TURKEY REFERENDUM

In the Land of Yes-People

The Road To The Turkish Referendum
Let's see if we can get a peak of him. Source: Getty Images

Several women have met to chat in an apartment in the city of Kayseri, greeted at the entrance by lavishly framed verses from the Koran. Kayseri is located in the heartland of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The pious women gathered in the living room are the base of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party. Over cups of sweet tea and cake, they share stories full of bitterness.

Kayseri is an historical trading center and a stronghold of Islamic conservatism. Giant posters of Mr. Erdogan line the road into the city center. In the last presidential election, almost 70 percent of the city voted for him.

We are traveling through Anatolia for a week to learn why so many Turks steadfastly support their president and how they will vote this Sunday in the referendum on the presidential system he is seeking to introduce. Our trip includes Kayseri where Mr. Erdogan’s most loyal supporters live, Sanliurfa on the border to Syria where the focus is on attracting Kurdish voters, and in the capital Ankara where, almost a century ago, the secular country was founded and whose constitution may undergo a radical change.

One of the women – a lawyer who, like everyone here, wishes to remain anonymous – recalls the start of her professional career. She repeats what a powerful public prosecutor once told her: “Either you take off that scarf and wear your hair openly, or I won’t issue you an internship certificate.” She remembers all too well this violation of her rights that she had to endure as a young lawyer.

Although 17 years have since passed, the professional is still distressed and angry. She consented to remove her headscarf to be certified as a lawyer. “I always had to take off the headscarf when I entered a courtroom,” she says. “Imagine my hair that had been under a headscarf for hours. Imagine how it felt to enter the room to defend a client with my hair in that condition. And what that does to your self-confidence!”

“You Europeans still see Turkey as a sick man. ”

Woman from Kayseri

The way these women tell it, Mr. Erdogan restored the self-confidence of these pious Anatolians. They consider him to be one of them – the first leading politician who respects their way of life and doesn’t humiliate them like the old, secular elites. They believe people will stand behind Mr. Erdogan and vote Yes in the referendum.

The conversation is tense because the women don’t trust the press, especially a journalist from a German newspaper. Yet one senses their curiosity. The women want to know how Turkey is seen in Europe and they want to send a message. “You Europeans still see Turkey as a sick man,” says one of them in her mid-60s. “Europeans believe that they command and we obey. But we are savvy, which you find hard to digest.” Their host adds: “We believe we’ll be rid of all the naysayers when we vote Yes. Then they won’t be able to block our path anymore.”

For these women, the headscarf remains a fundamental issue. All of them have experienced exclusion and humiliation – whether in school, at the university or in their professional lives. As pious Muslims, they have not been able to pursue careers in state institutions. The lawyer says she’ll never forget how female students were required to individually enter a so-called persuasion room where they were pressured to uncover their heads. They were threatened with expulsion if they refused. This practice only changed in 2002, when Mr. Erdogan’s AKP gained power. “Today, I can wear the headscarf and work anywhere without being forced to act against the tenets of my faith,” the lawyer says.

During her years as a student, the conflict between the Kemalists – the proponents of secularism who prohibited headscarves – and the Islamic conservatives reached its peak. That was during the 1990s, and the pro-Western government was disturbed by the political gains of the Islamic conservative parties. In 1997, the military threatened to stage yet another coup, which never happened. But as a result, the basic rights of Islamic conservative citizens were reduced. Wearing a headscarf in public was no longer allowed, and the state-sponsored Imam Hatip schools favored by religious circles were closed.

Turkish President Erdogan in Kayseri
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a speech during a mass opening ceremony at Kayseri Cumhuriyet Square in Kayseri. Source: Getty Images

Neither the Erdogan government nor the residents of Kayseri have forgotten those days. From conversations with these women, it becomes clear when the foundations for Mr. Erdogan’s present power were laid.

As the West sees it, an increasingly polarized Turkey is clearly divided into supporters and opponents of President Erdogan, with the Kurds clearly belonging to the second group. But the situation isn’t so simple, as the Kurdish city of Sanliurfa, or Urfa, shows. Located about 500 kilometers southeast of Kayseri, the city of nearly 2 million has a firm foundation of Islamic conservatism. It has traditionally voted for conservative parties. Around 70 percent of the inhabitants are Kurdish. Feudal structures and local religious leaders have a huge influence on society.

In the heart of the city, at Rabia Square, stands a “Yes Tent” where proponents of the presidential system seek support for the change. The “No” supporters are nowhere to be seen, not even a banner.

Yet there are doubts, even in the Yes Tent, as a conversation among three young people reveals. They know each other from their school years; two of them are eligible to vote for the first time. All three are Kurds and come from religious, conservative families.

Ahmet Kilic, 20 years old, already voted for the AKP in the parliamentary elections in November 2015. He says he “definitely” intends to vote in favor of the referendum. His friends Zeliha Güven, 18, and Yasin Bozkurt, 19, aren’t as certain as he is. The criticism of the presidential system as “one-man rule” has made an impression on them. Zeliha says she admires Mr. Erdogan but doesn’t think it’s a good idea “to put so much power in the hands of a single person.”

What concerns the young people most is education policy, coupled with future prospects. With youth unemployment hovering at 20 percent, they fear they will soon be among the masses of jobless academics, even if they complete their university studies with good grades.

The country’s political instability is hitting Urfa where it hurts. Taxi drivers complain that tourism is down because of clashes between the left-wing Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish military. Vendors at the marketplace bemoan the declining purchasing power of consumers.

Another visitor enters the Yes Tent. Zübeyde Emektar, a 42-year-old housewife, says she has been an AKP supporter since the party was established. Her story shows why so many women are ardent AKP fans. When her husband died, she was suddenly left alone with her four children. “Until his death, I never had a single lira in my pocket,” she remembers. After his death, the state came to the rescue with a widow’s pension, which didn’t exist earlier. “It used to be that women in my situation had to remarry,” she says.

Ms. Emektar is unimpressed when  Mr. Erdogan, in public speeches, urges women to have three children. But his support of widow’s pensions, state-financed schools and micro-loans for working women have had an emancipating effect for many Anatolian women, in defiance of all patriarchal slogans.

After 15 years with the AKP controlling the government, Turkey is at a crossroads. Mr. Erdogan first modernized the country, then polarized it. He began a peace process with the Kurds, then resumed the war against them. The attempted coup and the subsequent wave of repression came afterwards. All these developments caused deep rifts between the Islamic conservatives, the conservative liberals and the nationalists who once were united under the roof of the AKP.

The rifts are most evident in Ankara. Ever since the founding of the Turkish republic, when the small city in central Anatolia became the capital of the secularized republic, the contradictions have only become magnified. The religious conservatives and nationalists are in the majority, and everyone is politicized. A taxi stand can turn into a discussion forum at any time, as it does with us.

President Erdogan first modernized the country, then polarized it

We are now in Altindag, deep in AKP territory and drivers at a stand are talkative. One of them, Yasar, who once went to Austria as a guest worker, considers the AKP’s criticism of the government in Vienna to be pure propaganda. Vienna came out clearly against campaign appearances by Turkish ministers in Austria, and Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz even advised Erdogan supporters to leave the country. Then Ahmet Yildiz confronts his colleague Yasar with a reminder of what happened in the Netherlands: “What kind of a democracy is that in Europe? They attacked protesting Turks on the street with dogs. We saw that with our own eyes!”

Mr. Yildiz drives a taxi to supplement his meager pension. He says he has always voted for the AKP. But like many in Altindag, he complains about the AKP government. His list of complaints is long: the economic crisis, high unemployment, excessive reprisals against the putschists, bloody fights against the Kurds and the many Syrian refugees and the attacks by IS. Still, Mr. Yildiz doesn’t see any alternative to Mr. Erdogan: “If America has a president, then we should have one too,” he says.

Five other taxi drivers participating in the discussion agree that until the recent crisis with Europe, they would have tended to vote No. “Look here,” says 34-year-old Ersan, “I actually intended to vote No. But when I saw how Europe is treating us, I changed my mind.”

While the confrontation with Europe brought these men closer to Mr. Erdogan, it alienated Fatma Bostan Ünsal. In 2001, Ms. Ünsal was one of the 64 female founders of the AKP. The political scientist and human rights activist receives us in her apartment far from the center of Ankara in a closed Muslim residential complex with its own mosque. The settlement was once built for the pious adherents to the party. But Ms. Ünsal has turned into a dissident. In conservative Islamic circles, she is a legend because of her fight against the headscarf prohibition.

Ms. Ünsal has become a relentless observer of “her own” people. “Back then, the Muslim rank and file wasn’t in favor of the headscarf prohibition, but it kept silent,” she says. “Now many say, ‘Okay, there are innocent persons among those arrested; but because of the putsch, the government has to get tough.’” Shortly before the putsch, Ms. Ünsal was thrown out of the party because she had signed a petition calling for an end to the fighting between the PKK and the military. After the putsch, she lost her position at the university.

The activist expects the referendum to come down to the wire: “I believe that far-reaching changes like the ones sought by this referendum wouldn’t be legitimate in this situation,” she says. “Because even in the case of a victory, widespread opposition would remain.” Ms. Ünsal doesn’t consider it appropriate to undertake constitutional changes under a state of emergency. “No one is discussing content any longer,” she argues. “We’re only talking about persons. Whoever likes Erdogan will vote Yes; whoever doesn’t will vote No.”

Ms. Ünsal believes that only resistance from the rank and file can change the situation in the party – people like the taxi drivers, the women of Kayseri or the young people in Urfa. But many are gripped by the fear of losing the achievements that President Erdogan has given them. And many are afraid to speak openly, says Ms. Fatma Bostan Ünsal. She herself experienced how people are robbed of their existence if they don’t follow along. She says she has always championed the rights of Muslims throughout the world, for example, the Palestinians.

“We always say that Gaza is a big open-air prison,” she soberly notes. “Turkey has now become an even bigger open-air prison.

This piece originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: redaktion@zeit.de

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