He’s brought the country forwards, say his supporters; he’s driving it to ruin, say his opponents. The Turkish diaspora in Switzerland is split, judging by a visit to the Turkish embassy in Bern, where Turks are voting on a constitutional referendum.
“About 1,500 over the past two-and-a-half days,” says the policeman on duty when asked how many people have passed the checkpoint in Bern’s embassy district. He is referring to Turkish citizens permitted to enter the closely guarded embassy area and have their say on a set of 18 proposed amendments to the Turkish constitution which will boost the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In addition to the cantonal police officers, uniformed guards from a private Zurich-based security company are making sure that everything runs smoothly in front of and behind the embassy’s thick metal barrier.
One of the private security guards says he’s from Kosovo; his colleague’s from Romania. So far everything’s gone peacefully and without incident, they say.
After checking with embassy staff over the radio, he allows swissinfo.ch into the embassy courtyard to take a couple of pictures.
Those present have travelled from all over Switzerland – with families, partners, in small groups or alone.
One young man with a baseball cap and sunglasses is happy to explain that he was born in Switzerland, has grown up here and is well integrated, but his roots are in Turkey. He doesn’t want to forget that, he says, although he intends to spend the rest of his life in Switzerland.
He doesn’t want to say which way he has voted, but it sounds as though he supports Erdogan. “I voted for a strong Turkey. Our aim is 2023,” he says earnestly, referring to the date of Turkey’s centenary. Until then Erdogan plans to portray himself as the father of a new nation who has boosted production and implemented great infrastructure projects.
Three men of different ages leave the embassy together, followed by three women wearing headscarves and ankle-length garments. One of the women, who says she has lived in Switzerland for 35 years, answers swissinfo.ch’s questions on behalf of the group.
“We voted for the future of our country. Turkey isn’t turning into a dictatorship as the Western media claim,” the young mother says, adding that she can’t understand why her children in Swiss schools are being told that democracy in Turkey isn’t in particularly good shape.
“Turkey’s going in the right direction. Look at how things have developed in recent years while Erdogan’s been in power,” she says.
She is convinced that those people getting arrested in Turkey have only themselves to blame. “We go there every year and don’t have any problems at all.”
‘End of Turkey’
“We both voted no,” admits a young woman with long dark hair, referring to herself and her female friend. They both say they support the opposition party HDP, whose president Selahattin Demirtas and various politicians were arrested in November.
The women say they don’t want a presidential system like that in the home of their Kurdish parents “which would give all the power to just one person”.
“That would be the end of Turkey. The only person to benefit would be Erdogan – certainly not the country. Our parents have been fighting for democratic rights for 20 years. As a result they’ve been through a lot in their old homeland,” said the women, who both grew up in Switzerland.
A Swiss pensioner from Neuchâtel says Erdogan is terrorising the minorities in Turkey “under the pretext of fighting terrorism”. He and his yapping dachshund have had to wait outside the embassy while his Turkish wife, who like Erdogan is a Sunni Muslim, votes no.
Turkish voters in Switzerland
Almost 100,000 Turks who live in Switzerland are eligible to vote. They must cast their vote by April 9 at the embassy in Bern or consulate in Zurich or Geneva.
The result of the referendum on changing the constitution will be announced on April 16.
(Translated from German by Thomas Stephens), swissinfo.ch