and whose destination is unknown”.
The opposition has cried foul that the referendum has been conducted on unfair terms, with Yes posters ubiquitous on the streets and opposition voices squeezed from the media.
The two co-leaders of the second opposition party the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas, have been jailed on charges of backing Kurdish militants in what supporters say was a deliberate move to eliminate them from the campaign.
Despite the clear advantages enjoyed by the Yes campaign, opinion polls have predicted drastically different outcomes and analysts are expecting a close result.
The poll is also taking place under a state of emergency that has seen 47,000 arrested in an unprecedented crackdown after the July 15 failed coup.
About 100,000 people — including judges, lawyers, teachers, journalists and police — have been dismissed from their jobs, while hundreds of news outlets and non-governmental organisations have been shut down.
“We want peace, freedom, democracy. We will have these with a No vote tomorrow,” Pervin Buldan, a lawmaker from the opposition pro-Kurdish HDP, said at a rally in the predominantly Kurdish province of Diyarbakir.
Security will be high for Sunday’s polls, with nearly 34,000 police deployed in Istanbul alone after a slew of attacks over the last year blamed on Kurdish militants and extremists. ISIL has called for attacks against the referendum.
On Saturday, Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency said 49 people, including 41 foreigners, were detained on suspicion of planning attacks during the vote.
* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press