On April 16, voters in Turkey will say yes or no to a new constitution that could change the country’s parliamentary system to an executive presidency in a referendum that has been fiercely contested on both sides, sparking domestic turmoil and international incidents. Yes voters, or proponents of the presidential system, which is closely associated with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his increasingly authoritarian government, argue that the new system would be similar to the American and French model of government, while opponents say it will compromise the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary. With a Yes vote, President Erdogan could rule Turkey until 2029. Polls show both sides are neck and neck.
A visit to four neighborhoods in Istanbul—liberal-secularist Beşiktaş; conservative Üsküdar; leftist Kadıköy; and Eyüp, a place steeped in Islamic history—reveal a city deeply divided in the days leading up to the historic vote.
Beşiktaş—The European Side of the Bosphorus
In Democracy Square, a woman in a headscarf dances while waving the Turkish flag. She’s wearing a shirt that says Evet (Yes) and she’s moving in front of the folks whose shirts read Hayır (No). The Hayır truck blares Baskanliga Hayır! (No to the President!) to the tune of Queen’s We Will Rock You. The Yes side blasts the 2014 campaign song that became a runaway hit after last summer’s failed coup attempt, Re-cep-Tay-yip-Er-do-gan! Above, a screen replays dramatic moments from that evening: of tanks on the streets, of unarmed civilians facing down soldiers. I score a Turkish coffee cup from the Evet tent.
Both sides pass out flyers and pamphlets and make speeches for commuters waiting at busy crosswalks. A fight breaks out: an Evet campaigner claims, “This is a party election! This is a party election!” A woman from the Hayır campaign loudly protests, “This is not a party election! This is not a party election!”
In its campaign ads, the Yes side tends to emphasize the current leadership and the ruling party, the AKP (the Justice and Development Party), while the No campaign has generally avoided mention of a specific party or politician. Traveling around Istanbul, however, it’s hard to escape building-sized portraits of the president and the prime minister. The slogan on a lot of these signs read, For a Stronger Turkey, Yes. The No side’s posters feature an innocuous young girl in pigtails smiling. Her message: For My Future, No. It’s as if the choice was between the particular of the present and the generality of the future.
A building-sized portrait of President Erdogan for the Evet campaign. All photos by Sara Nasser
I cross the street from Democracy Square and make my way to the heart of Beşiktaş. I notice a white tent with a sign that reads: If You’re Undecided Ask a Lawyer. I listen in. It appears to be a sort of confessional, where people can stop by and ask their burning questions about the constitutional changes. One of the lawyers is trying to explain the proposed system to a group of ladies. The lawyer explains, “When you look at the European examples, this is very different.” A woman interrupts, “I don’t care about Europe. What is the use of this constitution?”
Avrupa, Europe, hangs like a dark cloud over the referendum. The Venice Commission, which advises the Council of Europe (of which Turkey is a member), recently stated that the new constitution would put Turkey “on the road to an autocracy.” Then last month, a diplomatic spat between Turkey and the Netherlands erupted after Dutch authorities barred Turkish ministers from reaching the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam, a city with a large Turkish diaspora. Holland claims that Turkey was warned against holding referendum rallies on the eve of the Dutch elections, citing public order and security concerns. At the consulate, protests against the Dutch government’s actions turned violent, amid heavy police presence, water cannons, and dogs. Turkish papers flashed the headline Europe’s Dog! accompanied by a photo of a police dog attacking a Turkish protester lying on the ground.