Turkey: On the campaign trail, divisions abound

Amid concerns of an accelerating shift towards autocratic rule, over 55 million voters in Turkey are preparing for the presidential elections, due in about two weeks.

But to say the voters are truly engaged in the campaigns would be an exaggeration. It may be the summer heat, or the month of Ramadan, general fatigue over acrimonious politics, or, as some claim, already predicting the winner.

Turkey today is a land of widening social, ethnic and sectarian gaps, with striking contrasts.

A four-day visit organized by the Platform of Independent Journalism (P24) in three adjacent provinces in Eastern Anatolia highlighted the many varieties of political viewpoints shown through the lenses of different identities.

Malatya, Tunceli and Elazığ constitute a geographic “crescent” that reveals much of the tension slowly building up beneath the social surface. In two of them one can easily observe why Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have emerged as sweeping victors, while Tunceli exposes much of the oppositional shift to the Kurdish political movement from the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) in terms of challenging power.

In Malatya and Elazığ, identical to each other in terms of the dominant conservative voter base within, most predict that Erdoğan will win by a vote of between 55-60 percent. In both cities, there was a notable popular view that immigration from poor provinces further east had changed the demographics and helped boost support for the AKP, whose social policies created dependency — cheap housing, cheap coal and various forms of charity.

Some complained about the social pressure taking place, particularly in poor neighborhoods. In Malatya, up to 80 percent of whose economy is based on apricots while the rest is textiles, locals spoke about the loss of all their gains if Erdoğan loses, which would mean unemployment and poverty.

A native of Malatya told Sibel Yerdeniz, my colleague, about how corruption is perceived.

“It’s not that we don’t believe it. But there is also a concern that it might lead to a coup. We suffered much from this. Leaving that aside, we are told that if Erdoğan steps down the economy will collapse. That’s why we keep silent, because we don’t have a strong opposition, and there is no alternative authority out there…”

In Elazığ, complaints focus on the failure to carry out construction and build crucial infrastructure — as opposed to Malatya — yet it is predicted that there will be a 55 percent or greater win for Erdoğan. A local colleague explains it with the “strong leader” syndrome: “Our people love loud-voiced tough guys and follow the flock. It is people like Erdoğan and Fatih Terim who make an impression, obviously.”

As a local colleague told me, “People still can’t find what they seek in the opposition, and the Kurds, who feel abandoned by the opposition, go their own way…’

There is very little sign of election campaigning. Though there is little doubt that Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) supporters will go and vote for the joint candidate, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, traditional CHP voters in all three provinces had to find out “gropingly” who he was and what he thought. But I am told that the air of suspicion is dispersing as the days go by, and İhsanoğlu is gaining more ground.

Tunceli — or Dersim by its real name — is a specific chapter. Here the population consists of Alevis, making up almost 90 percent. A region profoundly scarred by massacres and other atrocities in history, its natives are politicized from top to toe and together stand for what some call “a fortress against religious fanaticism.”

“Erdoğan cannot get any votes from here,” says a street vendor. In the March 30 local elections, the AKP received less than 10 percent in the city and around 14 percent in the province. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and CHP shared two-thirds of the vote.

This time it is not different: Most agree that the vote will go to Selahattin Demirtaş, the HDP’s candidate in the first round. The doubts about İhsanoğlu among CHP voters are still high, but they are fading slowly. Yet many identify him with the MHP, which, as an ultra-nationalist movement, still has a negative presence in society’s memory.

So the question is, who will Alevis and Kurds vote for if the elections go to a second round? Though some claim that a boycott in the second round is less likely, I sense that much of the steam will run out in the first round and effect the turnout negatively in the second.

About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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