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.