In the small town of Izmit, two hours from Istanbul, a crowd of about 2,000 people is waiting to see the woman who has dared to say no to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Meral Aksener is running late, but the crowd is patient. Security is tight, the space is small and men have climbed trees to get a better view of the renegade politician.
In Turkey’s knife-edge referendum, scheduled for April 16, 60-year-old Ms Aksener is the improbable wild card. Until recently a rising star in the moribund Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, she broke from the party leadership by rejecting a call to support Mr Erdogan’s constitutional reforms in parliament.
The MHP’s support was key for Mr Erdogan’s centre-right Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party getting the referendum put to a national ballot. The poll will ask Turks to reshape the way their country has been run since its birth, placing the presidency at the centre of most decisions, rather than parliament.
Ms Aksener’s defiance was not enough to derail the parliamentary vote. But as a political outcast with strong support in the nationalist movement, restive over its leadership’s decision to back Mr Erdogan, she is an unpredictable threat to his biggest political gamble.
Fervently nationalist, MHP voters could swing the referendum for Mr Erdogan, and he has wooed this crucial constituency with a hardened stance against Kurdish separatists, and by recasting a recent fracas with Germany and the Netherlands as an issue of Turkish pride.
When she finally arrives in Izmit, her supporters mob her, reaching out to touch her, shaking her hand and paying their respects. She bounds on to a small stage, grabs a microphone and leads the crowd through a gripping 30-minute speech, cracking jokes, asking questions that make them roar, goading Mr Erdogan and his prime minister Binali Yildirim for their grand vision of reforming Turkey’s constitution.
Her goal, she says later in an interview, is simple: to defeat the referendum designed to consolidate Mr Erdogan’s power. But she faces a monumental struggle.
Her rallies have been few and far between — venues booked for weeks cancel at the last minute. At one place the electricity was cut off just as she arrived. Roads have been blocked and her followers harassed, permits for political gatherings cancelled, or the rallies banned.
“I’ve been in politics for many years, and I have seen similar situations — when you come across such pressure, I have had to find more creative ways to reach more people,” she says, a reference to a grassroots campaign that has seen women using henna to paint the Turkish flag on their palms and posting them on Twitter and Facebook.
“Because the television and the press is closed to me, I use social media as one of the channels to reach the people. I’ve been going door-to-door, and the message appears to be getting out.”
It is a fate shared by those campaigning against Mr Erdogan’s referendum. With his iron grip on most media, the mainstream opposition has complained that its voice is smothered under an avalanche of “Yes”. The pro-Kurdish political party, the HDP, which has also vowed to oppose the referendum, has nearly a dozen MPs jailed, while most of the others are being prosecuted on suspicions of supporting a terrorist group.
Meanwhile, Mr Erdogan is on television several times a day, hinting at the chaos that could ensue if he is denied a victory, with warnings of a country riven by turmoil charting an uncertain course through a war in Syria, a secret army of Islamists loyal to a rival imam and the hypocrisy of the west. His rallies attract tens of thousands, drawn by his charisma and managed by a party apparatus that has not lost a major election since 2001.
And yet, the referendum remains too close to call, according to Turkey’s five biggest pollsters. Anywhere between 14 and 18 per cent of Turks remain undecided, making the plebiscite an electoral risk. Ms Aksener estimates she could sway some 80 per cent of the country’s nationalist voters — some 4.5m people — into voting “No”. (In the last national elections, her erstwhile party garnered about 12 per cent of the national vote.)
Mr Erdogan’s internal polling shows this to be unlikely, according to a Turkish official familiar with the secret polls. But before Ms Aksener was expelled last year, it was already clear she was capable of stealing votes by electrifying a nationalist movement that had seen its support dwindle. One pollster who described her as the only person capable of rivalling Mr Erdogan was promptly jailed.
Ms Aksener, who is aware of the risks she faces, is keen to point out that while she is pushing people to vote “No, 80 million times”, she is challenging the system of change, not the man who inhabits the presidency.
“We do not see what is on offer as a presidential system — what is being offered to us is what you see in Africa, or Latin America, where a person is given a lot of power and turns into a dictator, and takes away the freedoms of the people,” she said. “My objection is independent of Mr Erdogan — it is that these sorts of regimes are brought in by elections, but they don’t go away with elections.”