SHAFAQNA – Mehtap Yoruk used to teach in a nursery school in southeast Turkey, until she was sacked last year in a purge of tens of thousands of state employees. Now, she ekes out a living selling chicken and rice from a food cart on a side street, dreaming of being reunited with her classroom full of children.
That day may never come if Sunday’s referendum grants President Tayyip Erdogan sweeping new powers, she said, scooping rice in a paper plate for a customer.
“If there is a ‘Yes’ in the referendum, it will be much harder for us to be reinstated in our jobs. And these removals will probably expand.”
After an abortive coup in July, Turkish authorities arrested 40,000 people and sacked or suspended 120,000 others from a wide range of professions including soldiers, police, teachers and public servants, over alleged links with terrorist groups.
The vast majority of those people, like Yoruk, say they have nothing to do with the armed attempt to overthrow the government, and are victims of a purge designed to solidify the power of an increasingly authoritarian leader.
The referendum has bitterly divided Turkey. Erdogan argues that strengthening the presidency would avert instability associated with coalition governments, at a time when Turkey faces security threats from Islamist and Kurdish militants.
But his critics fear further drift into authoritarianism, with a leader they see as bent on eroding modern Turkey’s democracy and secular foundations.
Mass detentions immediately after the attempted coup were supported by many Turks, who agreed with Erdogan when he blamed U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen for orchestrating the putsch which killed 240 people, mostly civilians.
But criticism mounted as the arrests widened to include people from all walks of life such as midwives and prison guards in remote parts of Turkey, and to pro-Kurdish opposition lawmakers, effectively leaving the nation’s third-biggest party leaderless.
“These purges are not individual cases at all. This is a systemic phenomenon empowered by an environment of lawlessness. And in the case of a ‘Yes’ win that will only get worse,” said Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a doctor and rights activist dismissed earlier this year.