Turkey’s choice

Will Turks opt for a strong­man pres­i­dency in the land­mark referendum? Stephen Starr re­ports

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Stephen Starr is a jour­nal­ist and au­thor who has lived in Syria and Turkey since 2007.

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 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.

“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

There are widen­ing di­vi­sions be­tween Turk and Kurd, sec­u­lar and de­vout, pro- and anti-Er­do­gan

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 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.

“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 one­man 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. 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 for the “yes” cam­paign to win, if only to boost their own flail­ing for­tunes.

Un­der the Galata Bridge, in the AKPheld 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.”

Ozan Kose / AFP

Ozan Kose / AFP; Ozan Kose / AFP; Depo Photos via AP Photo; Chris McGrath / Getty Images

COVER IM­AGE: Women at a ‘Yes’ pro-gov­ern­ment referendum rally on March 5, in Is­tan­bul. Left, Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan sup­port­ers in Tak­sim Square on July 18, after the failed mil­i­tary coup three days ear­lier. Right, women in the op­po­si­tion Repub­li­can...

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