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High turnout likely in Turkey's constitutional referendum

Voting in Ankara's Seyranbaglar district
Voting in Ankara's Seyranbaglar district Tony Cross

Turnout seemed high in Turkey’s constitutional referendum on Sunday morning. Over 55.3 million people had the right to vote on proposals to establish a highly centralised presidential system and in the capital Ankara it looked as if many of them intended to do so.


“More than 90 percent of people will vote, I expect,” said Mutlu district mayor Yasar Akalin. “The population has grown here but from contact with the people I expect the turnout to be higher than in the previous elections.”

Mutlu mayor Yasar Akalin (left) with Zamazin Acar.
Mutlu mayor Yasar Akalin (left) with Zamazin Acar. Tony Cross

At 10 am hundreds of people were descending on the Selcuklu elementary school where Akalin was trying to help a man who had moved and could no longer vote at the polling station and making certain the voters were aware of his presence.

The muhtar, as he is called in Turkish, is a member of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and, while declaring that he must remain neutral in his official function, toed the party line when it came to guessing the outcome.

“The Yes will win by 60 or 65 percent,” he predicted. “On Monday we will set our clocks 100 years forward.”

Erdogan invokes Allah and Ataturk

“God willing, this evening our people will walk to the future by making the expected choice," Erdogan himself said when he voted in Istanbul, claiming that the plan that could see him leading the country until 2029 would continue the modernisation project of “the hero Mustafa Kemal” Ataturk, the secular founder of today’s Turkish republic.

People were queueing even before the polls opened in the middle-class Ankara district of Seyranbaglar.

There the muhtar, Aydin Yasap, is a member of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and he predicted his constituents would vote No “because people are educated here and are reading what the constitutional changes are about for themselves they know how to vote”.

That was certainly the case for journalist Nalan Algun, who declared the proposals “against human rights” and a diversion from more important problems.”

No voters sceptical

Like many No voters, she was pessimistic about the outcome.

“I’m not very hopeful,” she said. “I don’t think the No case has been put very clearly to the people and we have a lot of uneducated people in Turkey. Mr Erdogan how to talk to uneducated people and how to manipulate them. That’s why I’m not very hopeful.”

Engineer Ugur Koray Aydin was even more sceptical, fearing fraud on the part of some officials.

“Even if the No vote is higher than the Yes, the Yes will win,” he declared. “Sometimes there are power cuts while the votes are being counted in our country. That’s not unusual here. In 2015 that happened at this polling station.”

The anti-Erdogan camp has had plenty of disappointments in the 15 years since the AKP was first elected, not least in 2015 when the party list its absolute majority in a first election in June only to win it back again in a rerun in November.

No question on ballot paper

The Yes side has dominated this referendum campaign, profiting from an overwhelmingly friendly media, thanks to the closure of several hostile outlets and the jailing of dozens of journalists, its influence in a purged state bureaucracy and the imprisonment of hundreds of activists from the pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

And the ballot paper itself is unusual, simply consisting of a Yes or No without bothering to pose the question the voter is answering.

The AKP, which in this referendum is backed by part of the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP), has a solid base of support, thanks to improvements in living standards during more than a decade of economic progress.

“Mr Erdogan helps the poor people,” Zamazan Acar, an unemployed man in Mutlu, said. “I get free health care thanks to him. With the support of the poor and the help of Allah he will remain in power.” *

Anti-European sentiment

And the refusal by the Netherlands government and some German cities to allow Turkish government ministers to address rallies of émigré Turks has stoked a nationalism that the AKP does not hesitate to appeal to.

Victory for the Yes “will mean stability and it will stop those European bitches from interfering in our politics”, Osman, a businessman in the Abidinpasa district, said.

“We don’t interfere in European politics, so why should they interfere in Turkey? Voting Yes or No is our business, so I don’t understand why Europe is intervening in this election and working for the No.”

European reporters have been abused by some Yes campaigners and Osman seemed convinced that Turks would not be allowed to interview voters in France, for example.

“Do you think if I go to France and stand in front of a school, like you are doing, do you think I could do as you are doing freely?” he asked, before demanding to know why the French government had not protested at the Dutch action.

Economic problems appear

Despite such stalwart support, the Erdogan magic may be wearing off for some, thanks to a worsening economic situation.

All the Ankara taxi drivers I spoke to said they were voting No, one complaining that business was suffering and predicting that his fellow drivers and many shopkeepers would cast their ballots against Erdogan’s plan.

Apart from a stalling economy and polarised politics, Turkey’s biggest problem is the conflict in the Kurdish-majority south-east.

Two people were reported killed and three injured in fighting at a polling station there on Sunday morning.

Sunday’s outcome in large part depends on the AKP’s ability to persuade conservative Kurds that it can bring peace and improved rights to that region, a task that Erdogan himself may have sabotaged in pumping up nationalist rhetoric to keep the support of the hard-line nationalists of the MHP.

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