‘My Parents will Vote for Erdoğan – I Don’t Know Why’Ordinary Turks Anxious and Divided Ahead of Elections
Hugh Pope reports from the provincial Turkish town of Kumluca ahead of an election which is predicted to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from power
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Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections generate excited anticipation of a new dawn among Turkey’s metropolitan elites and in the world beyond. Indeed, a coalition of six reasonable, mostly secular, opposition parties seems closer than ever to ending two decades of rule by the powerful, pro-Islamic and increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
But in southern Kumluca – a quiet farming town of 80,000 inhabitants that voted out Erdoğan’s Ak Party in municipal elections in 2019 – just as many people seem to support Erdoğan as his main opponent Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. There is less excitement and more apathy, alienation and occasional dread.
“Ak Party won’t let go easily,” says a day-labourer. “People profiting from Tayyip [Erdoğan] being in power have a lot to lose. And there are people whom the Government fired or put in jail, who want to get even. Sometimes I get scared thinking about what could happen.”
Secularists and liberals will celebrate when Erdoğan eventually leaves the national stage, allowing Turkey to rebalance its strained relations with Europe and the West. But the opposition coalition is untested and Erdoğan’s just-as-numerous power base of pious Muslim conservatives, who believe he restored their self-respect and public dignity after seven decades of secularist oppression, will doubtless stay loyal.
That could spell trouble in this country of 85 million people, even if many ordinary people don’t want to even contemplate it. They already feel traumatised by years of economic meltdown, a decade of dealing with 3.5 million refugees and other overspill from the Syria War, an unresolved, four-decade old conflict in the mostly Kurdish south-east and the horrors of February’s earthquake that killed at least 56,000 people, mostly in Turkey but also over the Syrian border.
In eastern Turkey, pro-Erdoğan parties stoned a prominent opposition leader’s campaign bus a week before the 14 May vote – if no presidential candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, a second round will be held on 28 May – and other attacks have been reported too.
Two of Erdoğan’s advisors, one of them Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, have said an opposition win would be the equivalent of a coup. Given Erdoğan’s merciless crackdown after a botched 2016 coup attempt that he blamed on a former ally, people on both sides know what that means.
“I tell you, we don’t need democracy here – what we need is a dictator, and that person is the reis, the chief!” says the right-wing owner of a well-stocked Kumluca stationary shop, using the mafia boss-like title Erdoğan’s supporters often employ when talking about him. “Otherwise, what are we going to do with all these [Kurdish] terrorists, I ask you?”
People close to Kumluca’s ‘opposition’ mayor since 2019 say he has only faced occasional bureaucratic harassment by the central authorities. But elsewhere in Turkey there have been punitive law-suits against newly elected opponents of Ak Party and widescale detentions of elected officials in the Kurdish-majority south-east.
People often talk softly when criticising the Government. One man shares that his critical social media post resulted in mysterious a warning telephone call from Ankara, so those who spoke to me over the past week remain anonymous.
“What I want is some predictability – I want to know that contracts will be enforced, a return to rule of law,” says the owner of a central hardware store.
Many are aware how far the country has fallen down global lists tracking respect for civil liberties and human rights. One example: Turkey dropped to 165th out of 180 countries in the recent Reporters Without Frontiers ranking for 2023, down from 100th in 2002.
While Kumluca may be unique in its municipal monuments to tomatoes, marrows and peppers – its greenhouses make a great lake of glistening plastic and glass between the mountains and the sea – the election is being fought over many of the same issues as elsewhere.
Erdoğan’s most effective claim to public support remains triumphant infrastructure projects.
A computer-repair shop owner asks: “Why do you think there were no images of collapsing hospitals during COVID in Turkey? Because of all the new hospitals he built, we had enough beds!” He topped off a long list of achievements by turning his curved screen to show off the powerful new Kızılelma unmanned fighter aircraft, the latest innovation from Turkey’s drone industry, now playing a critical role in regional wars.
And then there’s the highway. When Erdoğan party came to power in 2002, the journey from Kumluca to the provincial capital of Antalya took two hours along a rough, single-lane road winding round where mountains plunged into the Mediterranean Sea. Now the trip takes just 90 minutes along a smooth, four-lane highway that passes through several new tunnels, one more than a kilometer long.
“Yes, the road’s good,” says a shepherd down from his mountain flock to buy supplies in town. “But he says he did it all. That was our tax money! He’s been there 23 years now, that’s enough.”
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Less controversial locally are Ak Party’s pro-Islamic policies. These have made it normal for state officials to go all together to Friday prayers and for women to wear headscarves in public buildings. A big mosque has risen next to the fairground and a large training school for imams sits on a ridge at the entrance to town. Secularists grumble but nobody has stopped shops and a few restaurants from serving alcohol.
Most ordinary people don’t complain much either about the hate language Erdoğan and his allies have used in the campaign towards ethnic, religious and sexual minorities and also the West.
The weakest point in Erdoğan’s record, however, is his management of the economy. Over the past decade, the Turkish lira has slumped to one-tenth of its dollar value in 2013. Traders are flummoxed by inflation – theoretically now an annual 43% – and other echoes of even worse disruptions to commerce in the 1970s and 1990s.
“Nothing ever changes, really – nobody here cares much about who wins,” says the floor manager of a big wood factory on Kumluca’s outskirts. “Our business is just struggling to survive.”
The ambivalence that underlies many people’s expectations of the elections is epitomised by a 19-year-old man from eastern Iskenderun, displaced to Kumluca by the February earthquake and now working to support his parents and a sibling for half the minimum wage in Kumluca’s rough-and-ready industrial park.
“A boulder hit our building and I was trapped for nine hours until someone got a beam off my knees,” he says. “We had no help at all for two days. The earthquake was a nightmare. No government could have dealt with it.” He shows his fingers on which the nails were beginning to grow back after he lost them digging other victims out of the rubble.
“My parents will vote for Erdoğan. I don’t know why. But I’m not voting for anybody. I look at their programmes and I just can’t see what difference it will make. I’m a car repairman, but I know petrol cars will soon be a thing of the past. So I’m working all day and studying in the evening. It’s my only hope.”
Hugh Pope is a Brussels-based writer and advocate for sortition-based democracy. He was a reporter based in Turkey for three decades and is the author of books on the country and the region