ISTANBUL — The scenes of Turkey’s bloody and abortive military coup last July still scar Uskudar, an old waterside district of Istanbul that was a deadly front of violence that night and remains, nearly a year later, a wellspring of the nation’s rage.
Residents nervously recall the armored vehicles that appeared that night, the rattle of gunfire and the snarling of motorcycles whisking the wounded to the hospital. At least 13 people from Uskudar were killed during the attempted coup, a cataclysm in Turkey that left more than 200 people dead, an anxious country betrayed and the government consumed with a vigorous hunt for it enemies.
So it came as some surprise last month when the residents of Uskudar voted to defeat a measure that gave the president greater powers — rejecting a set of constitutional changes that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his allies had pitched to the country as a patriotic response to the treachery in July. That Erdogan has a house in Uskudar and votes in the district made it all the more surprising.
The president’s resolute loyalists ultimately propelled him to a nationwide victory in the referendum, as they have time and again in votes since 2002, defiantly rejecting criticism that the changes doomed Turkey to one-man rule. But the narrow win and the defeat of the measure in places such as Uskudar, as well as in Turkey’s three largest cities, has also prompted an unusual degree of introspection among some supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) — and even a hint of dissent.
In interviews with supporters of the party in Uskudar and elsewhere, there was an acknowledgment that voters had delivered the AKP a message, although its meaning was disputed. Erdogan’s most hardcore advocates brushed off the losses in big cities, insisting that the slim margin was due to campaign blunders or the obdurate views of opposition party voters.
Others, though, conceded that the vote had aggravated unsustainable societal divisions in Turkey. And in more damning, albeit guarded, critiques, the party was accused of arrogance and the government of being fixated on its purge of enemies, which for some had gone too far.
Melih Ecertas, the 30-year-old national youth leader of the AKP, who splits his time between Uskudar and Ankara, the capital, said the party’s “no” voters fell into roughly two camps. They included a cohort loyal to elder statesmen in the party who had been shunted from Erdogan’s inner circle over the past few years — and who had remained noticeably silent during the government’s all-out effort to pass the constitutional changes.
[Inside a nervous Turkish newsroom as the government closes in]
Then there were those who questioned why the party, given its success, felt compelled to pursue such a drastic transformation in Turkey’s system of governance.
“They say, ‘Why the change? We are powerful,’ ” Ecertas said.
In one subtle but high-profile complaint, Abdullah Gul, a founder of the AKP and Turkey’s former president, on Thursday broke the relative silence he had maintained during the referendum campaign and called for a “comprehensive reform process” in Turkey. It was ostensibly a response to a decision by a leading European human rights body to begin monitoring Turkey for the first time in more than a decade. But Gul also appeared to be drawing a contrast between his party’s earlier era — when he was a key figure — and the present.
Reform, he said, “will bring democracy, law and human rights standards closer to universal criteria by rapidly expelling the psychological trauma created by the treacherous July 15 coup.”
Ecertas, the youth leader, was one of the AKP’s most tireless advocates in the run-up to the referendum, shepherding a direct-mail campaign to young Turks that he said reached more than 14 million voters. He used PowerPoint slides and handouts to argue the merits of the constitutional amendments to journalists — changes that converted Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system and brought the country critically needed stability, he said.
Ecertas was among a generation first drawn to politics in the 1990s as Erdogan rose to prominence, revered for his charisma and his vows to champion the values of conservative Muslims in Turkey’s largely secular public sphere.
“My father admired him a lot,” said Ecertas, who was 7 when Erdogan became the mayor of Istanbul. “All of Turkey admired Erdogan.”
Ecertas attended religious schools in Istanbul and Emerson College in Boston as a Fulbright scholar. After university, he formally joined the AKP in 2011, seeing the party as a force for change — not just an Islamist movement advocating for conservatives such as himself, but a challenger to Turkey’s ossified politics and a modernizing force.
The referendum victory was the culmination of the party’s struggles. The day of the vote, he said, “is the day we changed the system, that once forbade religious schools, the Koran. The system will never allow anyone to do anything that the Turkish population doesn’t want.”
Asked about the defeat of the referendum measure in places such as Uskudar — and the AKP members who voted against the party — Ecertas said it was “important to acknowledge and understand all of the ‘no’ voters.”
The AKP seems more likely to plot a path toward victory in the next elections, rather than reflect on the complaints of disaffected supporters, according to Fehmi Koru, a journalist who is close to senior AKP figures and said he had voted with the party since it came to power.
Koru, who has known Abdullah Gul since the two participated in a religious youth movement together, said that when the AKP came to power in 2002, “it was very much interested in making the country more free,” he said. The government “served the people,” he added, saying that “people who voted for the AKP — like me — voted with a clear conscience.”
His disappointment had grown over the past five years because of Turkey’s economic problems, the government’s foreign policy decisions and the feeling that, increasingly, Turkey was “not a united country.” In the aftermath of the coup attempt, his journalist friends were imprisoned as the government widened a crackdown beyond the followers of Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Turkish cleric the authorities accuse of orchestrating the unsuccessful attempt to take over the government.
Cracks were visible in the relationship between Turks and the AKP-led government, Koru said. “When people look at them, they don’t say they are very modest and alleviate the people’s problems. How do I say this — they are too sure of themselves,” he said.
He voted against the referendum measure — partly because a parliamentary system was more in line with Turkey’s history, he said, but also because it was a radical change that appeared designed to serve Erdogan. The president, he said, “loves the people, and the people love him.” But Turkey would be stuck with the changes after Erdogan left the scene.
“This is not good for the country,” he said.
For some AKP supporters in Uskudar, acknowledging Turkey’s malaise did not mean a loss of faith in the president. In shops that stood empty because of the struggling economy, among residents frustrated with a lack of municipal services, there was a conviction that Erdogan would persevere.
The president “is very clever,” said Selen Ulustu, 40, who runs a beauty supplies store. “That’s why he is the winner.”
More importantly, she said, the referendum had clarified a struggle between observant Muslims like her, whose frame of reference was Turkey’s Ottoman history, and Erdogan’s opponents, for whom history began with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey’s modern secular republic. The coup attempt had only sharpened the battle lines.
“There are some people who are not aware of its seriousness,” said Ulustu, adding that she had reported at least eight members of her family to the authorities for being suspected Gulenists.
Down the street from her shop, Huda Ozdemir, 24, who attended university in Uskudar and said she came from a conservative Muslim family, was the kind of voter whom the AKP might have reliably courted in the past.
But she balked at the president’s accumulation of power, at the level of nationalism during the campaign and at what she called the rhetoric of victimhood that the AKP had created in the name of defending conservative women like her.
She voted “no.” And she persuaded her 20-year-old sister, once a determined AKP supporter, to do the same.
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