ISTANBUL – Turkey may be in turmoil and the vast city of Istanbul in ferment, bridling at the antics of a government struggling to cope with scandal and sleaze, but in Kasimpasa quarter, the prime minister’s troubles raise barely a shrug.
A conservative, lower-middle-class district bordering the Golden Horn and predominantly inhabited by Turks from the Black Sea coast, Kasimpasa loves Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the powerful prime minister increasingly reviled across Turkey and tarnished internationally.
“The prime minister made a lot of things possible that were not possible before,” said Gursun, 19, a student working in a local supermarket. “He made it possible for girls with headscarves to go to university. His party has achieved so much. They build many roads and bridges, make life better for all of us. They keep the city clean. They do a very good job.”
Gursun and her friend Esra will be voting for the first time Monday in nationwide local elections. There is no doubt that Gursun will cast her ballot for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“We want the AKP to win, and they will. There is no other party. We love them,” said Esra, also a teenage student.
Kasimpasa is only a stone’s throw from Taksim Square, the center of last summer’s massive anti-government protests, but most people here only heard of the unrest on TV. Erdogan grew up in Kasimpasa and remains a hero in the district, which is known as an AKP stronghold. The stadium of the local soccer club, Kasimpasa Spor, was recently renovated and renamed after him. The district seems almost untouched by the ongoing political crisis: flags showing the light bulb symbol of the governing party prevail.
In a local barber’s shop, Cavit, 43, puts aside his razors and scissors to explain why Erdogan can do no wrong. “When I came to Istanbul in 1996, the streets were full of rubbish and there were water cuts, electricity cuts. It’s a world of difference now: it’s so much better. The prime minister works very hard, gives everything for Turkey. What else is [Erdogan] supposed to do? Turkey is the most beautiful country on Earth. And we owe much to the prime minister, who has worked so tirelessly to make our life better.”
The owner of the shop, Yasar Ayhan, regularly shaves the prime minister when he is in town. His 70-year-old father grew up with Erdogan living only a few streets from his modest business.
“We are very happy with our government and happy with the AKP,” Ayhan said. “Nobody here believes these allegations. They are lies.”
He was referring to the almost daily drip-feed of sensational corruption allegations that have engulfed the prime minister since December, including the posting on social media of tapped phone conversations and government meetings that have left the Erdogan administration looking sleazy and discredited.
The latest bombshell came Thursday, with the release on YouTube of alleged recordings of a secret government meeting in which officials discussed the possibility of instigating a war with Syria.
Erdogan responded ferociously, closing down Twitter and YouTube, purging the police, judiciary and prosecutors corps, harassing the media and arresting journalists. Sometimes seen as an all-powerful contemporary sultan, Erdogan has also reacted by portraying himself as the victim of foreign and domestic plots aimed at his overthrow.
Esra said she does not mind the crackdown on Internet freedom. “We never used Twitter — it’s a silly thing anyway. It’s good that they closed it. There was a lot of bad language, too,” she said. “I do use Facebook, but it would be good if they closed that, too, because it’s so distracting. Nobody talks to each other any more. If they closed that, we would read more and talk more. That wouldn’t be so bad.”
Like most people in Kasimpasa, Erdogan hails from the Black Sea coast. But the admiration that many locals feel for him goes beyond regional ties.
“There are many traitors around. There is no corruption,” said Cavit. “That’s just the jealousy of his political enemies. There are always people who are jealous of others’ success. He built bridges, airports, streets. He made Istanbul a better place.”
That is a view heavily contested in a city of 14 million that has been developed at breakneck speed under Erdogan. The prime minister, who launched his political career as the city’s mayor, has certainly left his mark. For 20 years the AKP — and its predecessor, the Welfare party (RP) — have ruled supreme in Turkey’s biggest metropolis and most important economic center.
The face of the city has been transformed by skyscrapers, new metro lines and a network of roads. Large parts of the city are under construction, and whole neighborhoods have been demolished to make way for high-end developments. Erdogan has also promised a range of “crazy projects”: a huge third airport, a third bridge over the Bosphorus and the daunting project of cutting an artificial channel parallel to the waterway connecting the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea.
It was also the prime minister — not the mayor of Istanbul — who personally ordered the construction of a large mosque overlooking the Bosphorus. He chose the design after the architectural contest winner’s draft turned out not to be to his liking.
When hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets last summer, the trigger was the proposed demolition of a city center park to make way for an Ottoman-style shopping center project pushed personally by Erdogan.
Urban planners, architects and environmentalists are all alarmed at the pace of development, warning that the city’s last reservoirs and green spaces will vanish. The development frenzy and lack of transparency have fueled charges of graft and kickbacks in the awarding of the building contracts. In this context, what would usually be local elections attracting little interest have turned into a ballot on one man: Erdogan.
He is not standing in these elections, and his name cannot be found anywhere on the ballot papers. But in Kasimpasa, as across the country, it is understood that the Turkish government is the prime minister, and he is the Turkish government.
“We don’t care who is mayor here,” said Ayhan’s father, laughing. “We don’t talk about that. Erdogan is at the top and he calls the shots. He makes sure they do their job right.”
Indeed, the AKP’s mayoral candidate in Istanbul — Kadir Topbas, the incumbent since 2004 — is an extra in his own campaign. Erdogan has shouted himself hoarse touring the country to throw his weight behind local AKP candidates. Most posters and leaflets bear his portrait, the lyrics of election songs blasted into the streets by AKP vans consist mainly of the prime minister’s name.
But in a campaign dominated by the divisive figure of Erdogan, even Kasimpasa has its dissenting voices. Zafer, 48, a shopkeeper, is disappointed with the way the government and Erdogan have developed.
“I am not happy with them any more. I used to like them, but about five years ago things started to change,” he explained. “Erdogan behaves more and more like a dictator. He wants to decide everything on his own. That’s a very bad thing.”
He also feels that Erdogan’s divide-and-rule style is dangerous for Turkey. “He is not everyone’s prime minister any more. He has split the country into camps, pitted rich against poor, Muslims against non-Muslims, Sunni against Alevi. The country is very polarized now and, yes, I am scared of this tension.”
While most analysts believe the AKP will secure an Istanbul victory, the gap between it and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has steadily decreased.
Cavit the barber is convinced that a CHP victory would be to the detriment of the city. “If the CHP wins here — and I don’t think for one moment they will — they will ruin this place in less than six months.”
Gursun, the student, agrees that the opposition will probably not prevail, but said the prospect scares her: “Nobody is perfect and everyone can make a mistake. We will only learn to appreciate what we have now when it is gone. If the CHP win, they will take all our rights away from us again. They will push out all the AKP supporters and we will lose everything that we have won.”
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