As the clock ticks down to Turkey’s landmark referendum Sunday (16 April) on expanding President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s powers, it’s impossible to miss the posters for the government-backed ‘Yes’ campaign in Ankara and cities across the country.
“‘Yes’ for a strong Turkey.” “‘Yes’ for peace and unity,” say the ubiquitous slogans, above pictures of Erdoğan or the light bulb logo of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
It’s much harder to find ‘No’ campaign material – but some banners hang from ropes laid above streets. ”No’ for our future'”.
The ‘Yes’ campaign also dominates the airwaves, with all of Erdoğan’s speeches broadcast live and even the main opposition leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), struggling to make his voice heard.
Yet despite the clear disadvantages in campaign capacities, the ‘No’ camp – which brings together liberals, secularists and some Kurds and nationalists – is sufficiently competitive for the result to be seen as too close to call.
‘Persuading the don’t knows’
Campaigners in Ankara from the youth wing of the CHP said they were targeting undecided voters rather than persuading ‘Yes’ voters to change their minds.
Tolgay Yorulmaz, in charge of campaigning in the Ankara district of Cankaya, said letters were given out to people voting for the first time in a door-to-door campaign.
Yorulmaz said there was a “fear” among voters. “Some people tell us they tell people around them they will vote yes but say they will vote ‘No’ in the ballot box.
“The people do not say how they will vote freely, especially civil servants.”
With loud campaign songs blaring in the background, one volunteer who only wanted to give her name as Sevgi said she had been speaking to the public for a month.
“The undecided are generally people who vote for AKP but aren’t fully convinced by this constitution or don’t know what to think of it.”
Sevgi, a student, said she was missing classes but the campaign was “more important than university”.
Across the street, a dozen volunteers were distributing leaflets for the ‘No’ camp but without any organisation name and only a small table installed on the pavement.
Ozgur Topcu, coordination secretary for the Ankara branch of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, said they had no choice but not to use their name.
“If we put down our name they would detain us,” he claimed.
The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which is running an observer mission for the polls, said in an interim report on Friday that ‘No’ supporters “faced campaign bans, police interventions, and violent scuffles at their events”.
The report also said freedom of expression has been “further curtailed” following the closure of numerous media outlets and the arrest of journalists following last year’s failed coup attempt.
Turkish media reports said that a live interview with Kılıçdaroğlu on state-run TRT this week had been delayed and limited while the channel waited for Erdoğan to finish a live speech.
While the CHP has generally been able to campaign openly, the third largest party in parliament – the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) – has faced much more significant hurdles.
HDP co-leaders Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yuksekdag are among 13 HDP MPs in jail as well as other party members accused of links to outlawed Kurdish militants, in what supporters say is a deliberate move to sideline them from the campaign.
The OSCE added in its interim report the absence of some activists and leaders in jail had “seriously curtailed some groups’ ability to campaign”.
The party has only been given a handful of interview opportunities on nationwide TV throughout the campaign and expressed amazement when its MP, Osman Baydemir, was given a 10-minute slot on TRT this week.
“We are the country’s third largest party and what a shame during this referendum process, our two co-chairs, lawmakers, co-mayors, officials are in prison,” said Birsen Kaya, co-leader of the HDP in Ankara, at a party rally in the capital this week.
Hundreds of young people were joined by pensioners and small children running around waving ‘No’ flags written in Turkish and Kurdish during the HDP rally.
Mehtap Dincer, from the eastern province of Van, said she was rejecting the constitutional changes because “we do not want one man to have a say over all aspects of Turkey and all peoples”.
“We are saying ‘No’ for freedom. We don’t want a one-man system,” Hakima Ugurtas, who was with her husband and two children, said as she waved a bright red flag emblazoned with the word ‘No’.