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Turkey referendum: purge victims pray for Erdogan defeat

People wave flags during a No campaign event in Istanbul's Eminonu district.
People wave flags during a No campaign event in Istanbul's Eminonu district. Ozan Kose/AFP

Turkey votes on Sunday in a referendum on whether to give the president extensive powers. Opponents of the proposal claim current leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan is already too authoritarian, especially since last year’s failed coup, which led to some 130,000 people being purged from their jobs.


Mehtap Yörük had been a teacher for just a year and a half when she was fired last July.

No explanation was given for her dismissal.

The government claims that those purged were followers of Fethullah Gülen, the US-based preacher accused of being behind the coup.

That makes no sense in Yörük’s case, she claims.

“I think it’s because of my past," she says. "I was a social issues activist. And, of course, it can be because of things we say on social media.”

Many people have been called in for questioning over comments critical of the government on Twitter, Facebook and other outlets.

Yörük now earns her living running a food stall on a side street in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir.

Mehtap Yörük serves a customer at her stall in Diyarbakir.
Mehtap Yörük serves a customer at her stall in Diyarbakir. Tony Cross

The purge, along with a state of emergency declared after the coup and a military operation against Kurdish guerrillas in the south-east, has cast a shadow over the referendum campaign, she believes.

“Of course it’s going to affect the referendum result," she comments in between serving chicken and rice to customers. "In the next few days there are going to be even more arrests. Those thousands of people who lost their jobs, that’s affected their families as well, so it’s also going to affect it in a positive sense.”

And she fears the consequences of a government victory in the referendum

“Yes means there will be more arrests. Yes means more people will lose their jobs. Yes means will be more repression. Yes means political Islam will move higher up the agenda.”

Health workers fight curfew

Selma Atabey is in no doubt why she was fired.

She was a nurse and a trade unionist.

When the military placed the town of Cizre under curfew for three months as part of its offensive against PKK Kurdish guerrillas, she and 12 other health workers wanted to help 180 people trapped in a basement there.

“So we rented ambulances and went there. When we got to Cizre we were stopped at police roadblocks. We phoned the health ministry and the interior ministry and we could also call the people in the basement. Some of them were injured, they couldn’t leave, they had no water, the people were drinking their own urine.”

Turned away by the police, they went to another town where they heard that the building had burned down with its occupants in it.

The centre of Diyarbakir was also under curfew for three months with access forbidden to medical personnel.

“So, since we were not allowed to go inside, we held a sit-in for 51 days in front of the town hall – doctors and health worker union members," Atabey recalls. "So I think I have been sacked for this kind of activity, which was my duty, because I went to Cizre with my friends and because we held that sit-in protest.”

Kurd-Turk solidarity

Atabey and her friend Serap Kilic, a fellow trade unionist and socialist, now run a tiny restaurant selling mezze - Turkish dishes like dried tomatoes with walnuts, cucumber and yoghurt salad and so on.

They had to become self-employed, Kilic says. “When you are sacked by a decree, you can’t work anywhere else in any official or private company because people think you are really political or you are linked to a terrorist group.”

At least 3,000 people with no links to Gülen have been victimised, according to left-wingers.

Kilic is a Turk, sent to work as a statistician in Kurdish-majority Diyarbakir.

But, because of the Kurds’ long struggle for social and cultural rights, she has found a lot of solidarity, not only from others who have lost their jobs who come to eat at the restaurant but also from most local people.

And she hopes that Erdogan will be defeated in the referendum.

“If it is No, it’s going to be very good," she declares. "We will get our jobs back and the peace process will start again. But if it’s Yes, Erdogan will be a great dictator and there’s going to be war, we are going to be like Syria.”

There’s passion on both sides in this referendum, and there are expectations that go beyond a simple constitutional reform.

To read our coverage of Turkey's referendum click here.

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