Tuesday, May 28, 2024
Tuesday, May 28, 2024
Home » Tempest in a Teashop: Turks Bitterly Divided in Erdogan Stronghold Ahead of Presidential Vote

Tempest in a Teashop: Turks Bitterly Divided in Erdogan Stronghold Ahead of Presidential Vote

by Riley Collins

In the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep, a stronghold of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), some voters are ardent supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Others, however, can be just as ferocious in their opposition. With the May 14 first round of the presidential election fast approaching, politics can be just as hot as the steaming chai in a Gaziantep tea shop. 

The Gaziantep castle has survived centuries of invasions, but some of the Roman-era bastions of the formidable edifice in southeastern Turkey did not withstand the destructive force of the February 6 earthquakes. The main stone structure, however, is still there. Perched on a hill, the castle still watches over the old city. 

In this stronghold of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won 63.9 percent of the vote in the 2018 election, well above his 52.6 percent nationwide score. 

“I have supported Recep Tayyip Erdogan since he came to power. And I will continue to do so,” says Hasan Erturk, 60, owner of a tea shop in the square below the fortress. “Insha’allah (God willing), we will see him win again on May 14.” 

Hasan Erturk runs a tea shop in Gaziantep’s old city. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

Polls suggest the Turkish presidential election will be a tight race between Erdogan and his main rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), with some putting the opposition candidate in the lead. 

But Erdogan still has diehard supporters who point to the progress and achievements made during his 20 years in power, including the opening of the Istanbul Airport, new roads, gas and oil projects and financial independence from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  

Erturk is full of praise for his president. “He has done great things. I respect him for all that. No one in history has done so much for the country. He is a true statesman. May God protect him,” he proclaims. 

‘People are afraid of the future’  

At one of the outdoor tables of Erturk’s tea shop, three young men chat as smoke from their cigarettes mingles with the steam from their chais in the spring breeze.  

Fahrettin Keş, 18, will be voting for the first time on May 14, 2023. © Assiya Hamza

“The youth of this country must vote for the future of this country,” says 18-year-old Fahrettin Keş.  

In the first round of the presidential election on May 14, this high school student will be voting for the very first time. “We don’t know where we are going right now. And I doubt the earthquake will change anything. Like many young people, I will vote for Muharrem Ince,” he reveals.  

Ince, the CHP candidate in the 2018 presidential election, raised opposition hopes five years ago when he ran a blistering campaign against Erdogan. He won a respectable 30.6 percent of the nationwide vote and 21.8 percent in Gaziantep.  

But Ince has since formed a new party, the Memleket (Homeland) Party. His last-minute decision to run for the presidency instead of backing the opposition alliance led by Kilicdaroglu could end up throwing a lifeline to Erdogan by splitting the opposition vote. For some young voters, Kilicdaroglu – the soft-spoken, septuagenarian CHP candidate – lacks novelty. 

Across the cobblestone street, Erdogan Kartal, his greying hair contrasting sharply with a jet-black moustache, has ordered his chai. Sitting on a small stool, the retired man in an impeccable blue suit delicately stirs his tea.

Erdogan Kartal (left) stirs his chai on a square in Gaziantep’s old city. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

“Twenty years ago, the country was better off,” laments the former civil servant. “Now there is no future. People are afraid of the future. People are fleeing.”  

He seems resigned. Almost bitter. “I am a retired civil servant and I have never seen Antalya, the Turkish riviera. European pensioners can go there on vacation, not me.” Whether or not Kartal intends to vote on election day, he’s not willing to say. 

In the old city, most women are unwilling to talk about the election. But Hamide Kaya is an exception. “I am a Turkish nationalist and for the first time, I will vote for the CHP,” reveals the 50-year-old cook in a beige headscarf, without any hesitation.

Hamide Kaya is an avowed nationalist and wants Turkey to become a secular country again. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

“I have always voted for the MHP (Nationalist Action Party), the nationalist party.  But changing the regime is not enough. I want Turkey to change. I want to live again in a secular Turkey, as Ataturk wanted,” she says, referring to modern Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. 

‘We must send the Syrians home’  

In 1923, Ataturk – as he is respectfully known – founded the secular Turkish Republic. A century later, “the father of the Turks” is still revered. But his political vision and legacy has been gradually eroded over the past 20 years.

An avowed Islamist, Erdogan has emphasised Turkey’s Muslim identity. But Kaya wants none of it. “I don’t want my religion to be used for political purposes. There are other religions in this country. I want us to become a secular country again. As Ataturk said so well, I want Turkey to be among the most beautiful civilisations in the world,” she explains.  

The issue of secularism out of the way, Kaya then moves on to her pet peeve: Syrian refugees in her country. Turkey’s celebrated hospitality, she believes, has been stretched too far for too long.

“We must send the Syrians home. They have been here for far too long. My country is my home. Today, we are facing a serious economic crisis,” she explains. “We have welcomed them, but they have to leave. I’m not saying they can’t come back – but only for tourism,” she adds.  

Since the Syrian uprising erupted in 2011, Turkey has welcomed around 3.5 million Syrian refugees. But over the past few years, the Turkish welcome mat has been fraying, exacerbated by a massive economic crisis and the February 6 earthquakes that ravaged southeastern Turkey. 

On this electoral issue, the incumbent and his main rival are on the same page: both Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu have promised to send the Syrian refugees back home.   

‘He will be re-elected, you’ll see!’  

Suddenly, a woman interrupts. Her name is Munewer Yildirim and she’s 50 years old. “AKP! Until the end, I will support Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”  

Munewer Yildirim, an AKP supporter, is an ardent fan of President Erdogan. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

Yildirim can’t seem to get enough of the man who has led Turkey for 20 years – and she’s vocal about it.

“I wish he had come to power earlier, our country could have become another Paris! He is a man, a real man! There was an earthquake in the past. People went to look for the bodies by themselves. They were crying. During this earthquake, Erdogan was by everyone’s side,” she says.  

Yildirim is referring to the devastating August 1999 earthquake, which killed more than 17,000 people amid public outrage over the state’s failure to respond to the disaster.

“If Antep had a mouth, she could talk,” says Yildirim, referring to the old name for Gaziantep. “[Erdogan] knows his religion, he knows his people,” she declares fervently.  

Two men interrupt her panegyrics. “Why don’t you mention that a kilo of onions costs 30 liras (€1.40) today?” sneers one.  

It does not faze Yildirim. Far from it.

“You only throw stones at a tree that is full of fruit,” she snorts.  

“What fruit?” comes the snide reply.  

“You are ingrates!” she shouts.  

“You are completely crazy!” one of the men shouts back.  

“Shame on you! You are traitors! He will be re-elected, you’ll see. Now go away, leave,” Yildirim screams. 

“No, you leave!” roar the two men.  

Passers-by are now slowing down, startled by the brouhaha in the tea shop.  

The argument is going nowhere and nobody’s getting the last word. Gaziantep will have to wait until May 14 to end the debate – and if no candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote, it will be another two weeks until the May 28 final round.

Source: France24

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