March 16, 2017 5:46 AM EDT

As Turkey prepares for an April 16 referendum on a constitutional overhaul that would hand more power to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish expatriates are pushing back. Germany and the Netherlands–home to sizable Turkish minorities–have blocked pro-Erdogan rallies, triggering a sharp response from the Turkish leader. Here’s what’s driving the controversy.


The row began on March 2, when German authorities decided to call off a speech due to be given by Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag. Weeks later, the Netherlands barred Turkish ministers from attending a rally in Rotterdam, sparking condemnation from Erdogan, who accused the two countries of Nazi-like behavior.


For his domestic audience, the confrontation casts Erdogan in one of his favorite roles: that of the underdog. His spokesman slammed the Netherlands for “succumbing to anti-Islam racists,” as the government sought to stir nationalist sentiments ahead of the referendum.


With recent polls showing a narrowly contested campaign, the rhetoric reflects the high-stakes battle over the referendum. A yes vote will scrap the current parliamentary system of government and replace it with one dominated by a powerful presidency, bolstering Erdogan’s already considerable authority. For his critics, the vote is their last chance to avoid an expanded clampdown on dissent that began following a failed military coup attempt in July 2016.

This appears in the March 27, 2017 issue of TIME.

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