At a rally in the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir in Turkey’s southeast this past Saturday, President Erdogan made his pitch to Kurdish voters: vote “yes” in the referendum on expanding the powers of the presidency on April 16. Reuters reports:
The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), strongly supported in the southeast but cast by Erdogan as an extension of the PKK, was among the targets of the president’s ire during a rallying speech in the region’s largest city Diyarbakir.
“These supporters of the PKK keep on saying ‘peace, peace, peace’. Does empty talk bring peace? Could there be peace with those who walk around with weapons in their hands?” he said.
“We are the guardians of peace, we are the guardians of freedoms,” he said as a crowd of several thousand in the city center waved Turkish flags.
It would be tempting to note the April Fool’s Day timing as uniquely appropriate for Erdogan’s outreach speech, but the idea that Erdogan’s AKP are the “guardians of peace” is less outlandish than it might first appear to a casual observer. While the pro-Kurdish HDP is campaigning for a “no” vote in the constitutional referendum, “the Kurds” in Turkey are not a political monolith. The AKP has always garnered support from the large swathes of conservative, religious Kurds who reject the leftist and secularist Kurdish nationalist movements and who instead find the AKP’s more Ottomanist and Islamist vision for Turkey to be deeply appealing. Even Erdogan’s claim to being a peacemaker might have some resonance with an otherwise skeptical Kurdish audience.
Erdogan has also gone out of his way to vilify Europe during the campaign—another gambit designed to fire up his base. From a speech yesterday:
“With this determination, we will never allow three or four European fascists … from harming this country’s honor and pride,” Erdogan told a packed crowd of flag-waving supporters in the Black Sea city of Rize, where his family comes from.
“I call on my brothers and sisters voting in Europe…give the appropriate answer to those imposing this fascist oppression and the grandchildren of Nazism.”
He went on to threaten to run another referendum soon, on bringing back the death penalty to Turkey:
“The European Union will not like this. But I don’t care what Hans, George or Helga say, I care what Hasan, Ahmet, Mehmet, Ayse and Fatma say. I care what God says… If necessary, we will take this issue to another referendum as well,” he told the rally.
All these efforts hint at the likelihood that the upcoming vote will be closer than most anticipate. Though reliable public polls have been hard to come by, there’s no doubt that the AKP is keeping close tabs on opinion, and is probably not thrilled at what it sees. Erdogan’s campaign, careening from conciliation to raw populism, is an attempt to delicately thread a needle ahead of what will likely be a nail-biter on April 16.