Erdogan holds massive rally ahead of Turkey's referendum

Supporters of Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan cheering on Saturday during the rally in Istanbul for the upcoming referendum. If approved, the new system will remove the post of prime minister and create new vice-president roles, among others. A majority "Yes
Supporters of Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan cheering on Saturday during the rally in Istanbul for the upcoming referendum. If approved, the new system will remove the post of prime minister and create new vice-president roles, among others. PHOTO: REUTERS
Supporters of Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan cheering on Saturday during the rally in Istanbul for the upcoming referendum. If approved, the new system will remove the post of prime minister and create new vice-president roles, among others. A majority "Yes
A majority "Yes" vote in the referendum will give Turkey more stability and power, said Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

ISTANBUL • Tens of thousands packed one of Istanbul's biggest public spaces over the weekend as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted a giant rally seeking votes in an upcoming referendum on enhancing his powers.

Lambasting Turkey's enemies and taking potshots at his opponents, Mr Erdogan said on Saturday a "Yes" vote in the April 16 referendum would give the country more stability and power.

"On April 16, do you want to say 'Yes' to a strong Turkey?" Mr Erdogan asked the crowd, who waved a sea of red-and-white crescent moon Turkish flags.

"Do you want a great Turkey? Do you want to say 'Yes' to stability? Will you be there Istanbul?" he asked, as the crowd roared back, "Yes".

Mr Erdogan arrived by helicopter to cheers at the vast open ground in Istanbul's Yenikapi district, on the shores of the Sea of Marmara.

It was there in August last year that he held a mass rally calling for national solidarity in the wake of the failed July coup blamed on the United States-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, and Mr Erdogan clearly wanted to capture the spirit of that day.

Mr Erdogan said the likes of Mr Gulen, who denies being behind the coup, and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) wanted to see a "No" vote. He charged that "No" voters were also against his bid to transform Turkey through modern infrastructure projects, such as bridges and tunnels.

"They said 'No' to the bridges. They say 'No' to a modern Turkey," he roared, prowling around a walkway that extended from the stage like at a rock concert.

Analysts see the referendum as tightly contested, despite the domination of the "Yes" campaign in the media.

If approved, the new system will see the scrapping of the post of prime minister, the creation of vice-presidents and the President appointing ministers.

The changes will also allow the President to be affiliated with a party, allowing Mr Erdogan to restore his ties with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that he co-founded and helped sweep to power in 2002.

Supporters say the new system will create an efficient US-style structure but critics argue the lack of checks and balances risks handing him a one-man rule.

Wearing headbands with "Tayyip Erdogan - commander-in-chief" written on them and some even sporting Erdogan face masks, supporters said giving the President greater powers was essential to Turkey's development.

Mr Erdogan also prompted boos by mentioning his opponent, the leader of the secular Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who claimed last week that the failed putsch was a "controlled coup" which the government knew about in advance.

Analysts say that the outcome in Turkey's largest city Istanbul will be critical to the result of the referendum.

The "No" campaign suffers from a lack of a clear figurehead and vastly fewer resources, but is hoping to rally substantial numbers of secularists, Kurds and nationalists to its cause.

On the Asian side of the city , the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) held a rally pushing a "No" vote. Both the party's co-leaders are jailed on charges of backing the PKK, which the party argues is punishment for daring to oppose the presidential system.

Senior HDP lawmaker Sirri Sureyya Onder told the rally: "In this referendum, our co-leaders, our MPs, our youth, our friends are facing the greatest oppression in our history."

Yesterday, the Turkish Culture Ministry said it will build a new museum outside Ankara to remember the defeat of the failed July 15 coup that tried to unseat Mr Erdogan.

The Museum of the July 15 Martyrs and Democracy will open its doors at the end of next year.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2017, with the headline 'Erdogan holds massive rally ahead of Turkey's referendum'. Print Edition | Subscribe