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Divisive Turkey Referendum Campaign Underway To Give President More Power


In 11 days, Turks will go to the polls to decide whether to scrap their parliamentary government in favor of a strong presidency, which would mean more power for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The yes campaign favoring a stronger president is in full swing. The no camp which would keep the Parliament has a much quieter and more cautious presence. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: When it comes to energizing his conservative religious base, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has some favorite targets - European leaders who have criticized the referendum as a power grab. At a massive rally in Ankara recently, Erdogan described the European criticism as a Christian campaign against Islam itself. He cited a meeting EU leaders had with Pope Francis last month to celebrate the EU's 60th anniversary.


PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) Look; they went to the Vatican, and all the EU leaders sat down and listened to the pope like sheep.


ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) Now do you understand why they won't let Turkey join the EU? This is clearly and openly a crusader alliance.

KENYON: Western leaders are used to hearing themselves described as a crusader alliance by ISIS or al-Qaida leaders but not by the president of a longtime NATO ally. As voting day approaches, Turks can't help noticing that all the biggest rallies are on the yes side. No events are much smaller affairs. Dozens of people gathered the other day for a no march across the Golden Horn.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Turkish).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Speaking Turkish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Turkish).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Speaking Turkish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Turkish).

KENYON: This group has a particular beef with giving Erdogan more power. They don't like what they call his love of mega-projects. A new bridge and new tunnels are crossing the Bosporus Strait, and highways are cutting through forests on the city's outskirts. No campaigner Cigdem Cigdamli says Turkey needs more checks and balances against the destruction of green spaces, not fewer.

CIGDEM CIGDAMLI: After this referendum, if we can't stop it, the power of this one-man regime will be much more stronger, and it will not be possible to stop the megaprojects and urban and rural destruction.

KENYON: The group walks across the Galata Bridge, handing out flyers to bemused fishermen. Police are eyeing them warily. Ruling party officials say events like this prove there's a level playing field. At a briefing on behalf of the yes campaign, ruling AK Party lawmaker Mustafa Sentop said the main opposition known as the CHP is keeping its head down for its own strategic reasons. He's heard through an interpreter.

MUSTAFA SENTOP: (Through interpreter) CHP prefer to run campaigns with a lower profile because the main opposition party doesn't want to go out on the field that much. They have indoor meetings.

KENYON: Overshadowing everything is Turkey's ongoing state of emergency since last summer's failed coup. More than a hundred thousand people have been sacked or arrested. People are afraid to join no rallies, critics say, and the opposition can't get its voice out in the media either with national TV coverage tilting heavily toward the yes campaign.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Turkish).

KENYON: A song celebrating modern Turkey's secular founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, blares from an opposition CHP in Istanbul's Kadikoy neighborhood. No campaigner Nahide Boyacioglu says it's easier for the opposition to campaign here than in pro-government areas.

NAHIDE BOYACIOGLU: (Through interpreter) We have had some problems in places where the ruling party dominates, and even here, people tear down our signs but not very often. We try to tell them Erdogan's party has been in charge 15 years with all the power. Why do they need more?

KENYON: The yes camp says the change is good for Turkey no matter who's in charge. No voters aren't convinced, noting that under the new system, Erdogan could conceivably still be in power in the early 2030s. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLAKO SONG, "MOONCHILD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.