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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

As Turkish vote looms, Erdogan loyalists can’t imagine anyone else in charge

A reelection campaign poster depicting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Kayseri, Turkey, on April 21, 2023.

By Ben Hubbard and Safak Timur

Memis Akbulut, a cellphone salesperson, listed the reasons that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could count on his support in elections Sunday that could drastically change the course of the country: He is charismatic, a world leader who has strengthened Turkey’s defenses and battled terrorism.

And thanks to a regulation that Erdogan pushed in the months leading up to the vote, Akbulut will soon receive an early pension from the government — at age 46.

“Everything is a 10,” he said recently in the central city of Kayseri. “I will vote for the president,” he added. “Is there anyone else?”

The presidential and parliamentary elections are shaping up to be Erdogan’s toughest electoral fight during his two decades as Turkey’s predominant politician. A cost-of-living crisis has angered many voters, and his government stands accused of mismanaging the initial response to catastrophic earthquakes in February. Recent polls suggest a tight race — and, perhaps, even a defeat — for Erdogan.

The political opposition has formed a broad coalition aimed at ousting him. Six parties are backing a joint presidential candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a former civil servant who has vowed to undo Erdogan’s legacy and restore Turkey’s democracy.

Erdogan’s die-hard supporters, which pollsters estimate to be about one-third of the electorate, see no reason for Turkey to change course. They love the president’s nationalist bombast, religious outlook and vows to stand up for the country against an array of forces they view as threats, including terrorist organizations, gay rights activists, the United States and NATO.

“Erdogan succeeded in building a close relationship with his electorate over the past 20 years,” said Akif Beki, a former adviser to the president who has broken with him and his governing party.

Others have benefited in concrete ways, either politically or financially, from links to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, also known as the AKP, Beki said.

“There is a new class that has arisen in his 20 years, and their interests are overlapping with Erdogan’s,” Beki said. “It is expecting them to act against their interests to expect them to go against the AKP and Erdogan.”

Erdogan’s critics note that Turkey’s gross domestic product began declining about a decade ago, and annual inflation, which surpassed 80% last year, has left many Turks feeling poorer. Most economists say Erdogan’s unorthodox financial policies have exacerbated the crisis.

During his years in power, the president has consolidated his control over much of the state, tilting Turkey toward autocracy, while frustrating the United States and other NATO allies by maintaining a close relationship with President Vladimir Putin of Russia after his invasion of Ukraine last year.

Kayseri, in central Turkey, has long been a stronghold of Erdogan, voting for him and his party, often overwhelmingly so, in every election since 2002. Recent conversations with more than two dozen voters there showed that many still admire his leadership while others simply can’t imagine anyone else in charge.

When Erdogan appeared on the national scene as a young, dynamic prime minister in 2003, he and his party promised competent governance, reliable services and economic growth.

And for many years, they delivered it.

Turks’ incomes rose as their cities became cleaner and better organized. Between 2003 and 2013, the national economy grew threefold, new hospitals, airports and highways were built around the country, and voters rewarded Erdogan at the ballot box, electing him president in 2014 and 2018.

Kayseri, an industrial city of 1.4 million people in the shadow of a snow-capped peak, benefited during the Erdogan era, developing into an attractive city, with subway and tram lines, universities and factories that produce everything from shipping containers to furniture — much of it for export.

Sevda Ak, an Erdogan supporter, acknowledged that the high inflation had harmed her family’s purchasing power. But she was counting on Erdogan to fix it.

“If we shop for one child, we can’t shop for the other,” said Ak, 38, a mother of three. “But it is still Erdogan who can solve it.”

Her sister, Ayse Ozer, 32, credited Erdogan with developing the country but said he should crack down on merchants she accused of price gouging.

Erdogan’s critics, on the other hand, accuse him of weakening Turkey’s democracy. And many in the West see him as a problematic partner, a leader of a NATO country who snarled the alliance’s plans to expand after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Turkey waited many months to accept Finland into the alliance, but has still refused to admit Sweden.

Erdogan’s most loyal followers, however, see those actions as signs of strength.

“He doesn’t bow to anyone,” said Mustafa Akel, 48, a laborer in a door factory. “He built ships. He built drones. If he leaves, the one who will replace him is going to work to fill his own pockets.”

He acknowledged that Erdogan had profited, too, during his time in power. But no matter.

“I don’t think anyone else can rule this country,” he said.

In the months leading up to the vote, Erdogan has also tapped the power of his office to appeal to voters and mitigate the effects of inflation by raising the minimum wage, boosting civil servants’ salaries and changing retirement regulations to allow millions of workers to receive early pensions.

And in recent weeks, he has invoked national pride in ways that appeal to many Turks.

He had a new, Turkish-built warship, the TCG Anadolu, dock in central Istanbul, where voters could walk aboard. He became the first owner of the first Turkish-built electric car. Via video link, he welcomed the first fuel delivery to a Russian-built nuclear power plant near the Mediterranean. He announced the start of production of Turkish natural gas in the Black Sea and promised free shipments to Turkish homes.

Few voters in Kayseri seemed impressed with the opposition, and many doubted its six parties could work together effectively.

Askin Genc, a parliamentary candidate for the opposition Republican People’s Party, said he expected the economy to give the opposition an opening.

“The cost of living will have an effect at the ballot box,” he said.

The opposition was also hoping to attract young voters, he said. About 6 million young Turks, out of 60.6 million eligible voters, will be able to vote for the first time, and analysts say Erdogan has struggled to entice them.

Many voters expressed frustration with Erdogan’s stewardship of the economy, but few said they would switch to the opposition because of it.

Ali Durdu, who was shopping with his family at an outdoor market, said he had long voted for Erdogan but was mad about high prices and would sit out this election. His wife, Merve, was also mad at Erdogan, but would vote for him anyway.

“Erdogan has his mistakes,” she said. “But he’s the best of the worst.”

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