Voters in northwestern Turkish town seek change in elections

Only 20 days remain until Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24 that will mark the handover of sweeping executive powers to the president and a change in the character of Turkish democracy.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has run Turkey since 2003, called the elections 16 months early, hoping to catch the divided opposition off-guard. But secular, nationalist and Islamist opposition parties have managed to form an alliance for the parliamentary polls and hope their presidential candidates can stop Erdoğan getting the more than 50 percent of the vote he needs to avoid a run-off. His opponents then hope to unite around a single candidate.

As part of Ahval's "Election Pulse" series, I took to the streets of the northwestern Turkish town of Tekirdağ, in the region of Thrace, to see how people there view the polls.

Historically Tekirdağ is a social democrat stronghold, with 44 percent of voters favouring the secularist People's Republican Party (CHP) at the last election in 2015 and 31 percent the Islamist ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) picked up 15 percent of the vote and the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) 5.5 percent.

Mirroring surveys by pollsters, the top concerns among the electorate in Tekirdağ are the economy, security, foreign policy and injustice.

For many though, voting for Erdoğan means a vote for stability and continuity and there is a fear of the turmoil that might follow a defeat for his AKP.

Fikret Güzelsoy, 62, said the main opposition CHP backed the HDP, which is accused of supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group that has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule for more than three decades.

“The CHP also supports anarchy and the HDP,” he said, sitting with a friend at a Tekirdağ tea garden.

Güzelsoy predicted that if the presidential election were to go to a second round of voting, Erdoğan would face CHP candidate Muharrem İnce in the run-off.

“I'm an Erdoğan supporter. I'll vote for him. Tayyip Erdoğan will win," he said.

At another, more crowded table, there was a heated conversation among a group of retired men.

"Turkey is holding early elections to get rid of this government,” said Sabri Salcan, a 72-year-old a retired labourer. Erdoğan, he said, “wants the country to be a kingdom. He wants to build his own dictatorship. I don't like this government. This government is trying to destroy all that Atatürk has done. I’ll vote for the CHP and Muharrem İnce."

The CHP was the party of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey who built a secular republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

Ali Yılmaz, 76, interjected. "Muharrem İnce speaks openly and clearly. Erdoğan seals the deal by screaming and with fear. Tayyip never fools the people of Thrace.”

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Voters in Tekirdag

Another presidential candidate, the HDP’s Selahattin Demirtaş (HDP) is standing for election from his cell in a top security prison while he faces trial on a string of terrorism charges connecting him with PKK violence.

"Demirtaş is now a hostage, not a convict,” said Ibrahim Durmuş, a 60-year-old labourer. “This is the country's embarrassment. He should have been out in the streets too. He's just a hostage now. We have been silenced in this way, but all of Turkey knows it. We have been silenced."

Fahrettin Zamur, 55, said he was forced to migrate to Tekirdağ after his son was kidnapped by the PKK in the southeast of the country.

"I’ll tell you this, if Tayyip loses, many people will die. They'll set off a bomb to cancel the elections, and many people will die. I'm telling you, you'll see, if Tayyip loses many people will die," he said.

Many people feared talking and expressing their views following the arrests of tens of thousands following the 2016 coup that rights groups say has been used to crack down on dissent from all sides. Many shopkeepers declined to answer questions.

But one, Ertürk Karaosman, 41, said he was unhappy with the government’s domination of the newspaper and television media.

"Election campaigns are not done fairly. There is no equality in the media. People need to express their ideas freely. But they can't. Demirtaş being in prison, as I said, is related to this problem of fairness," he said.

Imren Korkmaz, a 72-year-old retired shopkeeper, said she would vote for İnce.

"People say democracy, but there is nothing in the name of democracy in Turkey. If there were democracy, then this many university students wouldn't be in jail. Look at Erdoğan funny? You get locked up. Say something about the military? You get locked up,” she said.

“I was a shopkeeper for 45 years running a stationery store with my husband. Before, being a shopkeeper was enough to keep our stomachs full, but now what do we have? We aren't able to eat with what we earn nor can we sell our goods properly,” she said.

Stalls towards the coast of the Sea of Marmara sold a colourful array of jewellery, scarves, and accessories. Banu Engin Atay, 41, an architect shopping there, said it was time for a change after 16 years of AKP government.

"Holding early elections is the right decision. I was not happy, like many other people in the country. But it turned out to be good. Aside from economic reasons, I think the government should change now. Sixteen years is a long time, it should change now, and new people should come to power," she said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.