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Jun 08 2018

Support for Turkey’s Erdoğan could be shaky in heartland province

Voters in the northwestern Turkish province of Kocaeli have traditionally supported President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s conservative Islamist party, but ahead of June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections, fed up with a sinking currency and rising inflation, many now want change.

Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, are still ahead in the polls, but the normally fractious opposition parties have united against him for the parliamentary election. They then hope to coalesce behind a single candidate if Erdoğan does not get more than 50 percent of the vote in the presidential election and is forced to go into a second-round run-off two weeks later.  

A survey by pollster SONAR this week put support for Erdoğan at 48 percent, less than he needs to avoid a run-off.

Forty-six-year-old Aysel, who declined to give her surname, said she had switched her vote from Erdoğan’s party after the June 7, 2015 general elections to support the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). She said she wanted change after 16 years of AKP rule. 

“Injustice is our first problem, and our other issue is the economy,” she said. “I voted for the AK Party until the June 7 elections, and then I voted for the CHP. We have 16 years of experience and we want to change it now.”

Opinion polls say the economy is top of voter concerns with the lira falling to record lows against the dollar this year and inflation stuck just above 10 percent.

“I'm looking at the economy. Business cannot be done with empty promises. Action is important,” said Ahmet Kurşun, a 62-year-old pensioner

Turkey under Erdoğan has undergone a huge overhaul of its infrastructure with new airports, roads, bridges and rail systems criss-crossing the country. The president has pledged more mega-projects if he is elected again. 

Asked if the government’s infrastructure drive meant it was taking action, Kurşun replied. “No, it's not. Will a bridge keep your stomach full? I just want to live. I don't want anything else.” 

But overcoming the AKP in Kocaeli will not be an easy task. A centre of industrial and agricultural production to the east of Istanbul, the province voted heavily in favour of the governing party in the last general election in November 2015. The AKP received 57 percent of the vote, twice as much as the CHP’s 23 percent. The far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) won 11.2 percent and the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) 6 percent. 

Turkey saw strong economic growth in the first years of AKP government, but Erdoğan’s belief that high interest rates cause inflation, the opposite of what most economists think, has hampered the central bank taking measures to curb rising prices and led to a fall in the lira as foreign investors shy away from what they now see as a more risky market.

Many still have faith in the government, however.

“My vote has always gone to Tayyip and I'll vote for him again. I'm happy with him,” said Nezra Gürses, 49. “In 2001, I couldn't afford baby food, and my landlord was knocking on my door for rent. Now I get what I want, so it's good.

To help the struggling MHP, the government passed a law allowing electoral pacts between parties. While the AKP and MHP have now formed the People's Alliance to fight the election, the new law may have helped the normally divided opposition parties that have formed an unlikely Nation Alliance of the leftist CHP, a new nationalist party and an Islamist party.

Erdoğan, perhaps conscious of the economic downswing economists predict and hoping to catch his opponents off-guard, called the elections 17 months ahead of schedule. Mehmet Çöplü, the MHP deputy chair in the Kocaeli provincial capital Izmit, was confident. 

“For us, the call for early elections wasn't surprising, and we were expecting it. We are behind our leader, and we will support the People's Alliance until the end. Our campaign work is going better than expected. The reactions of the citizens have been good. Everyone likes and supports the People's Alliance,” he said.

Others were not so sure of the sweeping AKP victory the ruling party is used to in Kocaeli. Many people in Turkey are unhappy with system of patronage in which government contracts are awarded to AKP supporters. They say it breeds corruption. 

“The agenda for the election is the economy. We've seen that people prick up their ears when we speak about the economy,” said Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, HDP parliamentary candidate for Kocaeli. “There's a terrible rent economy. The city has officially been looted, and AKP supporters are reaping the rewards. This is bothering people.”

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Straight-talking main opposition CHP presidential candidate Muharrem İnce has emerged as a strong campaigner, able to rival Erdoğan’s rousing election rally speeches. The SONAR opinion poll put İnce in second place in the presidential race with support at 31 percent.

“I support Muharrem İnce, because he will, and has, uncovered Tayyip's cronies,” said Bektaş Çınar, 57, sitting with friends at a coffee shop. The CHP, he said “works to prevent thefts and corruption. They work for Turkey.”

“I also like Muharrem İnce,” said Yusuf Akbulut, 58, also sitting in the lively coffee shop. “Aside from the AK Party, I could vote for any party. What else can I say?” 

Others worried about the security of the election, taking place under emergency rule, put in place after the failed 2016 coup, which gives the government sweeping powers to rule by decree and removes much oversight from the security services. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested in a crackdown government critics say has been used to stamp out dissent from all quarters. 

“We're going to the polls under a state of emergency. For one thing, we’re worried that our votes will be stolen,” said 54-year-old Nihat Karabacak. It was not fair, he said, for the pro-Kurdish HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtaş to remain behind bars while standing for the presidency. 

“If there's democracy in Turkey, isn't it for all of us? But it's not. So no lie, my vote goes to the HDP. One vote for Demirtaş, one vote for the HDP,” he said.