The Istanbul skyline is famous for being punctuated by mosques. Great domes of worship, with minarets reaching towards the heavens. The most famous is the mesmerising Blue Mosque. Built under the reign of Sultan Ahmet I, it was used as a symbol to reassert Ottoman power. Most people gasp in awe at its ornate ceiling, but I’ve always been fascinated by another feature; its minarets. There are six in total and in Turkey that’s unique, or at least it was.
A few miles up the milky blue waters of the Bosphorus, another now stands to equal it. On the hills of Camlica on the Asian side, President Erdogan has been building his own symbol, a new mosque. It will be the largest in the country and like the Blue Mosque, it has six minarets. For many it’s another beautiful addition to the skyline. For others, it’s a symbol of a man staking a claim.
On Sunday, Turks go to the polls in a referendum which could give Erdogan the destiny he has so long sought. The question is simple: do they want to move from a Parliamentary system to a Presidential one, with the country’s power consolidated in one person. The polls show the issue has divided the country, and despite what I have seen reported in many western outlets, there is a real debate taking place.
While the number of ‘Evet’ (Yes) posters on the streets of Istanbul massively outnumber any opposing ones, ‘Hayir’ (No) banners are visible too. I’ve seen vans buzz around the city blaring out a tune reminiscent of an ice-cream truck, to persuade them not to support the changes. But the reality is this movement is much smaller than the government machine behind the ‘Yes’ vote. That machine is also using a series of threatening tactics to push the vote for change.
Erodgan recently equated a ‘No’ vote with a vote for terrorism. Given that large swathes of the country’s opposition are currently behind bars for their alleged role in 2016’s failed coup d’état, it’s a threat that’s taken seriously. Tens of thousands of people were rounded up in the aftermath of the events of last July. Politicians, judges, academics and journalists were amongst them. And the purge is still continuing. Opposition to Erdogan and his vision is seen as the greatest threat to his power, and he won’t stand for it.
Those who support the proposed constitutional changes say it will bring ‘stability’ by preventing weak coalitions. More importantly, they say it will offer the country continued ‘strong leadership’. Opposing voices are concerned it will consolidate power in the hands of one person, who is answerable to no-one.
'Why do we need change?' one man asked me. 'I don’t like it.' When I asked if this was an opinion he shared publicly, he shook his head. 'No. It is too dangerous to share,' he said. Others told me they wouldn’t be voting. 'I won’t vote yes, but vote no? Are you serious? I have a family to care for,' said one man. Reluctance to cast a ballot rests on the concern that it may not be secret. These worries are probably based on rumour, but in today’s Turkey, they are hard to ignore.
If a ‘Yes’ vote wins out, Erdogan would have the power to hire and fire ministers. There would no longer be a prime minister, and several vice-presidents would be appointed instead. No formal cabinet would be answerable to the Parliament. In essence, Turkey would be adopting a constitution similar to that of the US. So, what’s the problem?
Though Turkey is a democracy, the reaction by the government to the coup has been terrifying. Many of those who have managed to stay out of prison now no longer hold passports. They are effectively being held in their own country, waiting to find out what will happen next. I understand the need to crack down on any perpetrators, but arresting 70,000 people? It was a clear move by Erdogan and his power base to rid the country of as many opposition voices as possible.
I don’t think there is any doubt that Erodgan is pulling the strings already. What he wants from this referendum is to consolidate that base and be answerable to no-one. But he needs the power change to be approved by his kinsmen, so that foreign allies, including Nato members, believe a democratic process has taken place. He has done everything to get to this point and will do everything he can to push the ‘Yes’ vote through. Even if that has meant stoking tensions with his EU allies.
In the months leading up to the referendum, Turkey has savaged countries like Germany and the Netherlands, after they refused his ministers freedom to shore up the ‘Yes’ vote amongst ex-pat Turks. He called them ‘the remnants of the Nazi regime’, made up accusations about the Dutch being behind the massacre of Bosnians in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre and once again accused EU powers of treating Turks like second-class citizens. As despicable as his actions were, they did the trick. Many ex-pat Turks who may not have been engaged in the referendum debate are now voting to give their leader his longed-for power. At home too, the debate has fuelled the ‘Yes’ campaign. The vote has become less about change in Turkey, and more about showing the rest of the world that Turkish citizens' loyalty lies with Erdogan.
President Erdogan seems to have had a bewitching effect on many Turks. Those who support him are defenders to the core. Yet he is a demagogue, who wants to emulate the sultans of an era past. Even if he wins this referendum, it's impossible to say whether it will satisfy his ambitions. But if he loses, I don't think it will be long before the issue is back on the table and eventually taken by force. Erdogan simply doesn't understand the word 'no'.