Category Archives: Referendum

Turkey’s divisions run deep as referendum result shows

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The result of Turkey’s referendum was a cliff-hanger, which I witnessed at the main opposition party’s HQ where accusations of fraud were flying. At the polls I saw the deep divisions in the country, No supporters’ disdain for government supporters, Yes supporters’ fury at European “crusaders” and adulation of President Erdogan.

Polling officials await voters in Ankara Photo: Tony Cross

Friday 14 April 2017, Ankara

On arrival in Ankara, where I will report on the voting and the result, I meet the young man who is going to be my fixer, Cagdas Ersoy (without the diacritical marks and the knowledge of what Turkish ones mean you’ll never guess how to pronounce that first name).

It turns out he’s a story in himself.

He used to be a left-wing activist and was arrested, along with several of his comrades, on a protest at the death of a well-known teacher and activist, Metin Lokumcu, on another demonstration.

Prosecutors decided to charge them with membership of a terrorist organisation but they couldn’t decide which one.

So they left them in jail for six months while they made their minds up, eventually admitting defeat and releasing them.

The compensation was quite generous, at least, Cagdas says.

He has a nice line in prison anecdotes, especially since several of the common law prisoners were members of the Grey Wolves, the far-right militia associated with the nationalist MHP.

“If you’re a hired killer what do you when the work runs out?” Cagdas asks.

One explained his racist ideology by assuring him that the Turks are the world’s top race because they can shoot a bow and arrow on horseback better than anybody else, although the skill seems to be widely practised in modern Turkey than it was on the central Asian planes several centuries ago.

On another occasion a group of Grey Wolves were expressing their certainty that homosexuality is a sin that will be punished severely in the afterlife.

“That’s true,” one said. “But, let’s face it, who here hasn’t had sex with a tranny at least once ?”

The others were obliged to concede the point.

Saturday 15 April, Ankara

A No banner hangs on the front of the CHP’s national headquarters in Ankara Photo: Tony Cross

 

The search for politicians ready to be interviewed on the referendum resumes.

It has proved especially difficult to find Yes campaigners to speak to us, the MHP being split on the question and AKP cadres apparently being reluctant for fear that they unthinkingly contradict the party line and bring their careers to an unplanned end.

But officials at the party’s Ankara headquarters are helpful when we turn up in their lobby and we end up speaking to the man in charge of the No campaign in the city, Nedim Yamali, in his spacious and well-furnished office.

Nedem Yamali Photo: Tony Cross

The claim that the constitutional reforms are a product of Erdogan’s megalomania is “a big lie”, he says, pointing out that they will allow for the president’s removal and prevent him standing again after 2029, although laying less emphasis on his proposed right to appoint the cabinet, issue decrees, declare a state of emergency and so on.

He also shares the Yes campaign’s distaste for coalition government, blaming previous ones for the country’s hard times before the AKP came to power and claiming that the reform would mean such a state of affairs would never be repeated.

We then meet a former AKP MP, Emin Dindar, in a more congenial setting, a charming café with art deco touches where he appears to hold court.

Dindar is a Kurd and a former mayor of Cizre-Sirak. Cagdas tells me his brother was killed by the PKK.

He takes an original line on the referendum, arguing that it will Erdogan a free hand to reopen the peace process and resume the improvement in Kurdish rights that the AKP started in the early years of its time in government.

He’s also not keen on coalitions.

As we leave, a man jumps up to greet Dindar, kissing his hand and engaging him in an intense conversation at a table on the sunny terrace.

CHP vice-president Telim Bingol Photo: Tony Cross

In another imposing party office, the opposition CHP’s national headquarters this time, party vice-president Telin Bingol says coalitions are getting an unjustly hard rap from the Yes campaign.

“Today we have unemployment, low-level economic crisis, lots of problems in our foreign policy and they have been ruling the country for 15 years by themselves,” he says. “There’s no coalition today and there’s no stability, either.”

On a precinct in central Ankara, sacked university lecturers Nuriye Gülman and Semih Özakca are staging a sit-in protest over their dismissal.

They have been here for about 100 days and have been on hunger strikes for 38.

To read my report for RFI Yes and No camps explain their cases click here 

Sunday 16 April, Ankara

Market traders start work on referendum day in Ankara Photo: Tony Cross

Market traders are setting out their stalls as polling opens at Necla Kizilbag high school.

As the sun brings out the red in the rows of tomatoes, the green in a mountain of chillis, one of them explains the superiority of street markets to supermarkets – fresh, local produce, friendly service – to us.

This is a middle-class CHP-supporting area and the No voters are getting their disappointment in early, assuring us that fraud will deliver a Yes vote.

While the muhtar (mayor) Aydin Yasap, expects this area to vote No “because people are educated here”, journalist Nalan Aygun says she is pessimistic about the outcome because “we have a lot of uneducated people in Turkey” whom Erdogan knows how to manipulate.

This disdain for the “uneducated” is widespread among middle-class secularists and must surely impede the No campaign’s ability to win over the AKP’s working-class support base.

Opinion is more divided at another polling station, in Mamak district.

Here I am taken to task by Osman, a flashily dressed businessman playing with prayer beads, who takes my presence as an imperialist aggression.

“Do you think if I go to France and stand in front of a school, as you are doing, do you think I could do as you are doing freely?” he asks me.

He seems unconvinced by my assurance that he could, nor does my insistence that I am not personally responsible for the French or any other European government’s decisions cut much ice.

Like many AKP supporters, including Ankara party chief Yamali, Osman is enraged by the refusal of the Netherlands government and some German cities to allow Turkish ministers to address rallies on their soil.

The move worked for Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, so far as domestic politics were concerned, but it appears to have strengthened the resolve of many Turks to vote No and Erdogan has made the most of its potential.

Yasar Akalin and Zamazan Acar Photo: Tony Cross

At another polling station nearby, one AKP supporter refers to “crusaders” as muhtar Yasar Akalin predicts a 60-65% victory for Yes.

Having resorted to that venerable journalistic technique of talking to taxi drivers, we are surprised to find unanimous opposition to the reform.

Of course, it may be that some are telling us what they think we want to hear but the man who drives us back to my hotel has an interesting explanation, which may indicate that the AKP is losing its magic touch.

Taxi drivers and shopkeepers are feeling the pinch of a downturn in the economy, he explains, adding that he and his colleagues are also angry at hikes in petrol taxes and the government’s refusal to negotiate with their representatives.

The AKP “helps the poor”, Zamazan Acar told us at Mutlu polling station, citing free health care and other improvements in his life during the party’s time in power.

But some of the AKP’s support may evaporate if the economy continues its turn for the worse.

To read my report of polling in Ankara for RFI click here 

CHP spokesperson Bülent Tezcan claims there has been fraud at the party’s headquarters Photo: Tony Cross

And now the result!

At the CHP HQ journalists and party members gather around a TV screen.

As results come in from the east, where the polls opened and closed earlier, the Yes has a substantial lead.

But it declines as the hours tick by.

It’s an agonising process, the activists are on edge, cheering good results even when they’re partial but far from confident in their campaign’s success.

The impression that the CHP thinks it has lost is reinforced when party apparatchiks sweep into the lobby and denounce alleged vote fraud.

Another CHP vice-president Erdal Aksünger claims that the party’s own returns show a No victory and accuses the state-run Anadolu news agency of issuing false results to demoralise their supporters.

The activists explode in chants of “Mustafa we are your soldiers” and other rousing Kemalist songs of a martial tone.

But the Yes lead is still falling as Izmir, Istanbul and Ankara seem to be going for No.

Izmir is a CHP bastion but losing in the other two would be a big blow to Erdogan, who started his national career as mayor of Istanbul.

In another dramatic announcement, party spokesperson Bülent Tezcan slams the high electoral authority decision during the day to allow unstamped ballot papers to be counted on the AKP’s request.

After an agonising wait the official result is revealed.

CHP activists chant as the result come through Photo: Tony Cross

Izmir, Istanbul and Ankara have indeed voted No but the country, according to the television, has voted Yes by a wafer-thin margin of 51.3 to 48.7.

As it comes through, Aksünger is making another announcement, claiming that 1.5 million unstamped ballots have been counted, denouncing the official results as fraudulent and vowing to fight them.

Neither the electoral authority or the courts, run by a purged magistrature, are likely to back the CHP’s appeal but it keeps the indignation-fuelled adrenalin pumping and the activists chant their defiance again.

To read my report of the result and the CHP’s reaction click here

Monday 17 April, Ankara

Bearing in mind that the two parties who campaigned for the Yes vote won 60% in the last general election and the odds stacked against the No campaign, the result is actually remarkable.

It shows a decline in Erdogan’s support, possibly the result of the economic turbulence that has hit the country.

But it still reveals a country “sliced in two like a water melon”, as Cumhuriyet columnist Cigdem Toker tells me.

The narrowness of the margin is unlikely to restrain Erdogan, who has already said he’s ready to have another referendum, this time on restoring the death penalty, giving the political finger to his European critics and finally slamming the door on the admittedly unlikely prospect of Turkey ever joining the EU.

But this bitterly divided country has plenty of other challenges.

To read What now for Turkey after Erdogan’s narrow referendum victory? click here

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A bomb, a baby, a hunger strike – the Kurds and Turkey’s referendum

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With Turkish nationalists split over the 16 April constitutional referendum and even some dissidence in President Recep Tayip Erdogan’s AKP, the country’s largest ethnic minority, the Kurds, found themselves courted by all. I visited Diyarbakir to see how the conflict in the south-east and the influence of the left-wing HDP were affecting the campaign.

The former caravanserai in Diyarbakir awaits a politiian’s visit during the referendum campaign Photo: Tony Cross

Tuesday 11 April 2107, Diyarbakir province

We’re on our way to see a little girl who is going to be called Yes for the rest of her life.

But more of that later.

As we drive across the flat countryside of the south-eastern province of Diyarbakir, a report comes through of an explosion at the main police station in Diyarbakir city, which we left about an hour ago.

Should we turn back? Has our search for the latest in nutty names meant we’ve missed a major news story?

At these times you weigh up sordid calculations like the numbers of dead and injured and the likely news impact of the event. We conclude that by the time we get back to the city the area will be well and truly sealed off and then an official statement that the blast, although big, was an accident in the police station’s garage, so we press on.

Mustafa Celik with Evet Photo: Tony Cross

We arrive in Gecitli, an alleged village that appears to consist of about three farms, and meet Mustafa Celik, a Kurdish farmer who is so enthusiastic about the referendum that he has decided to call his newborn daughter Evet, which even I know by now means Yes.

Celik has two wives and seven other kids, so maybe he was running out of ideas for names but one can’t help wondering whether he has weighed up the longterm consequences of his choice of name for his daughter.

Not that he isn’t an affectionate parent. He cradles Evet fondly in his arms as we stand in the sun outside his rectangular one-storey dwelling, chickens and ducklings pecking at the ground around us.

This stocky 43-year-old, who raises animals on several hectares of stony land, is one of the minority of Kurds who support President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP.

Adem Karakoc Photo: Tony Cross

He expresses the usual admiration for the leader but, above all, points out that no other bothered to provide his village with electricity and water or guarantee health care for the poor, important considerations when you live in a bare concrete block with no doors inside, even for the toilet, in the back of beyond.

It’s the reason Adem Karakoc and several of Celik’s relatives give for backing the AKP, when, at his request, we drop the proud father in their equally tiny village of Taveran.

I was anxious to speak to other people in the neighbourhood and suggested we go to see the local muhtar, a sort of mayor, but Celik told is he didn’t talk to the press, an assertion that doesn’t entirely convince me, since they apparently had a disagreement over the phone during a previous media visit.

To read my report on a girl named Yes click here http://en.rfi.fr/europe/20170411-turkey-referendum-girl-named-yes

Wednesday 12 April, Diyarbakir

HDP MP Feleknas Uca with hunger-striking prisoners’ families at her party’s headquarters in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir is rife with rumours about that explosion, a favourite being that the police were preparing a bomb to plant at Saturday’s rally by the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) so as to revive the security concerns that won the AKP the second election in 2015.

We drive past the site and see the blast has done very substantial damage. On one side of the compound is another empty space – the site of a previous bombing, claimed by the Islamic State armed group.

The government has changed its mind and declared that yesterday’s explosion, which killed a police officer and two civilian personnel, was a terror attack.

A PKK unit dug a tunnel from the basement of a block of flats next door, they say, and they have issued photos to back up the claim. They show a wall daubed with “PKK” and other slogans, the tunnel itself and there’s even a bed for the industrious attacker to take a pause in.

Later the PKK claims responsibility, saying that it was a gesture against Erdogan’s “fascist” plan.

A security roundup has seen 177 people detained.

Pro-Kurd party under pressure on security

Behiye, on hunger strike for prisoners who include her son, Murat Photo: Tony Cross

“Just today dozens of our comrades involved in the campaign were arrested,” HDP MP Feleknas Uca tells us, after detailing the measures taken against her party since the 2016 failed coup.

She is sitting among a group of families of Kurds found guilty of membership of or association with the banned PKK – who are on hunger strike for improved conditions of detention.

One of them, Behiye, 56, tells us that her son, whom she first calls a “guerrilla” before correcting her terminology to “political prisoner”, is in the 21st year of a 26-year sentence and complains of overcrowded cells and other alleged mistreatment.

The HDP became a rallying point for a resurgent left after the protests against the closure of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, campaigning not only on Kurdish rights but also gender equality – all its posts are shared by a man and a woman despite the traditional conservatism of the south-east – LGBT rights and anti-capitalism.

But, having won 13.12 % of the vote in the June 2015 election, it saw its support decline to 10.75% in November.

In between the two polls the government had broken off the peace process with the PKK and launched a massive security operation to which the guerrillas responded in kind.

With his declarations that a No vote is a vote for the “terrorists”, Erdogan hasn’t held back from playing the security card again this year.

So one has to ask whether the HDP’s association with the PKK – pictures of its leader Abdullah Öcalan are hanging in the party headquarters where we meet Uca and she, like he hunger strikers, is wearing a garment bearing his portrait – has damaged the HDP among Turks who are not Kurds and conservative Kurds.

Uca is unrepentant.

“Today who is fighting Islamic State? It’s PKK. Today who are giving their lives for the people? It’s PKK,” she argues. “We can’t find a solution while we’re sending the PKK away from the table. We have to all get around the table to find a solution.”

Like Sinn Fein and other nationalists in Northern Ireland in the past, the HDP would be accused of treason if it distanced itself too far from armed struggle, whether its leaders wish to or not.

To read my interview with Feleknas Uca on RFI click here

Victimisation leads to solidarity

Mehtap Yörük serves a client Photo: Tony Cross

We meet Mehtap Yörük on the corner of a street in front of a café.

She is serving rice and chicken to customers, although she is a qualified teacher.

She is one of the thousands of state employees who were fired after the 2016 coup attempt.

She, like the others, has never been personally informed why, although the explanation for the purge is that those dismissed were members of the Fehtullah Gülen organisation that is believed to have plotted the putsch.

Which strikes Yörük as odd since, far from being a follower of the US-based imam, she is a left-wing social issues activist.

Of the 130,000 people purged since last July, at least 3,150 were trade unionists or other activists presumably fingered by employers or colleagues who wanted to see the back of them, according to left-wingers.

Serap Kilic behind the counter of her mezze shop Photo: Tony Cross

Serap Kilic and Selma Atabey are two more.

They have also gone into catering, opening a small mezze restaurant, where customers can eat cucumber in yoghurt, walnuts and dried tomatoes and other delicacies to background music that ranges from Kurdish music to Johnny Cash.

One striking thing about their story is that, while Atabey is a Kurd and a long-term Diyarbakir resident, Kilic is an ethnic Turk, sent to the south-east as a condition of her civil-service employment as a statistician.

The purge has at least revealed reserves of solidarity. Many of their customers are fellow victims and Kilic says that Kurdish people, who have plenty of experience of discrimination themselves, are sympathetic to her plight.

Despite some pressure from friends and family in Istanbul, she is happy to stay here, she says.

Atabey was a nurse and believes that her work with fellow trade unionists to provide medical care to people trapped under military-imposed curfews in Cizre and the central Diyarbakir district of Sur is the real reason for her dismissal.

A small girl is hanging around the restaurant as we speak.

She is the daughter of the cleaner, a mother of five whom the pair employed after finding her family had been forced out of their home in Sur, Kilic explains.

To read my report on Turkey’s purge victims and the referendum click here

Thursday 13 April, Diyarbakir

Nurcan Baysal in her office Photo: Tony Cross

Nurcan Baysal remembers the bullets that hit the block of flats she lives and works in during a military operation in Diyarbakir.

And she remembers visiting the site of the killing of the city’s bar association, Tahir Elci, and the bodies in the street where she was born, some of them with their eyes gouged out.

Baysal, a writer, newspaper columnist and activist, is certainly voting No, she tells us and she goes on to vent her rage against the Turkish state’s destruction of much of Sur.

“Can you imagine? For 5,000 years there has been life in this area and all this life has been demolished in the 21st century.”

A concrete barrier blocks access to part of Sur Photo: Tony Cross

Parts of Sur are still sealed off by concrete barriers installed by the military and armed police officers and vehicles are an ever-visible presence in the city centre.

In a No campaign base run by the HDP a young man called Isa wins applause when he says he’ll vote No because “I’m against all this fascist system and oppression”.

“Everybody is talking about economic problems but so many young people have lost their lives, mothers are crying and I don’t want mothers to cry,” he goes on.

Adil in his cheese shop Photo: Tony Crpss

But there are Kurds who will vote Yes.

One of them is Adil, the burly owner of a cheese shop in Sur.

He has no time for the PKK, accusing the guerrillas of bad faith during the peace process, and caring more about Yezidi refugees from Iraq than local people.

It’s difficult to stop Adil once he gets going, accusing both the army and the insurgents of being infiltrated by the Gülenists – as it happens many of the senior military arrested after the coup had been based in the south-east, although I know of no evidence of a Gülen-PKK overlap – and, for good measure, accusing the AKP of caring more about Syrians that the people of Sur.

Mehmet Kaya, the headmaster of a private school in a suburb of the city that is still under construction who works with local NGOs and is also an analyst, believes the PKK made a mistake in declaring autonomous zones in areas where the HDP had massive support.

It may have been a response to provocation by the state, he says, but the ensuing destruction drove enough Kurds away from the party to drastically reduce its vote in the November 2015 election and could still influence the referendum result.

Erdogan tries to win Kurds and nationalists

Erdogan, too, has to reconcile some contradictions.

He needs to win the support of conservative Kurds, who could even hold the balance of power in the referendum due to splits in the nationalist camp.

But his tone at a rally here at the beginning of the months was strongly nationalist, repeating the “One nation, one flag, one state” stance he has adopted since breaking off the peace process.

That’s because he must also rally the support of voters from the hard-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and that is far from guaranteed.

The party, which is strongly secular, is split over its leader’s support for the constitutional changes with several high-profile MPs campaigning against and a substantial number of voters opposed, according to opinion polls.

With its support for previous military dictatorships and its history of opposition to such basic demands as the right to speak the Kurdish language in public, the MHP is profoundly repellent to most Kurds.

Winning substantial Kurdish backing while keeping that of the nationalists is a tall order even for such a supreme political manoeuvrer as the Turkish president.

To read my report for RFI on the Kurds and the referendum click here

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Turkey referendum – Not a fair fight for No campaign

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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.

No campaigners in Istanbul’s Isli district Photo: Tony Cross

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.

Shock! Horror! Clouds over Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

Shockingly, by the time I reach my hotel the sky is overcast. I thought it was always sunny here!

Saturday 8 April, Istanbul

The ferry stop in Istanbul’s Karaköy district on a damp Saturday morning Photo: Tony Cross

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.

Eminömü market Photo: Tony Cross

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.

AKP supporters pose for selfies in front of a montage of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in martial mode Photo: Tony Cross

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

A Yes campaign boat Photo: Tony Cross

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.”

CHP No campaigners at Kadiköy, Istanbul Photo: Toy Cross

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.

Media harassed

AKP members campaigning for a Yes vote in Karaköy Photo: Tony Cross

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

An HDP stall in Karaköy Photo: Tony Cross

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

Yasemin Bektas Photo: Tony Cross

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.

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Beware Greeks bearing ballot boxes

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Laocoon Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Public domain

Whether you agree with the result or not, the massive No vote in Sunday’s Greek referendum was a courageous choice. Nobody knows what will happen now – not the Greeks, not the troika … not even Angela Merkel. The majority of Greeks chose to risk more economic hardship rather than willingly undergo further humiliation at the Eurobullies’ hands. A few observations:

  • The Greeks said no to do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do:  Jean-Claude Juncker and Christine Lagarde told them they were naughty not to have paid their taxes. He was finance minister and then prime minister of a tax haven from 1989 to 2013. Being employed by the IMF, she doesn’t pay taxes anywhere (as was, of course, also the case for her predecessor, the delightful DSK). I don’t think that any of us could swear, hand on heart, that we would insist on our contract being rewritten if offered tax exemption but why exactly do international pontificators on fiscal rigour have this status?
  • European unity is good … but at what price? I have to admit to a sentimental attachment to the European Union and the euro. Being able to travel across most of a continent without showing my passport or changing my money is a pleasing taste of a world without national borders. But how many Greeks should be made unemployed, have their pensions slashed or otherwise reduced to penury to afford me that pleasure?
  • Europe would look pretty stupid without Greece: Juncker and friends said that the Greeks were voting on whether to stay in the euro and maybe the EU. Grexit would be a big blow to the euro project but they may be ready to accept it for the sake of an example to the other southern European slackers. But what will become of all those speeches about Europe’s heritage and values if the country that gave us the words “democracy”, “philosophy” – not to mention “poliics”, “comedy” and “drama” – is no longer part of our Europe? What has Luxembourg’s contribution to our common culture been, remind me?
  • Opinion polls are crap: Thank God I resisted the temptation to write a headline about Yes and No being neck and neck on RFI’s website on Saturday following the last poll, which showed the Yes winning with 41.5% against 40.2% for the No.  This is not the first time the pollsters have been spectacularly wrong or that partisan media and interested parties have tried to influence the result by seizing on the prediction that serves their purpose. What happened? Were those canny Greeks also plotting their revenge on pollsters, journalists and EU chiefs by lying about their real intentions? Of course, even if the pollsters are genuinely trying to get it right, they can’t avoid the fact that being polled is passive and going to vote is active. They include in their calculations the responses of people who won’t be arsed to go and vote, whose opinion, quite rightly, isn’t taken into account in a real democratic process. But still we write articles based on one poll as if it was a factual account of the public’s mood and politicians allow their results to influence policy. I think we do have enough evidence to say that François Hollande is not very popular in France at the moment but can we really be sure that 51% of French people don’t think very highly of Alexis Tsipras on the basis of one poll?
  • This is the beginning of an era of austerity, not the end: Austerity doesn’t deliver what’s promised and depresses demand, thus further damaging the economy. But the IMF, the EU and the German leadership have turned down Yanis Varoufakis’s kind offer to save capitalism from itself. Electoral considerations come into this for Merkel, although, as George Papandreou showed when he resigned as Greek PM, an establishment politician is prepared to fall on his sword for the greater bourgeois good if bullied enough. Please read my previous post Austerity the new  normal on why I believe that the changes in the structure of the working class and the collapse of the Soviet bloc have lifted the restraints on unbridled capitalist accumulation and are likely to lead to all the social reforms of the 20th century being “reformed” away.
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