ISTANBUL — A group of people waved banners reading “Evet”, Turkish for “yes”, from the side of the boat as it made its way up the Bosphorus through the heart of Istanbul into the prosperous northern suburbs. It carried about three dozen supporters of the governing AK Party to a rally in the neighbourhood of Sariyer, a suburb north of Istanbul – and to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. One of the woman, aged in her 40s, was especially enthusiastic as she stood by the ferry’s flag-laden rails, waving her flag in time with the loud “Yes” campaign song for a full half hour as it passed by neighbourhood after neighbourhood, from Besiktas to Sariyer, without any break, as the sun blazed overhead.
“We feel free after [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has come to power [in 2002],” said another 59-years-old woman. Originally from Erdogan’s hometown Rize, in Turkey’s Black Sea region, she pointed to her headscarf as she spoke. For decades, Turkish women could not wear their headscarf if they had a public service job or were university students, on the grounds that the practice was against the Turkish secularism, a strict interpretation of French laicism.
“We have been liberated by Erdogan,” said another woman, 63, who is also from Rize.
On Sunday, Turkish citizens will vote either “yes” or “no” in a referendum that will decide whether the country’s constitution will be changed to create a fully presidential system. Campaigning officially ended at 6pm local time on Saturday.
The changes were proposed by the governing AK Party (Justice and Development Party), which argues they are necessary to make a stronger executive and break with decades of cumbersome bureaucracy, as well make the military coups which have long plagued Turkish political life less likely.
Opponents of the changes, particularly leftist and secularist opposition parties, favour remaining with the existing parliamentary model, and argue the changes would pave the way for a less democratic one-man style of leadership.
“People will make the ultimate decision [in the referendum]. Not the leaders. Allah and people will decide the outcome of the referendum. Nobody can restrict the power of the [Turkish] people,” said Huseyin, a 60-years-old simit seller, who wanted to give only his first name.
Huseyin has sold simit, a traditional type of round bread, for 15 years, and said he would vote no. TRT World spoke with him on the streets of Kadikoy, a secularist stronghold.
He argued that while Turks could be careless for some issues such as traffic, they have been following the debate around the referendum extremely closely.
“We are sensitive about Turkey and the country,” he said. He was sceptical about the bid to move away from the current parliamentary system but said he was keeping an open mind about whether a strong presidential system might not be as bad as critics fear.
“If Erdogan works for common people, respects the rule of law, believes democracy, and advocates freedoms, we also accept him as our leader,” he said. “Then, nobody could overthrow him.”
Others said they were especially concerned about the recent economic downturn.
“Business is down. Fewer people are visiting Turkey recently,” Aysen Emre, a tourist guide, told TRT World in Kadikoy. She is volunteering for the “no” campaign.
Some also thought that a strong presidential system could create a political atmosphere in which people who do not support the president could easily be alienated.
“I fear not only for myself but also for my kids and the next generation,” said Ozcan, who did not want to give his last name, a 46-year-old shoe polisher from Ardahan, an eastern province of Turkey.
In another corner of Kadikoy, close to the ferry port, a group of mainly “yes” campaign supporters were distributing brochures to passers-by. One of them, Necla Cinisli, 35, said she was convinced that the “yes” campaign will achieve victory in Sunday’s polls.
“We will take 70 percent of the votes in the Sunday’s referendum,” Cinisli said. “According to our data, we will win certainly.”
By having a presidential system, Turkey will become a more powerful country, she said.
“Our other [previous] leaders also wanted to change system, but they failed. Erdogan is the only one who has come so close to changing the system,” Cinisli said.
Erdogan’s campaigns to change the current system on the grounds that the status quo favours elites, not ordinary people. Turkey’s power structure has traditionally been based on a kind of alliance between the secularist bureaucracy and elites with the country’s powerful military establishment. Under Turkey’s parliamentary system, which has easily been manipulated by the country’s elusive deep state, the army was able to overthrow a number of elected governments by military coups.
On July 15, 2016, Turkey has experienced its most recent coup attempt which failed because Erdogan was able to rally Turkish citizens and people who had enough with the country’s coup rich history. “For July 15, we will also say ‘yes’,” Cinisli emphasised.
She also pointed out that while the staunch opponents of Erdogan constantly identify the president’s governance with a dictatorship, everybody is able to campaign freely in the country.
Author: Murat Sofuoglu