Istanbul: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his supporters are increasingly demonising voters thinking of rejecting a plan to grant him greater powers in an April referendum, raising fears of a further polarisation of society.
Turkey will on April 16 vote in a referendum on constitutional changes to create a presidential system which Erdogan argues is needed for better governance but critics fear will lead to one man rule.
Polls are indicating a tight race with approval for the plan by no means a foregone conclusion, opening the way for the kind of no-holds-barred campaign in which Erdogan revels.
Erdogan, who on Friday kicked off his campaign in the eastern city of Kahramanmaras, has already accused those who plan to vote ‘no’ of siding with the failed July 15 coup plot blamed by the authorities on the US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen.
“To be honest those who say ‘no’ are on the side of July 15,” he said in a speech this week. “Who are the ones saying ‘no’? Those who want to break up the country. Those who are opposed to our flag.”
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim meanwhile has said a ‘no’ vote is what is wanted by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the group of Gulen, which Ankara terms the Fethullah Terror Group (FETO).
“The terrorist groups are campaigning in chorus for the ‘no’ vote,” he said. “My citizens are not going to stand alongside terrorist groups.”
Analysts say the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is falling back on a tried and tested strategy of stigmatising those who vote against its domination.
Samim Akgonul, researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), said this strategy had proved the AKP’s “winning machine”.
“The AKP leaders will do all they can to make sure the campaign does not focus on the content of the changes but on the supposed identity of those voters who vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’, he said.
Analysts say the referendum will be largely about Erdogan, the leader who has dominated Turkey for nearly one and a half decades, first as premier from 2003-2014 and now and president since 2014.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Programme at The Washington Institute, said Erdogan had proved a match-winner in elections by increasing incomes but also by demonising sections of society unlikely to vote for him.
“The latter has resulted in deep societal polarisation,” said Cagaptay, author of the forthcoming “The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey”.
“While nearly half of Turkey adores Erdogan, the other half, demonised by him, loathes the Turkish president and will never fold under him.”
Prominent Turkish novelist Asli Erdogan — no relation of the president — said the referendum was not about the constitution but being for or against Erdogan.
“If you say ‘no’ you are a demon. This is the essence of their strategy and it is clever,” Asli Erdogan, who was this month released after four months in prison, told AFP.
The head of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu vehemently criticised the tactics of the government: “They don’t know how to convince the people to vote ‘yes’.”
Even the word ‘no’ has itself been stigmatised, with popular TV series Hayat Sarkisi (Song of Life) accused of carrying a subliminal message when a family votes ‘no’ around a table over whether to visit a relative.
Satirists have derided these excesses with satirical weekly Penguen producing a memorable cover showing a woman rejecting a man’s proposal to marry her. “I will denounce you,” says the suitor.
Well-connected Hurriyet daily columnist Abdul Kadir Selvi said that the authorities were seeking to strike a careful balance between linking a ‘no’ vote to Turkey’s enemies and not alienating voters with a negative message.
The referendum is coming with tens of thousands awaiting trial on charges of assisting the putsch, in an unprecedented crackdown. The authorities however insist citizens are free to vote as they wish.
“If a single person is detained or arrested for saying vote ‘no’ in the referendum then I will resign today,” said Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag. “There is nothing of the sort.”