Resentment against ruling AKP on the rise in İstanbul’s northeast hinterland

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) continues to have strong backing in the industrial Kocaeli and the agricultural Sakarya, two provinces that form the northeastern hinterland of İstanbul, but there is an observable increase in the share of undecided and unhappy voters.

Both provinces still struggle with the destruction caused by a major earthquake in 1999 and the effects of ecological degradation with Kocaeli suffering from a high-level of pollution, and Sakarya at the risk of losing its agricultural lands.

Yet, in Kocaeli, the AKP is likely to win the mayoral elections on March 31, though the main opposition secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), running with one of its quite rare women candidates, might declare victory in the heart of the province, the central district of İzmit.

The cancer rate in Kocaeli’s Dilovası district was three times higher than the world average, according to 2017 figures, pointing to the repercussions of the  intense industrialisation and weak environmental controls in the province.

Recently, economic difficulties have also been added to the list of pressing problems, as many factories have been shut down due to the slide in the Turkish lira.

Yet, the downturn in the economy does not necessarily mean a change in voters’ preferences.

“There is nobody that is not affected from the economic crisis,” according to Yusuf Dalgıç, a street vendor. “It does not matter which one, if there is some party better than the AKP, we are open to voting them in. But there should be a party that manages to break us [from the AKP],” he says.

Şakir Bey is also going to vote for the AKP, but he thinks the party is not as good as it used to be. “We are voting for the AKP because there is no one better, that is the reality,” he says.

Mustafa Çepen, a pensioner, is mulling the idea of voting for the opposition. “I want everything to be less expensive. I want peace. Our wages are not enough. I am not saying that AKP is too bad, but it ruled until today, there is no such thing that it will rule us forever,” he says.

Some voters are complaining about the lack of infrastructure investments in the city, despite the fact that Kocaeli receives the highest share in taxes collected in Turkey. “They build city hospitals, but there are no doctors. Education is suffering, there is no democracy, all journalists are in jail,” a male voter says, asking to remain anonymous.

Another voter, who wants to remain anonymous, is angry about the Turkish government’s rhetoric and attitude towards the opposition. He calls the alliance between opposition parties an “alliance of contempt” and criticises the rhetoric surrounding what is being called the country’s "survival problem."

“I am really afraid. What is happening, where are we going? This is only a local election for god’s sake,” he adds.

The opposition candidate for mayoral elections in Kocaeli is Serdar Kaman from the centre-right nationalist Good (İYİ) Party, who wants to focus on pollution and health risks. “Kocaeli University conducted a study on this, but the person who conducted the research was labelled as a charlatan by the incumbent [AKP] mayor. We want to change this mentality,” Kaman says.

According to Kaman, more than 15 percent of the voters are undecided and this may affect the outcome of the election.

In Sakarya, where the alliance between the AKP and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) received 71.8 percent of the votes in parliamentary elections last year, the opposition nominated Cihan Kolip of the Good Party.

 According to the opposition candidate, the most important problem in the province is the high housing stock that are unfit for an earthquake prone region. He promises a rapid urban transformation that will be carried out by ensuring the residents that new housing projects will not be implemented for economic gains.

 “Compared to previous years, now there is in Sakarya a huge collapse both in terms of household incomes and the cultivated lands. Our people cannot sell their produce,” Kolip explains.

The opposition candidate explains that in Sakarya there is no excitement for elections, but instead a pervasive hopelessness akin to a collective psychological trauma.

 Fahrettin Abay and Yaşar Karataş, the mayoral candidates of the Islamist Felicity Party and the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) voice similar concerns.

Local such as Gökhan Kurtuluş will vote for the ruling party, because there is no confidence that the opposition can manage the Turkish economy.

 Some others plan to show their resentment by not showing up at the polls on March 31.

“Nothing changes. The candidates say more or less the same things. Casting my vote has no influence. The candidates do not feel responsible to the people. They feel responsible to party leaders,” on Sakarya resident tells Ahval.

Merchant Avni Şen is undecided on who put his support behind and will wait till the election day.

“I used to vote for the AKP. But now I am pessimistic. Because of the situation Turkey is in,” he says.

“We have financial difficulties. The prices have spiked suddenly. The price of one kilogram of aubergines is 10 lira,” Songül, a housewife, says, stressing that  even Erdoğan proved incapable of decreasing prices. “You are a president, how can’t you stop this? Therefore I do not think I will vote,” she says.