ISTANBUL // Just over two weeks remain before Turkey’s crucial April 16 constitutional referendum and campaigners on both the “Yes” and “No” sides have stepped up their efforts throughout the country. But those who oppose the proposed reforms say they are now facing not only heated verbal arguments but also physical violence on a frequent basis.
In recent weeks, campaigners have faced alleged police harassment and assaults in the street by fellow citizens – as well as a lack of coverage from many media outlets.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to add another political victory with the referendum which, if it goes his way, will grant him even more power in a political system he already dominates. Critics of the constitutional changes say they are an open power grab which will pave the way for a “one-man” system. With the polls indicating the vote could go either way there is still all to play for, but the playing field is far from level.
The lavish “Yes” campaign is bolstered by state resources, and massive posters of Mr Erdogan and prime minister Binali Yildirim – whose job would ironically be eliminated in the event of a “Yes” vote – have been plastered on walls all over Istanbul.
But when 100 campaigners were out distributing “No” flyers round the Istanbul district of Kadikoy last month, the police sprayed them with tear gas and detained several of them. The campaigners, who say they were targeted for handing out the “No” flyers, claim police also drew their weapons and threatened to fire.
This was just one of dozens of incidents of violence against “No” campaigners in recent weeks in districts across Istanbul and throughout Turkey, according to media reports.
Another incident occurred on the main square of Istanbul’s Bakirkoy district earlier this month, when one person knocked flyers out of a “No” campaigner’s hand and then six others kicked and punched another campaigner who tried to intervene.
“No” campaigner Mehtap Turedioglu witnessed the attack but says she is determined to carry on.
"We're not scared at all," she told The National as she handed out pamphlets on the same square a few days later in Bakirkoy with a group of fellow "No" campaigners from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP).
Furkan Edepli, vice president of a local youth branch of Mr Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and an active “Yes” campaigner, condemned the reported attacks.
“These ugly people can be found in every country and from a number of different ideologies,” he said over tea inside an AKP referendum campaign tent in the centre of Istanbul’s bustling Besiktas district.
“If I encounter someone distributing “No” brochures, I don’t get in their way, and they don’t get in mine either. Everyone will continue working in an atmosphere of peace and brotherhood.”
He insisted all parties were able to campaign freely.
Directly across the Bosphorus in the conservative district of Uskudar, however, things appeared less rosy.
"Members of the AKP and the [far-right Nationalist Movement Party, or] MHP come here and call us terrorists," said Solmaz Acikkol, who spoke to The National while distributing "No" pamphlets on behalf of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP).
The government accuses the HDP of being linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Since being stripped of parliamentary immunity last year, a number of HDP members of parliament – including the party’s co-leaders – have been jailed on charges of supporting terror by the PKK. Other officials and supporters of the HDP have also been arrested on such charges.
"We are waging a difficult campaign and are being attacked everywhere," Ms Acikkol said. During the The National's five-minute conversation with Ms Acikkol, a young man lurked over her shoulders, scurrying off only after she put her hand in his face.
President Erdogan has not spared the country any of his famously divisive rhetoric in the months leading up to the referendum, and has said that voting “No” is tantamount to supporting terrorism, claiming that the PKK also favours a “No” result. The “Yes” camp is composed of an alliance between the AKP and the MHP, which has likened voting “Yes” to a show of support for national unity.
In addition to having successfully mobilised pre-existing nationalist sentiment, the “Yes” campaign also has the media in its corner. Figures from a study by the Unity for Democracy campaign show that between March 1 and March 20, the AKP and the office of the presidency were allocated a combined 470 hours across 17 national television channels for referendum campaigning. The CHP was granted a mere 45 hours, and the HDP not a single second.
This along with the police interventions and reported attacks have left “No” voters convinced that the dice are stacked against them.
“It’s not equal,” said CHP supporter Mehtap Turedioglu. “It’s an asymmetric campaign.”