Turkish women rally behind Erdogan's referendum

Fulya OZERKAN
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Women rally in support of a "yes" vote in a referendum on boosting Erdogan's powers

Thousands of pro-government women filled an Istanbul arena on Sunday in support of a "yes" vote in next month's referendum on boosting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's powers.

Waving Turkish flags, women shouted "Of course, Yes!" ahead of the April 16 vote on constitutional changes that would give Turkey an executive presidency similar to political systems in France or the United States.

Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is running the "yes" campaign, saying the changes would bring political stability, but the vote is widely seen as a referendum on Erdogan himself because the proposed plan could see him stay in power until 2029.

Opponents say the changes, which would grant sweeping new powers to the head of state, would make parliament dysfunctional and promote a one-man model.

Pro-government supporters gathered at the 12,500 capacity sports complex, known as Abdi Ipekci Arena, outside Istanbul's ancient city walls.

Erdogan, with his wife, Emine, showed up for the event organised by the pro-government Women and Democracy Association (KADEM), whose deputy director is Erdogan's younger daughter Sumeyye Erdogan Bayraktar.

"I believe that you are holding the key to victory" in the coming vote, Erdogan said.

Ayse Gurcan, an AKP supporter who came to the rally from the Erzurum province in eastern Turkey, said that "For the survival of our country, it is a very important decision".

"We must make our choice in a healthy way and I believe that everyone will say 'yes'," she said

Another attendee, Zehra Ferahtay, said the approval of constitutional changes would unify Turkey, an important step after the failed coup attempt in July to oust Erdogan's government.

"Yes, I support the presidential system and especially after July 15, we must be more united and together for this country," she said.

Saliha Mantar, wearing an Islamic headscarf, said women had been granted more rights since Erdogan came to power as prime minister in 2003 and as president in 2014.

"We, women, promise to be always behind our leader," she said, referring to Erdogan.

- 'Disastrous' for women -

Critics argue that if the constitutional plan is approved, Turkey would lurch toward authoritarianism, saying it would not be a system based on checks and balances.

In Bakirkoy, another Istanbul district, women took to streets in opposition to the constitutional changes.

Around 5,000 women unfurled banners with such messages as, "For our life and our rights, our decision is No."

Both rallies in Istanbul come ahead of International Women's Day on March 8.

"A 'yes' vote would prove disastrous for the entire country and for women," 23-year-old Buse Sogutlu told AFP.

"Still, we will continue to take to the streets and resist," she said.

Another protester, Semra Aslan, predicted that neither a 'yes' nor a 'no' victory at the ballot box would bring significant change -- other than reinforcing the AKP's domination.

"We are already in a state of emergency, but we will not be silent," she said.

Ankara imposed a state of emergency in the wake of the botched July coup attempt, which critics say has been used for a clampdown not just on the coup plotters but also on Erdogan's opponents.