On Sunday 16 April, Turkey’s voters will cast ballots in a referendum. They will decide on proposals from the ruling Islamists, the Justice and Development (AK) party, led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The main thrust of the 18 constitutional amendments that will be voted on as a package is to highly centralise power in the hands of the President. If Erdoğan wins he will also be able to run in Presidential elections in 2019 and 2024, meaning he could be in power until 2029.
Erdoğan is an unpleasant, thin-skinned Islamist authoritarian who has used a coup attempt last summer to persecute all opposition. Tens of thousands of civil servants, teachers, academics and army personnel have been arrested or sacked. 150 journalists are in jail. Many media outlets have been shut down. The Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has had a dozen MPs detained, including their leader Selahattin Demirtaş.
Opponents of Erdoğan’s power-grab also have to contend with an on-going State of Emergency and, in the Kurdish south east, with a brutal military response to the armed campaigns of the Kurdish PKK and TAK. The referendum is bitterly contested and polls suggest the result may be close. The stakes are high for AK who run a formidable propaganda machine. Their slogan is: “Vote for a Strong Turkey”.
During the election campaign Erdoğan fell out, dramatically, with key governments in the EU. Some EU states have large Turkish communities, many of whom are eligible to vote in the referendum. Polling data suggests many Turks in Germany, for example, are disproportionately in favour of Erdoğan — who has been keen to reach them. However, planned pro-AK rallies in Germany, Austria and Holland were banned. Erdoğan responded with outrage and abuse which has damaged his long-term relationships with the EU, but may have increased his vote in the referendum.