Turkey will say 'no' to Erdogan power plan: opposition chief

Raziye Akkoc and Luana Sarmini-Buonaccorsi
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Polls show Turks are divided on whether to back a referendum on constitutional changes which would expand President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's powers

Turkey will vote against expanding President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's powers in an April referendum, the leader of the country's main opposition party has predicted, warning the opposite outcome would cripple democracy by concentrating power in one man's hands.

In an interview with Agence France-Presse, Republican People's Party (CHP) chief Kemal Kilicdaroglu said even some ruling party voters were against a plan that would be dangerous for Turkey's future.

"The result will be 'no' because there are questions raised even among the Justice and Development Party (AKP) voters about the proposed system," Kilicdaroglu told AFP.

"One person having this much power and influence would impose risks in the future for Turkey," he said.

On April 16, Turks will decide whether to approve constitutional changes that would axe the role of premier and allow the president to directly appoint top public officials including ministers.

The Turkish government defends the changes as necessary for stability in the country while critics including Kilicdaroglu argue it would bring one-man rule.

Polls show a tight race between the two sides, with pro-government dailies publishing surveys putting the "yes" side ahead while opposition newspapers show the "no" side in front.

- 'Abolishing democracy' -

Kilicdaroglu took over the CHP in 2010, stabilising a party humiliated by the AKP at the ballot box and mired in scandal.

But under his leadership the secular CHP has failed to dent the dominance of the Islamic-rooted AKP and it remains unclear if Kilicdaroglu can halt the ruling party's election juggernaut this time.

The CHP leader is about to embark on a campaign of nationwide rallies. The party's campaign poster shows a young girl with a colourful sun in the background accompanied by the words: "For my future, 'no'."

While officials from the ruling party and government have sometimes demonised the opposing side during the campaign as "terrorists", Kilicdaroglu said his party was targeting women as well as 1.7 million first-time voters.

"We want to leave to our children a Turkey with a developed democracy, independent judiciary, a media free to draw and write whatever," Kilicdaroglu said.

"That's why we are saying 'no'."

If Turkey's democratic structure collapses and a "one-man regime" forms, it would be "seriously damaging" for not just Turkey but democratic nations everywhere, he said.

The referendum comes less than a year since a rogue military faction on July 15 tried to oust Erdogan from power in a failed coup which killed nearly 250 people.

Its defeat prompted a rare show of unity in Turkish politics, and Kilicdaroglu and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli even attended a pro-Erdogan rally in Istanbul.

Bahceli allied his party with the government to push through the constitutional changes bill in January.

But Kilicdaroglu refused to help the government pass the bill, and has since fiercely criticised the proposals as "regime change".

According to Kilicdaroglu, the president would gain effective control over the judiciary, executive and legislative powers under the 18-article constitutional draft.

"If there is no judiciary independence, if the executive and legislative organs are able to be taken under control, then this means... we are abolishing democracy," he said.

The government defends the changes, saying the system would be like that in France and the United States.

- 'Not even Ataturk' -

If approved, the reforms would be the most far-reaching constitutional shift since the creation of modern Turkey in 1923.

"And this power, in our history, has not even been given to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk," Kilicdaroglu said, referring to the founder of modern Turkey and the CHP.

Days after the failed coup, a state of emergency was imposed which has been renewed twice and the vote will take place under such a period.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told a group of American journalists last week the emergency would be renewed again for another 12 weeks despite criticism.

Since July, over 100,000 people have been dismissed, sacked or arrested from the public sector including the judiciary accused of links to coup-plotters or Kurdish militants under emergency decrees which have been heavily criticised.

Kilicdaroglu said it was wrong to hold a vote during the emergency, saying it was a "shadow" over the referendum.

"The emergency should be lifted. There shouldn't be a referendum during a state of emergency."