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Facing Constitutional Change, Turkish Voters To Offer 'Yes' Or 'No' To Erdogan

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan implores voters at a "yes" ("evet") rally in Istanbul on September 5, one week ahead of the referendum.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan implores voters at a "yes" ("evet") rally in Istanbul on September 5, one week ahead of the referendum.
ISTANBUL -- It is meant to be about embracing a new era of democratic-civilian rule and breaking with Turkey's bitter legacy of coups and military-dominated government.

But in the working-class Istanbul neighborhood of Kasimpasa, near the banks of the city's landmark Golden Horn, Soner Ozmen had a different take on this weekend's referendum on constitutional change.

"This 'yes' vote is not a vote against the army or a vote against civilians, it's a vote against Zionists," says Ozmen, 52, a projection director in the film industry who intends to back the initiative. "Today Zionists are running the world; everybody knows that. In the last days of the Ottoman Empire, one of our sultans borrowed money from a Jewish banker and since then they are meddling with our state affairs. Zionists are running the world as well as running Turkey."

Shopkeeper Yusuf Nur (left) and projection director Soner Ozmen say they'll vote "yes" on September 12.
It might seem an odd view, though not out of keeping with sentiments widely held in quarters like Kasimpasa, the socially conservative neighborhood where Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan grew up.

But it reflects a broader lack of understanding among many Turks about what's at stake when they go to the polls on September 12.

Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) government -- which has roots in political Islam and has held power for eight years -- has called the referendum in a bid to implement a package it says will make Turkey more democratic, transparent, and modern, as well as enable it to move out of the army's shadow.

Its opponents say the changes are an attempt to increase Erdogan's personal power, reduce judges' independence, and undermine Turkey's secular state.

Many Turks, caught in the middle, say they will vote according to whether or not they like their charismatic prime minister.

In Fatih, a religiously conservative area of Istanbul, three computer-software engineers drinking tea in a sidewalk cafe all say they will vote "yes" despite not understanding the issues.

The reason: Erdogan.

"Erdogan has a self-esteem that makes us feel confident as well," says Fatih Apaydin, 31, citing the prime minister's confident demeanor when meeting President Barack Obama and his famous confrontation with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos in 2009. But he adds: "We are educated people and most of our friends have high-school and college diplomas -- yet most of us don't know what we will be voting for."

Cavit Akyaz, 39, a taxi driver, also points to Erdogan -- invoking what he saw as the prime minister's abrasive, authoritarian personality to explain why he will vote "no." "The prime minister is initiating this change in order to save himself," he says. "After this law, someone can come to your house in the middle of the night and arrest you because the prime minister is appointing judges according to his own will."

Such gut reactions belie the complexity of the issues and contrast with the government's protestations of higher motives.

Not Just Erdogan

The proposed reforms foresee a radical shake-up the judiciary, long seen as one of the twin pillars of Turkey's secular political establishment. The number of judges on Turkey's highest court, the Constitutional Court -- which came close to shutting the AKP for anti-secularism in 2008 -- would rise from 11 to 17, with more of them being appointed by the president and parliament, institutions currently controlled by Erdogan's party. The powerful Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors would undergo similar change. Senior judiciary officials say the reforms are simply designed to give the government political control over the judiciary. The government counters that they will make the judiciary more representative.

"Constitutional change is a project to make sure Turkey is complying with the standards of the European Union and in a more democratic manner, that's all," says Haydar Ali Yildiz, deputy chairman of the AKP in Istanbul and co-ordinator of the city's Yes campaign. "We are underlining parliamentary democracy and the independence and transparency of the judiciary system."

A "yes" vote would also reduce the status of the armed forces, the traditional guarantors of Turkey's secular state and once considered untouchable.

Serving military officers would be tried in civilian courts in a move intended to show the military's subservience to civilian rule, as demanded by EU membership. The package also paves the way for trying army officers behind a military coup in 1980, whose 30th anniversary coincides with the September 12 referendum. Critics point out that many of the relevant officers are dead, ill, or very old and that the statute of limitations has passed.

The reform proposals come against a backdrop of long-running investigations into alleged plots to topple Erdogan's government that has seen arrests of hundreds of serving and retired military officers, pro-secularist lawyers, writers, academics, and other figures.

That context has heightened opposition suspicions that the AKP is bent on a power grab and the destruction of its political opponents.

The opposition is not placated by other reforms in the package guaranteeing children's rights, positive discrimination for women and collective bargaining for trade unions, which the government cites as evidence of its democratic intent.

Opponents' Challenge

All Turkey's opposition parties are campaigning for a "no" vote, with the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) urging a boycott.

In neighborhoods like Kasimpasa, the AKP is attempting to overcome such resistance and a lack of voter understanding with a blitz of banners and billboard posters urging a "yes" vote. "Vote No" posters are far less numerous.

Nonetheless, opinion surveys show the result hanging in the balance, with alternate polls indicating one or the other side ahead in the past week by a tiny margin.

With the race tightening, the battle is becoming personal -- sometimes viciously so. On Kasimpasa's main street, a few meters from the local AKP headquarters, a poster of Erdogan's main political rival, the head of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has been defaced and an insult scrawled on his forehead.

Meanwhile, views among Turkey's rival religious and secular camps are as polarized as ever.

Strong support for a "yes" vote is coming from the Islamist charity IHH, which was catapulted into the international spotlight in May after it sent an aid flotilla to breach Israel's blockade of Gaza. Eight Turks and one Turkish-American died when Israeli commandos stormed the flotilla's leading vessel, the "Mavi Marmara."

IHH spokesman Salih Bilici
Salih Bilici, the charity's spokesman, believes a "yes" vote would give greater rights to religiously observant Turks. These would include freedom to establish religious schools and for women to wear the head scarf -- long seen as a symbol of political Islam -- in government buildings and universities, both previously deemed unconstitutional.

"When the structure of the upper courts change, we believe those changes that are made in terms of head scarves and Imam Hatip schools will not be thrown out by the upper courts," he says. "Hence the will of the people will be reflected better in the legislative, executive, and judiciary."

But for the Kemalist Thought Association, dedicated to the legacy of modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the reforms represent an assault on values they hold sacrosanct.

"This constitutional change is designed to destroy what Ataturk's revolution brought to this country," says Devrim Yildirim, head of the association's branch in the more secular Kadikoy district. "The judiciary will be besieged, rights and freedoms will be nullified, and it's going to be an authoritarian regime. Europe has gone through this and it's called National Socialism. Do you remember how Hitler changed the constitution in 1933? He opened it up to public approval and he really got the public approval -- but in the end it became Nazism."

It may be a far-fetched view. But it is indicative of the chasm at the heart of Turkey's fractured political landscape, where a "yes" vote may not guarantee the AKP's future ability to govern in a comfort zone.