God comes first in this mountaintop village on Turkey’s Black Sea, the saying goes. Then, according to adoring villagers, comes local boy Recep Tayyip Erdogan, today one of the most transformational, polarizing figures in modern Turkish history.
Nestled among tea plantations, the village of Dumankaya in the rugged province of Rize oozes the fervent loyalty that has propelled Erdogan, 63, to one electoral triumph after another since he took power as prime minister in 2003.
Now the Turkish president is hoping that pious Muslim bedrocks of support like Dumankaya will help deliver him another win, this time in Turkey’s April 16 referendum. The vote could extend Erdogan’s rule for many years and, in his opponents’ view, further erode Turkey’s challenged democracy.
For many Turks, Sunday’s vote on whether to expand the powers of the Turkish presidency is not a dry constitutional matter. For people on both sides of the political divide, it’s all about the outsized ambitions of one man, Erdogan.
Fisherman Birol Bahtiyar, wearing a cap emblazoned with a “Yes” slogan, dismissed suggestions by opponents that the referendum was a power-grab by Erdogan or that he was leading Turkey into a one-man regime.
“In the past 14 years, Turkey stepped into a new age,” said the 49-year-old as he and his friends fixed their nets at Rize’s harbor. “I will vote yes because I trust him. There is no such thing as a one-man rule. We still have an assembly, a parliament. We have confidence [in the proposed system].”
The constitutional amendments would shift Turkey’s system from a parliamentary to a presidential system, in one of the most radical political changes since the Turkish republic was established in 1923. Opponents fear that the changes will give the president near-absolute powers with little oversight, turning the NATO country that once vied for European Union membership into an authoritarian state.
For ‘the people’
But for the socially conservative and pious residents of Rize, such arguments ring hollow. To them, the region’s most famous son is a reformist leader who has brought unprecedented economic growth and prosperity to Turkey and provided improved health care, education and large infrastructure projects.
In Erdogan — whose parents and siblings were born in Dumankaya (Smoky Rock in English for the fog that frequently hangs over it) — they see a local who has given a greater voice to the pious — who felt marginalized under previous governments, which enforced secular laws barring Islamic headscarves in schools and public offices.
They believe Erdogan — who has ruled Turkey for over a decade, first as prime minister and as president since 2014 — is a strong leader who has provided political stability, ending the political squabbles that plagued Turkey in the 1990s.
Voters in Rize have backed Erdogan by a wide margin in a long string of election victories and promise to do so again on April 16. They support his ambition to turn Turkey into one of the world’s top powers by 2023, when the country marks its centenary.
Mehmet Celik, a Dumankaya resident, sees the president as a larger-than-life trail-blazer and fighter against Turkey’s perceived enemies.
“For us, God comes first. Then comes Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” said Celik. “He supports the people and the people support him.”
Two sides to coup
Celik believes Erdogan rescued Turkey from last summer’s failed coup and feels that a strong presidency would protect Turkey from greater calamity. Turkey has blamed the coup on the followers of the U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a charge Gulen has denied.
“They [the Gulenists] would have ruined us. If we had fallen into their hands, we would have been destroyed. Why would we not vote ‘Yes?”‘ Celik said. “If our president did not exist, we would have been in a miserable state.”
But critics say Erdogan has used the coup attempt to purge his critics. More than 150,000 people have been taken into custody, fired or forced to retire from Turkey’s armed forces, judiciary, education system and other public institutions since the coup attempt.
Ismail Erdogan, a cousin of Erdogan and the chief administrator of Dumankaya, points at a long list of projects either launched or completed under Erdogan’s rule, including a major coastal highway, the Recep Tayyip Erdogan University, a hospital.
“He brought infrastructure, natural gas. He is bringing an airport. We had never seen such things. He brought a giant hospital,” Ismail Erdogan said, describing his cousin as a serious child who liked to talk about soccer and commanded respect even at an early age.
Speaking in a recently renovated local government building in Dumankaya, Ismail Erdogan also praised his cousin for standing up to Europe, following a dispute last month over restrictions imposed by the Netherlands and Germany on Turkish ministers holding referendum campaigns there.
“Let’s not [join] the European Union, we don’t need it,” Ismail Erdogan said. “We are self-sufficient.”
Erdogan campaigned in Rize recently to court the votes of his fellow townsmen, symbolically launching the start of construction for an airport that will serve Rize and the neighboring province of Artvin. In a speech laced with nationalist and anti-European rhetoric, Erdogan also promised that the construction of mountain tunnel pass would soon be finished.
Among the crowd of adoring supporters — waving flags and banners emblazoned with the word “Yes” — was 22-year-old religious studies student Leyla Erdeniz. Her affection for Erdogan runs so deep that she moved to Rize to study at the university named after him.
“A ‘Yes’ result will be very beneficial to our country,” the university student said. “There will be no trace left of the old Turkey.”