An Istanbul neighbourhood votes with its heart

The Istanbul neighbourhood of Kasimpasa is known for its toughness. It is also where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan grew up. TRT World speaks with locals as they go to the polls in Turkey's historic referendum.

TRT World: Saad Hasan (TRT World)
TRT World: Saad Hasan (TRT World)

Hundreds of people showed up to vote at a polling station in the central Istanbul neighbourhood of Kasimpasa, where the president once played football for the local team.

Saad Hasan Saad Hasan is a staff writer at TRT World @msaadhasan

ISTANBUL — A few minutes’ drive from the more historic places of Istanbul is the working class neighbourhood of Kasimpasa. It is here that Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan once dreamt of becoming a professional footballer. This neighbourhood, known for its toughness, is also where many of his diehard fans live. It’s not for nothing that Kasimpasa’s football stadium is named after its most famous former resident. 
On Sunday, hundreds of those fans made their way to a makeshift polling station set up at a local elementary school building to cast their votes in a bitterly contested referendum over whether or not Turkey should move from a parliamentary to a presidential system. Initial results on Sunday evening suggested 51.3 percent of Turkish citizens had voted in favour of the changes.

"I voted for Erdogan," says Ali Reza, a soft-spoken man in his 40s, as he came out of the polling station with his family. 

While the referendum is about the nature of the Turkish political system rather than a vote for a political party or figure, Reza and many other people on all sides of the political spectrum who TRT World spoke with on Sunday say their votes were largely determined by their views of the president and the governing AK Party.
A municipal worker, Reza says he has directly felt the changes Turkey has gone through since Erdogan's AK Party came to power in 2002 – changes he views as overwhelmingly positive.
"I remember the long lines of patients waiting for check-ups at public hospitals. It was common for them to go home without getting any treatment. All that has changed now." 
The referendum seeks to amend Turkey's constitution by giving more powers to the president's office.

A citizen checks her name on the list as she arrive to casts her vote in the constitutional referendum at a polling station in Istanbul, Turkey on April 16, 2017. [AA]

Erdogan and his supporters insist the changes will help form a stable system of government, as past governments had suffered due to weak coalitions that hurt the economy.
The opposition parties say the constitutional changes will give unprecedented power to the office of the presidency.

But Reza is not concerned about that.
"It's not about a person. I believe this is being done for a reliable system. And in any case, Turkish citizen have a history of punishing government officials who haven't performed. If the president fails, he'll be voted out." 
Just like the rest of Turkey, Kasimpasa is a fusion of many different things: a girl wearing a headscarf whizzes past in a car blasting loud music, young couples cuddle together in a café, women in head-to-toe black veils shop in a market where gleaming Vestel appliances are sold next door to a Turkish tobacco store.
This might be Erdogan’s turf, but the voices of dissent can be heard here. Some, like the "hayir" –  Turkish for "no"–  can be read on walls.
Gunay, 30, who works at a garment store not far from the polling station, is disillusioned.  
"I have voted a ‘No’ but whatever the results, I don’t see anything changing in my financial situation," he says. 

Turkey’s economic boom of the last decade, which placed it among the fastest growing economies in the world, doesn’t seem to impress him.
"You’ll find a lot of gleaming factories. However, workers like me will complain about stagnant salaries," he says, standing beside a neatly stacked pile of cheap shirts that are sold by the roadside.
And what about his future? 
"I can’t afford to marry in these circumstances," Tokat says with a smirk. 

One of the most severe criticisms to the proposed constitutional changes is coming from European countries which have long seen Turkey as the ideal democracy in the Middle East.

"Why should we care what the Europeans are saying," says Celal Sari, who sells Turkish cigarettes and colourful water pipes. 

"For 50 years they have kept us at the doors of the Europe. I think we should do what we want to do."

Turkey has been beset by terrorist attacks in the past two years. Many of them are attributed to the PKK, a terrorist organisation behind a three-decades old insurgency that has left 40,000 people dead.
The AK Party says a presidential system of governance would help deal with such groups in a more effective way. 

The PKK, which is inspired by Marxist-Leninist ideology, has intensified its attacks after a peace process with the government collapsed in July 2015. 

Sari, who has a Kurdish background, and supports Erdogan’s amendment bid, says he hopes peace talks start again.

"Things have really improved for Kurdish people. They can use the language and they have representation in government, like the finance minister, Mehmet Simsek."

But beyond the battle between the “Yes” and “No” campaigns, there is a grocery store in Kasimpasa run by 28-year-old Aykut Yaman, who decided not to vote at all. 

Aykut Yaman and Samet Karagoz are friends who hold different views about the referendum. (Saad Hasan/TRT World)

"No matter what happens in the referendum, I’m interested in knowing if the prices of tomatoes are going to be reduced.” 

He also sees contradiction in the AK Party’s reasoning for the constitutional changes. 

"Tell me why didn’t Erdogan introduced death penalty with the constitutional amendments when that’s what we have been hearing about since the July 15 coup.” 

Yaman’s excited arguments were interrupted by his longtime friend, Samet Karagoz, who voted “yes” in the referendum. “The change is going to work for us. The economy had grown before and it would grow again.” 

By early evening, as news channels report the slim win for the "yes" vote, there is calm on the streets of Kasimpasa. No matter how they cast their votes on Sunday, people go about their routine, some glued to their television screens, others leisurely sipping their tea.