Young Turkish activists prove it will be hard for Erdogan to shut down free expression

Pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) and "Hayir" ("No") supporters attend a campaign for the upcoming referendum in Istanbul, Turkey, April 13, 2017.

Pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) and "Hayir" ("No") supporters attend a campaign for the upcoming referendum in Istanbul, Turkey, April 13, 2017. 

Osman Orsal/Reuters

Update: Turkey narrowly voted in favor of a constitutional referendum on April 16 that will give expanded powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Young women in colorful masks shouting “No!” and university students beating drums and singing songs about freedom were among the thousands who recently marched on Istiklal Street, a popular thoroughfare in Istanbul, to campaign against boosting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s powers in a constitutional referendum.

The atmosphere in the city has become electric in the run-up to this Sunday's vote. Both sides say the fate of the country is at stake.

The president’s supporters are calling for a “yes” vote that would dismantle Turkey’s parliamentary system in favor of a presidential one that could keep Erdogan in power until 2029. They say it's important to increase security in the country and to ensure its future economic progress.

But those in the "no" camp counter that the measure is a power grab by an increasingly authoritarian ruler — and they’re finding creative ways to stand up to a president who’s been widely accused of cracking down on free expression.

“No" campaigners have plastered city walls with colorful political graffiti mocking Erdogan as a clown and showing the Turkish flag burning as a child weeps. On the streets, activists blast music with lyrics like, "For a democratic nation, say 'no.'" And online, they flood social media with their message too.

Fueling the art and music are young people, who say the referendum is a matter of their own future and the future of Turkish democracy. This is no small bloc either: Half the country’s 79 million people are under 31. And for many of them, creative expression is an important way to get their political message across.

“Art is a necessary tool for us,” said Gizem Demir, a human rights activist and student at Bilgi University, who recorded a protest song against the referendum with the university’s Women's Club. “Creative methods always grab more attention.”

It's not always welcome attention.

Speaking out against Erdogan comes with risks. Protesters have plastered photos of jailed artists and politicians who oppose the measure at select transport hubs. Officials have banned a Kurdish song encouraging a “no” vote. (The subtitle to this song reads, "Playing this song in Turkey will land you in jail.") Videos of police questioning women who spoke out against the referendum on a ferry have gone viral.

Erdogan’s crackdown on dissent is nothing new, say opponents, pointing to events after last year’s attempted coup that saw more than 140,000 people jailed or fired — many of them innocent of anything more than supporting opposition political factions. Turkey also clamped down on the press, arresting journalists and shutting down news outlets. The country is now the leading jailor of journalists.

Still, the government’s reaction to the “no” campaign has been alarming, said Bogazici University Literature Professor Ghazi Mehmet Emin Adanali.

In Turkey in the 1970s, protest art was common, according to Adanali. Now those who march in the streets holding signs, paint political graffiti and sing protest songs are flirting with imprisonment.

“You could draw a prime minister in a bikini then,” he said. “Now there’s a witch hunt to homogenize society. It’s unlawful and unconstitutional.”

Related: Is Turkey's referendum a vote for more efficient government, or a power grab?

Rahmi, who declined to provide his last name out of fear of repercussions, said he thinks the ballot measure will be successful and that it will put dissent under even more pressure.

"I believe that 'yes' will win, but I am going to vote ‘no’ — it's a pity that people are going to vote yes," he said. "I’ve never voted for Erdogan — I don’t like his politics. For example, he has sent many journalists to prison just because they were critical of his policies, and if ‘yes’ wins he will put more people into prison." 

He added that it’s not just the government putting pressure on free expression. Turkey has taken a turn toward religious conservatism since Erdogan came to power in 2003. Rahmi pointed to the beer he was sipping at a local café, and explained that drinking it in the open was an act of defiance against growing societal pressure not to enjoy such pleasures.

“You could draw a prime minister in a bikini then. Now there’s a witch hunt to homogenize society. It’s unlawful and unconstitutional.”

Others agree, bemoaning that a key legacy of Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — the separation of religion and the state — is being dismantled. They feel the changes in their daily lives.

Goksu Isik, a 20-year-old medical student, said she feels pressure even in Westernized Istanbul to cover her legs, according to conservative customs. That's why she was out on the streets recently pushing people to vote "no."

“As a woman I don’t feel comfortable wearing what I want in most areas of the city anymore,” she said. “I’m here campaigning because I’m young — I can make people change their minds if they see my worries.”

She's hoping to reach the estimated 18 percent of those under 27 who don't plan to vote, a cohort that could decide the referendum, which has the "yes" camp leading by a razor-thin margin, according to Gezici Research, an Istanbul-based polling firm.

Convincing those young Turks to go to the polls requires some creativity.

In Turkey, it's hard these days to avoid being ensnared in the soundtrack and landscape of the vote.

Seyit Turan, a 28-year-old hairdresser, works in a salon next to a neighborhood park with walls covered in colorful graffiti that said "Yes!" and "No, for the homeland."

He said his mind, though, is made up.

"Before our country was full of garbage, but now we don’t have any problem like this," he said, explaining why he will vote "yes." "There are a lot of reasons like this, like better health facilities." 

Others say it’s time for change. Turkey, a NATO member, has been the target of dozens of terrorist attacks by Kurdish separatists and ISIS militants in the past two years, while its military fights Kurdish forces in eastern Turkey and Kurds and jihadis in Syria and Iraq.

Kurds know well how dangerous opposition political speech can be.

Musa Gungor, a 25-year-old security guard and ethnic Kurd, listened to “no” campaigners who stood beside photos of jailed Kurdish leaders taped on the ground in Kadikoy, a neighborhood on the eastern side of the Bosporus, a waterway that separates the city as well as Europe and Asia. Next to the “no” campaign was the “yes” booth, where campaigners played pro-government music.

Gungor said his father, Metin, was a math teacher for 17 years but the government fired him after the foiled coup, accusing him of ties to Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Muslim cleric in exile in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan has accused of trying to overthrow him.

“My father has nothing to do with Gulenists,” Gungor said, shaking his head as he eyed the photos of jailed leaders. “If the referendum passes, wars and terrorist attacks will continue. It’s time this government gives others a chance.”

Still, one thing is clear, said Adanali: Young people’s creative political activism against the referendum shows that free expression will be hard to stamp out in Turkey. It's important, he added, because protest art is a crucial outlet for anger, pain and stress.

“If people are given no opportunities to express their discontent, they may revert to [other] measures," he said. "It’s a relief of stress for youngsters whose lifestyles are under threat.”

Fariba Nawa reported from Istanbul. Ozge Sebzeci also contributed reporting from Istanbul.

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