The hero worship propelling Erdoğan to absolute power in Turkey

Kareem Shaheen
Supporters of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wave and cheer at a rally in Istanbul. Photograph: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Emine Altinbas had come all the way to Ankara from the northern Turkish city of Amasya, 165 miles away, for a political rally. In the warmth of the afternoon, she listened as the prime minister urged her and other supporters to vote yes in a referendum that would transform the country into a presidential republic.

But Altinbas needed no convincing. In a fortnight she will back Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan , and the package of reforms that could keep him in power until 2029. Why? Because, she said, she trusted Erdoğan to do the right thing.

“He’s sincere towards the people,” she said. “What he says is true, he does not lie, and what the people want is what happens.” The opposition, she said, was in disarray and bent on dividing the country instead of uniting it under strong leadership that would promote progress. “Until the end I’m going to say yes.”

Thousands of supporters of the Justice and Development party (AKP) turned out to witness the launch of the yes (evet in Turkish) campaign in the suburb of Kahramankazan, north-west of the Turkish capital in late February. On 16 April, many will cast their votes in a referendum on constitutional changes that will mark a turning point in the 93-year-old Turkish republic.

The choice of venue was no coincidence. Home to the Akıncı airbase, close to where seven civilians gave up their lives resisting the attempted military coup last July, the suburb of Kazan has been renamed, prefixed with kahraman, the Turkish word for hero.

The coup attempt still has the capacity to inflame great emotion. Inside the stadium, when videos from the night of the putsch were shown, a great roar of disapproval and anger emanated from the crowd.

“The periods of coups shall be over,” Binali Yıldırım, the prime minister and head of the AKP, told the crowd. “The economy will be stronger, growth will accelerate, there will be new jobs, we will cut the red tape, and the new system will eradicate terrorism.”

Outside there was a festive atmosphere as supporters flocked to the stadium in their thousands, chanting Erdoğan’s name. Street vendors hawked T-shirts bearing his image, and banners proclaimed “Yes with all my heart” and “Our strong country, our decision is yes”.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has had thousands of his critics dismissed or arrested. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The referendum has polarised Turkey, still reeling from the traumatic coup attempt and repeated terror attacks by Islamic State and the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), a designated terror group fighting an insurgency in the south-east.

Tens of thousands of people have been dismissed or arrested in a multifaceted crackdown that has targeted followers of Fethullah Gülen, a US-based preacher whose movement is widely believed to have masterminded the coup, as well as opposition parties, academics and media outlets critical of the government.

Opponents say the constitutional changes, which would allow Erdoğan to rule until 2029 and consolidate power in his office, would lead to one-man rule with little oversight by a friendly parliament and a judiciary that would be appointed by him and the ruling party.

But supporters of the yes campaign argue there are enough checks and balances in the amendments, which will revise a constitution imposed under military rule in 1982. They say it will end the fractious politics of coalition governments that have plunged Turkey into recession in the past, and end a longstanding uncertainty in executive authority that has deadlocked administrations.

Emine Nur Günay, an AKP MP who was at the rally, said the changes would resolve conflicts of power in the executive and promote greater diversity in parliament by allowing younger lawmakers from around the country to run in elections. She pointed out that France, like Turkey, was soon to hold an election under a state of emergency.

“Turkey’s state of emergency is against terrorists, not the public,” she said. “Life is going on and the public isn’t affected. Turkey endured a lot of terrorist attacks, much more so than Europe, and a lot of innocent people lost their lives.”

The white Turks used to be the administrators, but now the people have a say. The elites are no longer in power.

Erdogan supporter

Many among Erdoğan’s grassroots supporters see no problem in giving him more power. These are voters who propelled him to the presidency in 2014 in the first-ever popular presidential election to be held in Turkey. His popularity with them has allowed him to reshape the largely ceremonial position into an influential post by sheer force of personality.

Some have seen their lives improve with the economic reforms of the AKP, and the social benefits they have bestowed on poorer citizens. A common refrain among supporters at campaign rallies is how they no longer need to stand in line to buy expensive medicines, or suffer outside overcrowded hospitals.

Other voters see Erdoğan’s ascent as a vindication of their suffering under decades of secular rule by pro-European elites – so-called “white Turks” – when expressions of Islamic values in public life, such as the headscarf, were restricted. They see in him a genuine man of the people who has challenged the political status quo as an outsider, even though his party has been in power for 15 years now and has presided over a break in relations with the EU, a re-igniting of a war with Kurdish insurgents whose ceasefire they had negotiated, and a dramatic uptick in terror attacks. Instead, they see him as a powerful force to combat terrorism in uncertain times.

The disconnect between the condemnatory anti-western rhetoric of the president and the confidence and even elation of his supporters at party rallies is striking. Where the west sees an authoritarian strongman dismantling a democracy, Erdoğan’s supporters see a democratically elected president exerting the will of the people and destroying the agents of a nefarious putsch. Where the west sees a leader with neo-Ottoman imperial ambitions, ordinary Turks who back Erdoğan see a man willing to stand up to a morally bankrupt EU and champion the cause of oppressed peoples in the Middle East. Where the west sees a subversion of secularism, his followers see a redemption after decades of oppression under the secular elites, an opportunity to assert their identity as pious Muslims.

“He represents us, our thoughts,” said one young man in his 20s, from the city of Erzurum, who attended the rally. “He wants to abolish a system that went against the people and put in place a new system that will voice our thoughts. There used to be a population called the white Turks, they used to be the administrators, but now the people have a say. The elites are no longer in power.”

He scoffed at the suggestion that giving too much power to the president could be bad for democracy: “How can he be a dictator if his term is five years and he can only be elected twice?

“He has done many things for us, he stood up for us, he faced death for us. We wear our death shrouds for him and stand behind him.”

He added: “There will be a much stronger Turkey.”

Nearby, a woman who did not give her name touched her burgundy headscarf as she stood in the heat of the warm Ankara afternoon. She looked exhausted, having made a 572-mile journey to attend the rally from the eastern city of Van, but she was adamant as she touched her veil.

“There is nothing more important than Turkey and he’s the only one who can lead this country,” she said. “He’s the only one we can trust. Because of the headscarf, because of our security, for our Qur’an and the mosque. He was the only one who supported us, he always stands beside those who were oppressed.”

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