Turkey's Erdogan kicks off campaign for greater powers

Stuart WILLIAMS
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets supporters at Muftuluk Square in the southeastern city of Kahramanmaras, on February 17, 2017

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday kicked off his campaign for a "yes" vote at the April 16 referendum on expanding his powers, predicting Turks will back the changes in a contest that could be tight.

Analysts are predicting that the outcome of the referendum on the new constitution to create an executive presidency is no foregone conclusion and Erdogan will criss-cross Turkey in the next two months to mobilise voters.

He kicked off the campaign -- after returning from a tour of Gulf countries -- in the eastern city of Kahramanmaras, one of the areas that gave him the most votes in the 2014 presidential polls.

"We are on the threshold of a historic decision," Erdogan told thousands of supporters in Kahramanmaras in a televised speech.

"April 16 will be the night of carrying out reform in Turkey," he added.

Opponents fear that the touted presidential system -- which would discard the post of prime minister for the first time in Turkey's history -- would cement one-man rule in the country under Erdogan.

But Erdogan argued that the new system would clearly delineate between the executive and the legislature, so that "everyone can concentrate on their own business".

He explained that the new system would mean there would be no return to the "old Turkey" of short-lived coalition governments, which, he said, sometimes lasted just 25 days and had an average survival rate of 16 months.

"My friends, that Turkey is finished," he said.

- Unprecedented crackdown -

Relations with the West and have strained in the wake of the July 15 coup aimed at ousting Erdogan from power, which was followed by a crackdown whose magnitude is unprecedented in modern Turkish history.

The president reaffirmed he would approve legislation reimposing the death penalty in Turkey -- if it was approved by parliament after the referendum.

Reimposing the death penalty, abolished in 2004, would spell the end of Turkey's embattled bid to join the European Union.

But Erdogan said he was not bothered by what the EU had to say about the issue.

"I'm not interested in what the European Union, says, in what Hans and George say," said Erdogan, using two typical European first names.

"What interests me is what Ahmet, Mehmet, Ayse, Fatma say," he said, using traditional Turkish Muslim names. "I am interested in what Allah (God) says!"

Erdogan is expected over the weekend to visit more cities in the east where he enjoys soaring support including Malatya, Elazig and Gaziantep.

The legislation was pushed through by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) with the help of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Friday the two parties could have joint campaign events.

The AKP is to launch its campaign with a glitzy rally on February 25 in Ankara.

The tone of the campaign will be crucial, amid alarm a demonisation of those planning to vote "no" may have alienated some voters.

- 'Early warning' -

With the AKP constantly conducting private polling, respected conservative commentator Abdulkadir Selvi wrote in the Hurriyet daily this week that support for a "yes" had slipped in the last days in Istanbul and Ankara.

"The latest negative trend emerged before the referendum campaign started and is seen as an early warning," he wote.

Analysts are predicting a possibly close race, although the AKP is expected to use its full armoury of resources, including a loyal media, to get the desired result.

"It may well end up with a substantial victory for the 'yes'," said Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.

"However, the implications of such a constitutional reform are so momentous that citizens may well think twice," he told AFP.

Asli Aydintasbas, fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), said there was not a fair playing field in the vote.

"The 'no' campaign does not have tools, resources or abilities to broadcast its message except through social media," she said.