To hear Turkey’s embattled politicians tell it, the “yes” or “no” referendum Turks are holding April 16 presents an existential choice that will either elevate their nation to a new level of peace, prosperity, and global greatness – or plunge it into horrifying depths of terror, instability, and isolation.
On the ballot are constitutional changes that will create an all-powerful executive presidency for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose increasingly authoritarian ways have already made him Turkey’s most powerful leader in nearly a century and have elicited denunciations from his critics that he is becoming a dictator.
“He is God. Now he will officially be God,” says Salim, a construction manager, pithily predicting little real change if the “yes” campaign wins.
And yet, even as this referendum distills Turkey’s social and political divide into a single vote, the result is uncertain. Despite all the achievements and controversy of Mr. Erdoğan and his Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP), who repeatedly have won resounding elections in 15 years at the top, multiple polls show a roughly 50-50 split.
With a result that could go either way, Turks in this polarized nation are asking themselves: “Do we want this?”
The last time this question was posed most clearly, albeit indirectly, to Turkish voters, Erdoğan did not get the response he wanted. June 2015 parliamentary elections left the AKP short of the seats it needed to form a stable government and push through the constitutional reforms, precipitating another round of elections months later.
On the way to collecting so much power for one individual, Turkey has, especially since the 2013 Gezi Park protests against Erdoğan’s rule, witnessed unapologetic crackdowns against key pillars of civil society, from lawyers and opposition lawmakers to the independent media. The crackdowns have turned the country into a global leader in the jailing of journalists as part of a broader slide in human rights standards.
With recent poll results so uncertain, and apparently fearful that the chance of losing is real, Erdoğan and the AKP have marshaled all the powers of state and the AKP-saturated media to convince Turks now that backers of the “no” campaign – led by the main opposition party – are akin to terrorists devoted to spreading chaos, who only want to diminish Turkey.
Erdoğan and the AKP “have been approaching this issue as if it’s a matter of life and death, a major survival issue,” says Ersin Kalaycıoğlu, a political scientist at Sabanci University in Istanbul.
From the six-story-tall portrait of Erdoğan looming over Istanbul’s Taksim Square, to highways festooned with endless “yes” banners, there is little room left for the “no” voice to be heard in the public sphere.
And as the vote nears, Erdoğan and the AKP are making ever-widening claims about being engaged in an apocalyptic fight of Islam versus secularism and of an independent Turkey versus the “imperialism” of Europe and the West.
“They try to give this impression of an existential fight between the forces of good and evil,” says Mr. Kalaycıoğlu. “The AKP is on the side of the good, and its leader – the president – versus all these evil forces [that] are involved in a huge conspiracy [against] this government, which is doing great things at home.... That’s the message.”
One reason for the pull-out-the-stops final AKP push for votes – including with 3 million Turks living in Europe, and nationalist and ethnic Kurdish voters at home – may be that Turkey’s divisions have made recent polling a far less exact science than in the past.
AKP polling is uncertain, as it was before the last two elections, “because people are lying to the pollsters, because they are afraid to say ‘no’ to them,” says Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
“Obviously the sun isn’t setting on the AKP,” says Mr. Stein. “But this isn’t the AKP of 2008 to 2012, when they were seemingly invincible.”
The president argues that the executive reform is a necessary and “democratic” step to dispense with messy coalition governments; to “strengthen” the state; and to “forever … end the era” of coups that reaches back to 1913.
Attempted coup provided an impetus
The shock of an attempted coup attempt last July, which was narrowly put down when Erdoğan called his supporters into the streets, has provided a new reason to harness national unity in the name of stability – and provided the new impetus to push for an executive presidency.
“Istanbul should say ‘yes’ in such a way that the hearts of all who look at the Turkish nation in a malicious way should tremble,” Erdoğan told a final mass rally last Saturday in Istanbul.
He also has vowed on the campaign trail that unspecified European and American attempts to undermine the vote would not prevent Turks from delivering a resounding “yes” result.
In their turn, critics charge that the referendum is a blatant bid by the “dictator” Erdoğan to finally quash all opposition – and even avoid future prosecution for corruption – by abolishing the post of prime minister and gaining the power to annul parliament.
“Uncontrolled power results in disaster,” Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the opposition Republic People’s Party (CHP), warned this month. “Isn’t it a sin to give all these powers to one person?” he asked. “If someone who represents 80 million people makes a mistake, then 80 million people pay the price.”
The words of activists on both sides indicate the depth of Turkey’s divisions, and how both sides have ratcheted up fear-mongering in their bid to frighten their opponents to try to change their vote.
Too much power for one man
“He’s been a sultan for a number of years,” says Tülay Bozkurt, a CHP activist who wears a “no” tunic as she hands out leaflets beside a “no” tent on Istiklal Street, Istanbul’s main pedestrian avenue.
“It’s not all bad, because the AKP is suffering from a loss of support,” says Ms. Bozkurt, a middle-aged former receptionist at a 5-star hotel. “Some people who voted for the AKP for years are saying ‘no, it’s enough – don’t change the republic.’”
A local CHP official says Turks recognize the dangers of one-man rule, even though Erdoğan himself says charges that a “yes” vote will impose one-man rule on Turks are “delusional.”
“Terrorism and the economy are going to be problems in the short term, and we can overcome them,” says Aydin Ali Kalayci. “But if they bring this one-man system, it will be a long-term problem for us. It’s a power I would not even give my father.”
Bozkurt hands out leaflets a step or two from the spot where a suicide bomb killed three Israeli and one Iranian tourist in March 2016. That was just one of a scores of terrorist attacks that have afflicted Turkey from Islamic State jihadists and Kurdish militants, which have caused tourism in Turkey to slump.
Erdoğan and the AKP have promised to end terrorism if they win – a promise made frequently in past elections, which in their aftermath have instead seen attacks steadily increase, as wars in Syria and southeast Turkey spill over into urban centers.
“The AKP base is beginning to lose faith in these promises,” says Bozkurt.
“The majority of people really don’t know why they are supporting the ‘yes’ campaign, they know very little about what democracy means, and have a culture to obey leaders, to bow down to them, to worship them,” she says. “Erdoğan speaks their language very well.”
'We never had' democracy before Erdoğan
The president’s message of change and a stronger Turkey is what AKP activists believe will give the “yes” campaign a decisive victory.
“Ever since the beginning of this republic, no matter how much they talk of democracy and freedom, we never had any,” says Songül, a devout AKP supporter wearing a full black abaya and tight headscarf, who runs the new AKP office 75 yards down Istiklal Street from the CHP office.
She is among the legions of believers in the ranks of the Islamist-leaning AKP, which has transformed Turkey’s secular tradition to a more pious one.
“Either we voted at gunpoint or they told us how to vote,” says Songül, who ask that only her first name be used. “So we experience this, we witnessed it, and lived through it, and eventually Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came along and did something about it.”
Songül says she was kicked out of university for breaking laws enforced then forbidding headscarves in government buildings – and eventually took exams wearing a wig over her headscarf.
When the AKP came to power in 2002, it was “the first time we began reaping the fruits of being Turkish citizens,” says Songül.
She says she agrees with all the president’s talking points, that Turkey is on the rise, that the West is “falling into insignificance,” and that “no” voters are “hand-in-hand with the terrorists." A “yes” vote is critical, she says, as a final step to realize perfect democracy.
“Whatever argument they can find they are hurling it at people, hoping that some of them – all of them – will attract as many supporters as possible so they win,” says Mr. Kalaycıoğlu, the professor.
“These are all major themes they [Erdoğan and the AKP] have been toying with all along,” he says. “They are trying to diminish the credibility of the ‘no’ vote, arguing that if you vote ‘no’ that you are anti-regime, anti-status quo, anti-establishment, and therefore for instability in the country.”