ISTANBUL – Recep Tugcu is convinced: ever since “Tayyip” has been in power, Turkey is living through “its golden age”. So he has no hesitation in voting ‘Yes’ in Sunday’s referendum on expanding the president’s powers.
The head of state’s detractors accuse President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of showing authoritarian tendencies at the very least.
But supporters of Erdogan see in him a man who fate provided to help Turkey stand up to Europe, and a pious leader who has restored dignity to conservative Muslims in a battle against the secular elite.
Even if the Turkish leadership denies that the constitutional changes enlarging presidential powers have been tailor-made for Erdogan, his supporters are, above all, voting for their champion.
“You need to give him even more power — he can’t ever have enough power,” said Tugcu, proudly sporting a ‘Yes’ hat on his head, at a major rally hosted by the president in Istanbul.
“Turkey is living its golden age and is ready for anything to support Tayyip Erdogan,” he added.
Another Erdogan admirer at the rally, Nazimet Ciloglu, went even further. “I thank heaven for putting him among us, I thank his parents for having brought up such a person for our country,” she said.
“We will do everything for our ‘reis’ (chief), may God preserve him.”
For the faithful who thronged the vast Yenikapi square for the rally, the referendum will be a chance to send multiple signals: ‘Yes’ to strongman leadership, ‘Yes’ to the fight against Kurdish militants, ‘Yes’ to confrontation with Europe.
– ‘Turkey was third world’ –
Sat in front of a pan of grilled sardines in a restaurant in the Istanbul district of Uskudar, a conservative area on the Asian side of the city, Hatice adjusted her headscarf and sifted through her memories.
“Filthy hospitals with sheets stained by blood and syringes on the floor. You came out more ill than when you went in,” she sighed.
“That was the old Turkey, before the arrival of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Yes, we’ve seen changes. In a few years of Erdogan in power, I’ve seen more things change than in the previous 40 years,” she added.
Since the arrival in power in 2002 of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), GDP per capita in the country has almost quadrupled, something that the president loses no time in repeating at his rallies.
Tugcu and other Erdogan supporters shrug off the fact that Turkey has in the last years lost the lustre of its once China-style growth rates, has seen rising unemployment and has seen a sharp weakening in the value of the lira.
“Before Erdogan and the AKP came to power, Turkey was a third world country. It’s Erdogan who built this country with its roads, bridges and tunnels.
“The West envies all of this,” Tugcu insisted.
– ‘Prays five times a day’ –
Relations between Turkey and the European Union have come under considerable strain in recent weeks, after the cancellation of pro-Erdogan meetings in several EU states notably Germany and the Netherlands.
Erdogan stepped up his attacks towards the bloc, who he accuses of giving sanctuary to “terrorists” who back Kurdish terrorists and last July’s failed coup.
Europe has warned Erdogan to hold back on his rhetoric but his supporters have no such qualms.
“Europeans get on our nerves by saying ‘Erdogan is a dictator’. But where were the Nazis? They were not in Turkey,” Hatice said.
Erdogan has also stepped up his religious rhetoric, seeking to strike a chord with both Anatolian Kurds and Turkish nationalists.
“Thanks to God, Erdogan prays five times a day,” said Tugcu, referring to the prayer rites required of Muslims.
The one concern of Osman, an Erdogan supporter at another rally in Gaziosmanpasa, is that the president once had an alliance with the US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, now his arch-enemy and blamed for the coup.
“It’s true but our president acknowledged that he was wrong,” he said, referring to how Erdogan asked Turkey for forgiveness after the coup over the past alliance with Gulen.
“What counts is that he is cleaning the country of this dirt now,” he said, referring to the crackdown after the attempted putsch.-AFP