I arrived in Turkey just over a week before 16 April’s referendum whose aim was to put the popular stamp of approval on the de-facto concentration of power in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The odds were stacked against the opposition, to put it mildly. Here’s my account of the first leg of my reporting assignment.
Friday 7 April 2017, Istanbul
There’s no escaping the fact that Turkey is holding a referendum. Hundreds of banners are draped across the road from Atatürk airport and billboards address their message to the passing traffic.
It’s not immediately apparent that anyone opposes Erdogan’s proposed constitutional reform, however.
Apart from the huge portraits of Erdogan that have become a sort of Great Leader mood music in today’s Turkey, the vast majority of the posters, flags and whatnot tells you to vote “Evet” (Yes). It takes some time before you spot the jaunty sun with multi-coloured rays of the “Hayir” (No) campaign.
As we swing by an improvised structure on the banks of the Bosphorus, the taxi driver, with whom I have been discussing the day’s truck attack in Sweden with the help of a translation app on his phone, tells me that it is for a Yes rally to be addressed by Erdogan the following afternoon.
Shockingly, by the time I reach my hotel the sky is overcast. I thought it was always sunny here!
Saturday 8 April, Istanbul
Up early to talk to our morning broadcasts, I leave the hotel at about 9.00am in search of vox pops and campaigners.
The latter are a slack lot, clearly not judging it worth facing the public before midday.
And it starts to rain.
Finding English-speakers is not that easy – I’ve foolishly decided to do without a fixer/translator in cosmopolitan Istanbul –and, anyway, fewer people seem ready to speak to reporters than during my previous visits.
But some are and the first of those are No voters.
Erman, an Armenian, has voted for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the past because, as with the Kurds, the party used to be more accommodating to his community than the secular nationalist parties.
“They built new churches, new schools but I don’t think this will happen again,” he explains. “Because with one leader everything will involve him and if he says anything everybody will think it is true. But I don’t think one man will change everything. This is not credible to me.”
Some other traders and customers in the bazaar at Eminönü are also in the No camp, one accusing Erdogan of wanting to be a dictator and a “new Sultan” but there are also Yes men, fans of Erdogan who say the extra powers the reform will give him will mean a “strong Turkey”.
Adulation of the president and a desire to see the country walk tall on the world stage are the two main refrains of Yes supporters, repeated as a crowd of thousands descend on the rally at 4.00pm.
“I love you Recep Tayyip Erdogan! I love you Binali Yildirim! Yes, government OK!” cries Ahmet in a not uncommon outburst of enthusiasm.
A little closer to the rally a crowd has gathered in front of a montage of an action film poster with the heads of Erdogan and other AKP leaders on the bodies of the battle-fatigued, gun-toting heroes.
This could be taken for satire but the loyalists posing for selfies in front of it seem to find it a congenial portrayal of their heroes.
Prime Minister Yildirim is warming up the crowd in a turkey-voting-for-Christmas contribution to a campaign whose success would mean the abolition of his job.
That’s a role his predecessor Ahmet Davutoglu declined to take on, putting him in the company of a small number of AKP dissidents that includes Abdullah Gül, a cofounder of the AKP along with Erdogan who alternated as president and prime minister with him between 2003 and 2014.
Deadlines and editing requirements mean I must leave before the president himself arrives in a helicopter to violate his current constitutional obligation of neutrality and speak forcefully in favour of a Yes vote.
The dispatches report that he called for a strong Turkey.
To read my report for RFI of Saturday’s rally and campaigning click here
Sunday 9 April, Istanbul
Sunday means another desperate search for people willing and able to speak to a radio reporter.
Several analysts I have interviewed previously don’t answer their mobiles, maybe because it’s the weekend or maybe because they fear joining the ranks of university professors purged since last year’s coup is unclear. The two who answer tell me they are not in Turkey at the moment.
I criss-cross the city on foot and by ferry, metrobus and taxi.
At the suggestion of colleagues I track down activists of the biggest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP).
With balloons, flags, leaflets and the sort of stirring music beloved of Turkish political campaigners, they seem a jolly lot.
But they are not happy with the way the campaign is playing out.
“AKP uses everything, especially money, and they don’t give any money to CHP,” said CHP veteran Kamer Demir. “So we cannot talk to our people, we cannot tell our things to people.”
One casualty of an ambient self-censorship is the 2012 film No that credited an advertising agency with the result of Chile’s 1988 plebiscite.
CHP leaders are reported to be trying to emulate the strategy outlined in the film and their logo is clearly lifted from it, which may explain why the Digiturk digital platform dropped No from its lineup in February.
Another, according to the Turkish Minute website, has been an anti-smoking campaign in the city of Konya.
Its slogan “If you say ‘no’, you have gained your future” appears to have displeased the city authorities and no longer appears on the city streets.
Government harassment of the media started well before the referendum campaign and has been particularly intense since last July’s failed coup.
Hundreds of media outlets have been closed since then and dozens of journalists are in jail, described “hostages of this referendum” by Erol Onderoglu of Reporters Without Borders, who has served several months in prison himself.
The majority of media that remain open make no effort to hide their bias.
The satirical paper Penguen says that the Yes campaign has received 10 times more live airtime on television than the No campaign, while the Washington Hatti site has calculated that from 1-20 March the AKP had over 300 hours of national television coverage, “with the 169 hours clocked by President Erdogan alone almost three times that of the [secular] MHP and CHP combined”.
Thousands of people have been purged from their jobs in the public and private sectors since the coup attempt and thousands jailed.
Some of them were involved in the conspiratorial Fehtullah Gülen movement, which the government blames for the failed putsch but others, as I found when reporting from Turkey last summer, were trade unionists, left-wingers and other members of the awkward squad framed by employers or hostile colleagues.
Kurdish left-wingers jailed
The left-wing Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has been hard hit, although few would suspect it of Gülenist sympathies.
Hundreds of its members are in jail, including its co-presidents, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag along with 11 other MPs.
Demirtas’s absence from the campaign is a particular blow, with many commentators seeing him as the natural leader of the campaign, a far more attractive figure than the CHP’s bland and inconsistent Kemal Kiricdaroglu.
The atmosphere is rendered even more oppressive by the rhetoric employed by the president and his supporters, who warn that a No vote is a vote for “terrorists”, a term that is even more catchall in Turkey than elsewhere, applying in Erdogan-speak to coup plotters, PKK guerrillas, Islamic State and other armed groups, and anyone suspected of collusion with any of the above.
The bias in the media is also visible in the civil service, No campaigners tell me.
Government supporters can campaign for Yes during working hours, Emre a doctor and CHP member tells me, but No campaigners are certain to be fired if they do the same.
To read my report of the No campaign struggling to make its voice heard on RFI click here
Monday 10 April, Istanbul
Feminist Yasemin Bektas repeats some of those complaints when I meet her in a café in the hip district of Cihangir, where I am staying.
She has two hats, one as a member of an organisation encouraging women to vote in the referendum, the other encouraging them to vote No.
I would say the No hat is on today.
“We are not in equal conditions now,” she says. “It’s easy to say ‘Yes’, it’s so hard to say ‘No’.”
She point to the disparity in posters and other material from the opposition.
“It doesn’t mean we are not working. They are not giving us permission to work.”
She gives Erdogan credit for taking an interest in the women’s vote, despite cultural barriers to women’s involvement in politics.
“I remember in the first meeting he made about the AKP he asked the men ‘Take your wife with you’,” she says. “Some of them came, some of them stayed at home.
“In the second meeting he said “If you don’t take your wife, don’t come,’. He’s a clever man, He knows we’re half of the public.”
It was the first time women could enter the political arena but that didn’t mean the AKP intended to liberate them from traditional gender roles, according to Bektas.
Gender politics and violence against women
“For the first issue is mothering. We are mothers and we have to bear children, we have to care for children. But there’s also gender equality. I don’t have to have a child. Maybe I don’t want to be a mother, maybe I want. Maybe my love is not to a man, I love women, maybe I don’t love anyone.
“We are killed, we are raped. In the past 15 years every day five women [have been] killed in Turkey. There has been significant increases in child abuse, female murders, violence rates.”
The conservative discourse, pushing women into the home and blaming them for rape and other assaults because of their clothing, for example, has empowered men inclined to violence, she argues.
I ask if I can take a picture of her and she leaps up to arrange her hair in a mirror.
I think she’s happy with the result.