Turkish celebrities show their colors ahead of referendum

Turkish celebrities show their colors ahead of referendum

Turks today, residents of a country long-defined by polarization, think in black and white when it comes to politics – a sharp contrast to the hues of gray they take in their daily life and on declarations, be it on tax returns or the number of languages they speak. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the different opinion polls conducted on how people will vote in the constitutional referendum agree that about 87 percent of the voters know already how they will vote. 

With three months until the referendum, the campaigns on both sides appear no more than preaching to the converted. Far from being informative, they are laden with clichés, promises of grandeur and mutual mud-slinging. To an admirer of Charles Dickens, the campaigns sound very much like they are invoking ghosts:

 The naysayers evoke the ghost of the past – the legacy of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – and the aye-sayers evoke the ghost of future, with dreams of the new Turkey, united under a strong leadership, strong economy and strong protection against its enemies, whoever and wherever these dark characters are. 
But one cannot run campaigns on ghosts alone, so the aye camp of Justice and Development Party (AKP) European Volunteers has already started doing what it does best: start a social media campaign based on celebrity endorsement. In the last 48 hours, a number of celebrities and celebrity-wannabes have started a chain reaction on Twitter under the hashtag #bendevarım or #ijoinin.

So football stars such as Rıdvan Dilmen and Arda Turan, as well as teenage heartthrob Muraz Boz, all gave us a glimpse of their political position – not to mention their gaudy couches and awful shirts they wore at their leisure. The short videos showed them explaining why they were going to say yes, and called on a fellow “celebrity” to join in. “Our country is passing through a difficult time – we are launching a new war of independence. We want a strong Turkey. I am in. Are you in Arda?” said the visual that has shown the image of Dilmen.

No sooner had the campaign started than the naysayers responded with a campaign against the celebrities who said “yes.” Referring to Dilmen’s nickname on the football pitch, the Twitterati posted “Do not be tempted by the Devil. Vote No.” The anti-yes celebrities campaign put together Turkey’s least-liked people together and added make-believe text: “I beat up the relatives of the workers who died in a gas explosion in Soma. No legal action was taken. I’m saying ‘yes’ to a strong president,” said a poster featuring the photo of an adviser of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“What we see is a lynching for expressing an opinion,” said Dilmen. “I believe in what I said and I was accused of sucking up to the president. I was insulted and threatened on social media.”

Dilmen’s bitter lament that he was “lynched” came in the wake of an attempted arrest of several young people in Istanbul, who sang a song “Say No” on a ferry in Istanbul. The police attempted to take the young people into custody on the grounds that the song “might contain insults to the president,” but the fellow passengers on the boast stepped in, claiming that they had no complaints that would justify an arrest. Earlier this week, Turkish actress Meltem Cumbul said she would vote no – a lone-wolf initiative that was not linked to any party.

Some of the acid tongues in the traditional and social media seem united in the belief that the opposition will not even be able to come up with a sharp and snappy campaign to oppose the constitutional changes, let alone execute such a campaign on the ground. Ask the average Turk what they remember from the opposition speeches during the constitutional debate, and a small percentage of the informed will cite the speech of Deniz Baykal, the ex-chair of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and Aylin Nazlıaka, who handcuffed herself to the rostrum. If what people remember on behalf of the CHP is a speech by its ousted leader and a show by an expelled ex-deputy, the party should be very concerned about what it can do on the campaign trail.

We are in the early stages of a campaign – perhaps one of the sides will be able to come up with a clear, factual and inspiring campaign. But by then, the people might have already firmly made up their minds.