Istanbul—Cups of tea and trays of sugar cubes are passed around in a crowded meeting in Istanbul’s Sisli district on a damp and cold winter night. Dozens of activists are gathered around a conference table littered with buttons and stickers, some with a simple “Hayir,” or “No,” on them, others with the slogan “No to a One-Man Regime.” The fliers are rainbow-colored, a homage to the 1988 campaign to remove Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet from power in that year’s plebiscite.
The activists are inspired by that campaign—indeed, the government must be sensitive to the echoes, since a documentary about the Chilean plebiscite was pulled off the air in Turkey this year—as they plan for what will be their first citywide forum to mobilize against an April 16 constitutional referendum called by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
If the referendum passes, Turkey would adopt a presidential system akin to the one in the United States, but without the checks and balances that limit presidential power. There would no longer be a prime minister, and the cabinet would be appointed directly by the president, without approval from Parliament. The president could unilaterally dissolve Parliament, effectively binding that body to his own political agenda. Erdogan could issue presidential decrees even in the absence of a state of emergency. The judiciary would be tasked with ensuring that those decrees do not infringe on fundamental rights, but under the new system, the president would appoint, without the need for parliamentary approval, the majority of judges appointed to the Constitutional Court, and he would have a strong say in other top judicial bodies. Erdogan could run for two more terms after his current one ends in 2019, potentially ruling until 2029, with many of the de facto powers he has assumed being enshrined in the constitution.
Every few days, small groups of activists gather across Istanbul—at squares, bus stations, and metro stops crowded with commuters—hoping to reach voters who are uneasy about the amendments but perhaps unaware they are not alone. For Eyhan Ehsan, a barrel-chested, self-described nationalist dressed in a dark suit with the Turkish flag pinned to his collar, the biggest worry is security. “We are already in danger because of what we are doing,” he says. “We need to make sure we have security at this thing. We need people patting down anyone coming in. Anything can happen.”
The activists represent a spectrum of the grassroots opposition to Erdogan—from longtime leftists to secular Kemalists, Kurds, and a handful who describe themselves as Islamists—all now facing a populist leader who has branded them as traitors and terrorists.
The last such public mobilization against Erdogan was in 2013, when a development project threatening a green space in Taksim Square—considered by many to be the secular center of Istanbul—sparked weeks of protests, eliciting a deadly police response in which four were killed. But those days seem tame compared to today, says Ibrahim, an activist with the “No” campaign, who has watched as the threat of terror attacks and mass arrests have pushed fellow activists away from the public sphere. “People are afraid to come together, to do politics, and it’s harder for us to reach people now. But still, this referendum politicized people,” says Ibrahim, who declined to give his last name. “After this, there will be a very small window left for opposition to Erdogan.”