Turkey polarised ahead of historic referendum
ISTANBUL - Two men chat in a cartoon in Turkey's top satirical weekly Penguen. One asks the other: "Will you say 'Yes' or 'No' in the referendum?" The other responds: "Ah? Was there any other option than 'Yes'?"
Wandering around Istanbul, it's clear that the resources of the campaign backing an expansion of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's powers in the April 16 referendum vastly exceed those of his opponents.
"For the nation and for the flag: 'Yes' ('Evet' in Turkish) with all our hearts," one poster reads. "'Yes' for our tomorrows" says another, advertising a mass meeting by Erdogan on Saturday.
Advertising for the "No" campaign ("Hayir" in Turkish) is less widespread but still conspicuous, showing a simple picture of a young girl and the slogan "For our Future".
According to Penguen, the airtime for live broadcasts for the "Yes" campaign on television outstrips 10-fold that of the "No" campaign.
Yet despite what "No" supporters complain is an uneven playing field, the campaign is ferocious, with pundits predicting a tight outcome that will determine the future of modern Turkey.
- Loaded words -
The watershed nature of the vote and the expected close outcome have pushed the campaigns on both sides to extremes, loading the words "Evet" and "Hayir" with additional meaning.
Erdogan and his allies have repeatedly tried to stigmatise the word "No", saying the naysayers have also rejected all his projects to develop Turkey in the last few years.
The president has also said that a "No" is exactly what is wanted by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) as well as the group of US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames for the failed coup last July.
In March, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu asked a crowd in the Black Sea city of Trabzon if violence had in any way helped the rise of the ruling party.
The crowd responded: "No!". A smiling Soylu said: "Don't say 'No'! Say there cannot be any such thing."
- 'I will denounce you' -
The Turkish satellite television provider Digiturk, for its part, withdrew a planned broadcast of the well-received Chilean 2012 Oscar-nominated movie "No", without any explanation.
The movie, starring Gael Garcia Bernal, shows how a low-resourced but well-planned campaign ensured victory for the "No" vote in the 1988 referendum on whether to extend Augusto Pinochet's term.
Deniz Zeyrek, a columnist at the Hurriyet newspaper, even said the faithful attending Friday prayers had stopped wishing each other "Hayirli Cumalar" (Have a good Friday) greetings because the widely used saying contains the word "hayir", which can also be used to mean "auspicious".
Hurriyet refused in February to publish an interview with Nobel-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk because he said he would vote "No" in the referendum.
Satirists have also derided such excesses, with Penguen producing a memorable cover showing a woman saying "No" to a man's proposal to marry her. "I will denounce you," the suitor says.
In campaign rallies, Erdogan often ask questions to supporters who shout back "Yes!"
"Are you for a strong Turkey? Are you for a stable Turkey?" Erdogan asked supporters in Balikesir on Thursday. "Yes!" the crowd responded.
A couple from Ergani, a district in the Kurdish-majority Diyarbakir province, even named their newborn baby girl "Evet", CNN-Turk television reported.
"Our relatives reacted positively," the father, Mustafa Celik, said. "We will already vote yes."
In a rare gesture of reconciliation last month, Erdogan made a brief stop at a "No" campaign tent in Istanbul and chatted with the campaigners.
Some commentators saw the gesture as an acknowledgement by Erdogan that his abrasive attacks on the "No" campaign were not helping the "Yes" camp in opinion polls.
- 'Trying to marginalise 'No'' -
At the secular bastion of Kadikoy in Istanbul, "No" volunteers hand out pamphlets with the slogan: "I wouldn't give that much power even to my father."
"We are writing messages with stencils in the streets. At the same time, we're talking with people about why we refuse to give that much power to Erdogan," activist Demet Koca said.
Engin Kara, a university student and leader of "No volunteers", accused the government of trying to make a "No" vote socially unacceptable.
"All they are saying is that 'No' supporters are terrorists... They are trying to marginalise the 'No' voters."