ISTANBUL, Turkey — The sun is shining near the Uskudar ferry port and campaigners are out in force as Turkey’s historic referendum draws closer.
On one side are two booths for the "yes" campaign, packed with brochures and flyers explaining the proposed changes to the constitution. One belongs to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which proposed the referendum. The other belongs to the conservative Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the AK Party’s main ally in the "yes" campaign.
A few metres away are two booths for the "no" campaign. One is run by the opposition social democratic People’s Republican Party (CHP), standing side-by-side the booth run by the left-wing Patriotic Party (Vatan).
The "no" booths' display posters featuring the face of a young, smiling girl with braids, a yellow sun behind her. The text says, "For the sake of my future, [vote] 'no.'" There are other textual billboards for the campaign that warn of what critics call a "one man rule," but the little girl has become the most visible icon of the "no" campaign.
The "yes" campaign, on the other hand, relies on prominent politicians such as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, to communicate its themes. "For unity, for peace, [vote] 'yes,'" one poster reads, while another promises safety and stability. Other "yes" posters suggest economic growth, a "grand" Turkey, a government that delivers and a parliament that’s strong.
Not everyone is won over by either campaign. Cuneyt Yazgan is a gruff voter who was strolling past the campaign booths that afternoon in Uskudar. The 40-year-old environmental engineer says despite the intense campaigning, and the posters and billboards everywhere, "people already have a certain fixed idea in their head [about how they will vote]."
He believes that campaigns are wasting resources and they are "unnecessary."
Many other Turks, however, have engaged readily with the campaigns. In Bagcilar, a largely conservative working-class suburb on the western side of Istanbul, TRT World speaks with Aynur Seyhan. Seyhan, a homemaker, is actively involved in the AK Party’s Gunesli organisation, which is overseeing the "yes" campaign in the neighbourhood. As a dedicated "yes" voter, she says with so few days left until the referendum, there could be more campaigning going on.
"'Yes' works, our youth works. Our own organisation works [for the campaign]," she says fervently. "There is a perception that the 'no' camp is working harder. But our organisation in Gunesli is doing a great job."
Seyhan, a youthful 38-year-old, says conferences to inform citizens would help, as would more party buses canvassing the neighbourhood, blasting out the "yes" message.
"People believe in every lie they hear," she tells TRT World. "They approach the matter sceptically. Some say they’re confused, even though there’s nothing to be confused about."
In Bagcilar, which Gunesli is a district of, the "yes" posters and billboards are everywhere, while "no" posters are hard to come by, if any.
The picture is reversed in Kadikoy, a middle-class, staunchly secular neighbourhood in Istanbul’s Asian side.
In this seaside area, many posters declaring opposition to the articles proposed in the referendum line the streets, and many residents say they will vote "no." Yet a Kadikoy resident that we spoke with says the "yes" posters are more visible in other parts of the neighbourhood.
"There are many campaign vans going through the streets, and at the Sogutlucesme metrobus stop there is a constant attempt to convince people [to vote 'yes']," Osman Duygu, a "no" voter, says. The 21-year-old university student complains that "Kadikoy’s flora has become 'yes.'"
Overall, an air of peace is present in each of the neighbourhoods TRT World visits: six in total, ranging from Bagcilar to Kadikoy, Taksim to Uskudar, Fatih to Besiktas. As was the case in Uskudar, "yes" and "no" campaigners have set up shop next to each other in Besiktas across from the Sinan Pasha Mosque.
There is peace, but not necessarily quiet. Campaign vans of both camps drive around all day, blasting out their messages. Occasionally, high-ranking politicians make an appearance.
Asked to share his fondest memory since he started working for the "yes" campaign in Besiktas, 28-year-old Fatih Tackin says it was the moment the president saluted them [from his car] on his way elsewhere. Tackin stresses the themes of "brotherhood and peace" during our conversation, saying that the "yes" camp has been reaching out to voters regardless of differences.
In Besiktas, TRT World also comes across Sezgin Tanrikulu, an MP for the CHP who is visiting the "no" tent. Tanrikulu says the party is running a "positive campaign," while taking care not to overshadow the message with divisive party politics.
"Rather than emphasise our party identity, we discuss our identity as citizens and our priorities in Turkey," he says, noting that the "no" campaign is trying to communicate "what the proposed constitutional changes would bring or take away."
Back in Bagcilar, Mevlut Kumru, a 65-year-old retiree, is manning the "yes" tent. He believes that the "yes" vote will make Turkey a stronger nation while also startling Europe, which is why, he says, he decided to work "day and night" on the campaign.
Kumru mentions a brief argument between a group of young "no" supporters — who he suspects were there to stir trouble — who taunted "yes"-supporting youth. A bigger, messier fight was averted thanks to the "yes" camp’s efforts, Kumru says.
In Besiktas, Zehra Erkal, a "no" campaigner, tells a similar tale — in reverse. A woman, fed up with the "no" campaign’s jovial singing and dancing, Erkal says, "screamed 'Enough!'" and hit a "no" campaigner with a banner stick. Erkal says the incident didn’t snowball thanks to the efforts of the "no" camp.
Minor incidents like these aside, the campaigning in Turkey’s largest city goes largely uninterrupted as the giant faces appeal to citizens for their vote from the respective billboards and posters.
A Bakirkoy resident we interview in Besiktas says he is sceptical about a "yes" campaign poster featuring the nationalist party leader Devlet Bahceli. Irfan Caymaz, 79, says he will vote "no" on April 16.
"The ad says 'We say "yes" for the survival of the nation.' What is it then, is the nation in danger? [Bahceli] has to explain this stuff," Caymaz says gruffly. "'Yes for the survival of the nation.' Such an empty statement."
For better or for worse, the "yes" and "no" referendum campaigns have enlivened the streets of Istanbul, even if temporarily. Whether or not they will sway anybody’s vote is a question to be answered at the polls, but they have surely contributed to Istanbul’s colourful, diverse and noisy metropolitan atmosphere.