Erdogan claims new system will bring ‘stability’
The rough Istanbul streets where he sold sesame bread as a boy are now overshadowed by a football stadium bearing his name. His face looms from an enormous banner hanging off the mosque in the mountain village where he spent summers as a child.
And the prison system where he was once jailed for reading an Islamist poem now holds tens of thousands of his political enemies.
If President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prevails in Turkey’s constitutional referendum today – and polls give him the slimmest of leads – it will cap an extraordinary rise from the religious lower-middle class to becoming the most powerful man in modern Turkish history.
A Yes vote would be a milestone in his long quest to recast fundamentally Turkish politics, smash the power of the secular elites and restore his country’s dignity on the world stage. To Mr Erdogan’s opponents, it would mark the end of Turkey’s democracy and the beginning of one-man rule.
“If Erdogan wins the referendum on Sunday, half of the country will embrace him as their sultan, with the other half loathing him as their dictator,” says Soner Cagaptay, author of The New Sultan, a biography of Turkey’s leader.
The ballot question asks Turkish voters to approve a complex set of 18 amendments to the constitution that would give the president sweeping new powers to appoint judges, dismiss the parliament, rule by decree and declare a state of emergency.
But in the three months since campaigning began a more basic question has emerged: do you trust Mr Erdogan with that much power?
In the village of Guneysu, the president’s ancestral home in the mountains near the Black Sea, the answer is an emphatic “yes”. Some 89 per cent of the population here voted for him in the 2015 elections. “If the world is against him that means he’s on the right path,” says Hasam Ayhan, a 63-year-old army veteran. The president comes here four times a year to his heavily fortified house. His picture is on nearly every street corner.
Erdogan, 63, was born into an observant Muslim family at a time when Turkey was dominated by secularists. Even his father, a domineering sea captain who sometimes beat him, believed there was no future for him in politics.
“The republic was always in the hands of the elite and it was impossible for a conservative Muslim to take the highest office,” says Ali Erdogan, a Guneysu resident who is not related to the president but has known the family for decades.
He proved his father wrong by climbing the ranks of local politics in Istanbul, becoming mayor in 1994. Liberals feared he would force his brand of conservative Islam on the cosmopolitan city but instead he focused on pragmatic issues such as traffic and the water system.
His term came to an abrupt end in 1998 when he was convicted of violating Turkey’s secular laws by reading an Islamist poem: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” Some 2,000 cars filled with his supporters formed a convoy in solidarity as he was driven to prison.
Erdogan’s power base is the conservative and religious grouping sometimes known as the “Black Turks”, as opposed to the liberal and secular “White Turks”. His appeal, they say, is that he hasn’t changed even after 14 years as Turkey’s leader.
“He’s one of us,” says Rukiye Karagolu, who runs a small corner shop in Kasimpasa, the tough Istanbul neighbourhood where Erdogan grew up. “On Fridays he would come here and buy treats for the children and now he’s a world leader. He’s exactly the same as he was.”
His supporters have few concerns about Erdogan’s authoritarian streak, which went into overdrive after a failed coup against him last July. Some 50,000 people have been jailed for alleged ties to the Gulen Islamist movement, which Erdogan blames for the coup, and more than 100,000 have been purged from state jobs. Opponents fear the crackdown will get worse if there is a Yes vote.
“The things we are facing today are just a trailer of what will come if Erdogan gets his presidential system,” says opposition MP Baris Yarkadas.
Mr Erdogan hoped surging support after the coup attempt would propel him to a clear referendum victory, but despite his relentless campaigning – and the suppression of the No campaign with arrests and intimidation – the polls give him only the narrowest lead with Yes at around 51 per cent.
If he fails to convince the country today, the roots may be found in a noisy bakery just around the corner from the apartment where he was raised. Run by the family of Nursev Gelik, a bawdy 57-year-old who knows Erdogan and affectionately calls him “Tayyip”, the shop is draped with an enormous No banner and her whole family will vote against the president.
“I love Tayyip as a neighbour but I wouldn’t give that much power to anyone, even to my father,” she says. “I was born a free woman and I plan to die a free woman.”