(CNSNews.com) – Ahead of a fiercely-contested referendum Sunday on constitutional changes that would give him greater powers, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Turks Thursday to give a clear response to his critics in the West by voting “yes.”
Depicting himself as a victim of Western media and governments, he asked supporters at a rally in northern Turkey, “Don’t we need to give a [fitting] answer to them from Turkey?”
“With God’s permission, on Sunday night, Europe will hear our voice,” the Hurriyet daily quoted Erdogan as saying. “They will hear it all right. Then, they will say that Turkey is not a country to mess with.”
Turkey’s Islamist leader has tousled with several European governments over their reluctance to allow his surrogates, including cabinet ministers, to campaign for a “yes” vote among ethnic Turks in their countries.
His allegations of Nazi-like behavior have drawn sharp criticism, particularly from Germany, which is home to some three million ethnic Turks.
At another rally later Thursday in the same part of the country, Erdogan expanded on his rift with European governments, accusing them of closing their doors to his ministers but opening them to members of terrorist groups that Turks is fighting against.
He depicted Europe as anti-Islam, and predicted that five million Turks who have settled there will “shape the future of Europe.”
(In similar vein last month, Erdogan encouraged Turks living in Europe to “have five children, not three,” describing them as continent’s “future.”)
On Sunday, Turks will vote for or against an 18-article constitutional reform proposal that would move the country from a parliamentary system to an executive presidential one – a prospect that alarms critics, given Erdogan’s already increasingly autocratic behavior.
If the referendum passes, Erdogan could remain in power until 2029 – an effective tenure of 26 years, given that he was prime minister from 2003-2014 before being elected to what used to be a largely ceremonial presidency.
Opinion polling has produced varying results, with both “yes” and “no” ahead at various times but in most cases with neither enjoying a substantial lead. The most recent rolling average of Turkish polls, compiled by a British-Turkish journalist known as “James in Turkey,” puts the “yes” camp slightly ahead, by 50.6 points to 49.4.
Voting by eligible Turks living outside the country ended on April 9, and electoral authorities announced Thursday that of 2.9 million registered Turks abroad, some 1.3 million had cast votes at 120 diplomatic missions in 57 countries. Those votes will be counted on Sunday.
The “yes” campaign, which has enjoyed exceptional media coverage, is backed by Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party and the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
The “no” camp includes the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
(The HDP has been the target of a government crackdown and its leaders are behind bars. The party, the fourth largest in parliament after 2015 elections, denies Erdogan’s allegations of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization.)
Erdogan has portrayed his critics, including those in the West, and the “no” camp as sympathizers of or collaborators with the PKK and the U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom he calls a terrorist, accuses of masterminding a failed coup attempt last summer, and wants extradited from the U.S.
He told supporters at one of Thursday’s rallies that a “yes” vote would enable Turkey to fight terrorist groups and their sponsors “in a more determined manner.”
“We have commenced a grand struggle in order to scrape the terrorist organizations off. In our struggle against [Gulen’s movement], the PKK, and DHKP-C [a Marxist group that claimed responsibility for a bombing at the entrance to the U.S. Embassy in Ankara in 2013], we have not showed mercy to anyone; we will not do that,” he said.
“We have neutralized around 11,000 terrorists. We will break their backs,” Erdogan continued. “We buried them and continue to do so. We buried them into the ditches they dug in the southeast,” he added, referring to the part of Turkey where most Kurds live.
Since last July’s coup bid, Erdogan’s government has imposed a state of emergency, shut down more than 200 media outlets, about 1,000 schools and 15 universities, and dismissed more than 130,000 civil servants including teachers, U.N. rights experts reported Thursday.
At a recent House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said voters taking part in Turkey’s referendum would be deciding whether they want a radical, Islamic and “terrorist-oriented government” or whether they want their country to remain a friend of the United States.
The hearing heard strong criticism of Erdogan from witnesses, and warnings that a “yes” vote could usher in a system “with few checks and balances” and a weakening of judicial independence.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday the administration was following developments relating to the Turkish referendum very closely and “hope[s] that it’s carried out in such a way that guarantees and strengthens democracy in Turkey.”