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Istanbul on edge as Turkey’s president claims victory in a referendum that would grant him immense power

ISTANBUL — April 16 felt like the first day of summer in the city. A bright day with lots of sun; streets bustling with people on their way to local schools used as polling stations; the sense of immense excitement about the results of Sunday’s presidential referendum palpable in the air.

Today, people were asked whether they were into the idea of Turkey turning into a presidential system from a parliamentary democracy. Late Sunday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed victory in a close referendum that will likely grant him sweeping new powers; critics say this will inch the country closer to authoritarianism while supporters argue it will make the executive branch more efficient. Since a failed July coup that cost the lives of 248 people, 47,000 people have been jailed and 120,000 fired or suspended from their jobs, Reuters reported.


In Zografeion, a Greek high school at the heart of Cihangir, Istanbul’s bohemian quarter, the corridors were packed. It was shortly after 10 a.m., and an elderly man was frantically searching for his polling box number on the electorate list attached to the school’s door.

Three policemen stationed at the entrance watched with little interest this man who apparently had forgotten to register his home address before the legal deadline and was thus barred from voting. A blonde woman carrying an infant entered the building just after the elderly man left with a sad expression on his face. She, however, seemed overjoyed.

Outside, on the roads leading to Istiklal Avenue and Gezi Park, the feeling of the first day of summer persisted. I watched early voters decked in their new summer clothes, searching for the best outdoor cafes to take refuge in whilst entering the anxious mood of expecting the results of a referendum with the power to change Turkey’s future.

“I strongly value separation of powers and I just want to continue to enjoy living in this country,” Derya Demir, a former gallerist who voted in the seaside neighborhood of Emirgan, told VICE News.

Like her, many young Turks posted images of themselves voting on Instagram, asking their followers to do the same. (The participation rate in the referendum proved to be a dazzling 85 percent or more, so calls for mobilization seemed to have worked.)


But it was the image of Nusret Gokce, the Turkish meat chef who had become a social media phenomenon with his “salting the meat” pose, that created a frenzy in Turkey’s digital world. The social media star posted a picture of himself throwing the envelope into the ballot box in the pose of a chef salting a piece of meat. “It is done,” he wrote next to the image.

In the city’s luxurious Nisantasi neighborhood, I visited Nilufer Hatun highschool, packed with hundreds of voters. A stand selling soda was doing good business at the entrance.

Afterwards, in a coffee shop I met Emrah Usta, a specialist who works for the Turkish Presidency. “This is an extremely important referendum,” he told VICE News. “This is an opportunity to shape a new system in Turkey. This system will influence the future of the country.”

After the polls closed at 5 p.m., results started pouring in: more than 60 percent seemed to have voted yes, but that number started dropping swiftly in the course of a nail-biting two hours when all the country watched elections specials on the telly.

By 8 pm, it became clear that the margin of the Yes vote was less than 3 percent (1,293,033 votes in total). Half an hour later, the president called the prime minister to congratulate him for the win.

Streets were empty in Nisantasi when I left the coffee shop and started walking back to Taksim. People were still glued to their television sets in their living rooms, watching the results like an NBA Final. I learned that the opposition parties, who dispute the results, will demand a recount of the vote, the first sign of a long night in the city.


The other piece of news was equally interesting: Taksim was closed to car traffic as I walked near it. Around the square, car convoys were honking, celebrating the results. I overheard a group of riot cops receiving instructions on the radio, not to allow anyone to celebrate or protest the results.

At 9.30 pm sharp, I walked towards Taksim Square, now surrounded by activists. “We have made you President!” one of them shouted. It was still hot when I reached my apartment in Cihangir. From the silence of my living room I heard neighbors banging pots as a protest against the results, as well as car convoys on the street, honking to celebrate.

Then it started to rain in the city: an unsettling day of political drama had just reached its fidgety finale.


Kaya Genc is an essayist from Istanbul. He is the author of “Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey” (I.B. Tauris). Follow him on Twitter @kayagenc