Even in Erdogan’s Heartland, Some Have Their Doubts

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Umit Bektas / Reuters

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Turkish parliament in Ankara in June 2013.

Until a few decades ago, it was no more than a large village on the outskirts of Istanbul. Today, following wave after wave of migration from the Turkish heartland, Esenler, miles away from the turmoil currently raging downtown, is a sprawling neighborhood with its own central plaza, a pedestrian zone and a population that has exploded from roughly 40,000 in the 1970s to more than 500,000 today. It is also Erdogan country. In the last parliamentary elections, the ruling party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won 65% of the vote there, trouncing the main opposition outfit, which mustered a measly 15%.

The neighborhood has had a soft spot for Islamic parties for decades. In the 1990s, the favored party was Refah, an Islamist group whose remnants coalesced into Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Since then, like many mushrooming neighborhoods on Istanbul’s fringes, Esenler has been an AKP stronghold.

(PHOTOS: Turmoil in Istanbul: Guy Martin at Turkey’s Gezi Park Protests)

Almost two weeks into a wave of protests and riots that began with a peaceful sit-in against the planned demolition of a small Istanbul park — and which escalated into a wave of outrage against police brutality and the government’s policies — Erdogan is a weakened, but still popular leader. He is, above all, confident and defiant. In a series of stump speeches that followed his return from a four-day trip to North Africa, Erdogan, speaking before tens of thousands and sounding at times like a field general, insisted that he would raze Gezi Park, that the protests were part of an international conspiracy, and that those taking part in them were no more than “marginal groups.” On June 10, in what might appear to be a radical change of course, or recognition that he had overplayed his hand, the Prime Minister announced that he would be meeting with the protesters’ representatives on June 12. The very next day, however, police re-entered Taksim Square, the traffic hub adjacent to Gezi, and repeatedly clashed with protesters.

Erdogan has previously quipped that if the protesters have something to say, they ought to do so at the polls, and not in the streets. In his most recent speeches, he warned his opponents, as well as all those who’ve cast their lot with the protesters, that they would pay dearly in the upcoming local elections, which are scheduled for March 2014.

In Esenler, the party machine is seeing to it that they will.

On a recent afternoon at the local municipality office, the engine that propelled the AKP into power in 2002 — and kept it there for the past decade — was working at full throttle. On the ground floor of the drab, colorless building, a barber employed by the AKP-controlled municipality was treating the unemployed and the old to free haircuts. One floor up, inside an auditorium, a well-attended performance by a choir of mentally disabled young people was about to get under way. On the third floor, inside a spacious office, Huseyin Akman, an official, ticked off a seemingly inexhaustible list of projects completed under the AKP’s watch. New roads were being built, old ones were being repaved, a new hospital was being constructed and urban development was going ahead at breakneck speed, “probably faster than anywhere else in Istanbul.” His municipality had also opened 10 after-school learning centers, Akman said, catering to 10,000 to 15,000 young people. This year, it was planning to take more than 20,000 residents on bus trips to Gallipoli, the site of a historic World War I battle. As of July 8, it would start delivering Ramadan meals to the needy. It had even set up a system to bring back the bodies of deceased locals to their home villages for burial. All free of charge.

(VIDEO: The Battle for Taksim Square)

In a conservative neighborhood like Esenler, the AKP’s Islamic credentials have certainly won it a fair share of sympathy, Akman said, but it’s the party’s commitment to doling out jobs and public services that pays the biggest dividends at the polls. “If a party cozies up to you but doesn’t give you a job or feed your stomach,” he said, “there’s no way you’re going to vote for it again.”

Even in Esenler, however, tremors from the antigovernment demonstrations held across Turkey are being felt. On Friday night, residents said, anywhere from several hundred to 2,000 people protested by banging pots and pans in the local square. There hasn’t been any sign of a backlash, however. Near the Esenler metro stop, I found a pair of young men selling a leftist newspaper whose front page featured a grim-faced Erdogan and a headline that read, “The Sultan Is Deaf.” They reported catching some flak from the locals, but nothing in the way of overt aggression.

Esenler isn’t the kind of place where you would necessarily expect to find Turkey’s first digital library, but there it was, a small glass structure squeezed into the ruins of a church. (Until Turkey’s 1919–22 war with Greece and the mutually sanctioned population exchange that ensued, Esenler had been home to a Greek community.) The library had opened in 2010. Near the reception desk, Sukran, one of the young librarians, complained that the protests were a ploy devised by AKP opponents to derail a recent armistice between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. “Turkey is going through a difficult period,” she said, “and now they’re putting a knife in the wound.” A colleague of hers — she did not want to be identified — chimed in. “You can’t always have what you want,” she said, her thoughts turning to the protesters’ outcry over recent curbs on alcohol sales. “People who want to buy a drink will be able to find one,” she said. “They have a right to drink, and we have a right not to. We are a family-oriented culture. I have three children and I don’t want them seeing people drinking outdoors, in the parks.”

(VIDEO: Women on the Front Lines of Turkey Protests)

In a small square halfway between the library and a local mosque, four men huddled on a small bench and two plastic chairs, enjoying the shade of an oak tree. They were all members of a religious brotherhood, they said, and stalwart AKP supporters. One, a construction worker named Huseyin Yildiz, alleged that the protests had been a foreign plot, citing the coverage in the Western media — “They’re all comparing it to the Arab Spring,” he said — and reports of “foreign agents” detained during the demonstrations.

Even he, however, acknowledged that Erdogan’s rhetoric had rubbed him the wrong way. “I support him,” he said, “but when the Prime Minister called the protesters looters, that was too strong.” Like many Esenler residents, Yildiz received a text message from the municipality on Thursday night inviting him to join thousands of party faithful in welcoming Erdogan — back from his trip to North Africa — at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. He didn’t attend.

Donning a skullcap, a robe and a long, wispy beard, Kerim Guler listened to the conversation unfold in silence, his eyes glued to the ground. Eventually, he lifted them up. “The protesters, they are our brothers, and we need to stay together to stay strong,” he said quietly. “Erdogan needs to be softer.”


The American public was presented with a sterilized and highly romanticized view of the protestors with almost no reference to very well-known hate-based ideological groups which capitalized on the opportunity for conflict. 

The media presented the protests as the revolt of democratic-spirited youth against the increasing authoritarianism of the government, with the erupting violence as proof of this inclination.. Indeed the Prime Minister initiated a process of inquiry for the excessive use of the force and tear gas.

The central pillar of the arguments, which focuses on putting the government on the antidemocratic side of the polarization, claims that, during the Prime Minister Erdogan government's decade in power, Turkey has witnessed a steady erosion of rights and freedoms, or that Erdogan is becoming increasingly authoritarian. This ignores the fact that Erdogan came to power during the February 28 Process, which was initiated and guarded by the military after the forceful resignation of the popularly elected legitimate government in 1997. The period between 1997 and 2002 had witnessed gross violations of human rights and almost a total collapse of Turkey's economy.

As part of the EU accession process, Turkey has passed many democratic reforms, one of which is the February 12, 2010 referendum that removed the restrictive articles of the 1982 Constitution passed under the military's tutelage. Before the AK Party came to power, a Kurdish citizen in prison was not allowed to speak with his mother in Kurdish even though his mother could only speak in Kurdish. The recent constitutional amendments made the banning of political parties almost impossible.  Since the Peace Process was put into effect five months ago, there have not been any major clashes causing human casualties. Whereas Turkey's politics were formerly equated with torture, extrajudicial killings and politically motivated murders, this legacy's stain on the country's reputation has nearly disappeared alongside the Erdogan government's efforts to purify the system of its state-connected networks of crime.

Rather than inclining to authoritarianism and exclusionist policies, Prime Minister Erdogan rejected the former Republican elite's rejectionist understanding of national unity, which promoted a constructed secular Turkish identity while denying the plurality of cultural identities, and the validity of any alternatives to the official discourse of the state elite. The physically-enforced and latently-promoted efforts to deny and rid society of traces of different ethnicities and lifestyle values are part of the segregation and cultural elimination practices of an exclusive approach to citizenship. Many of the supremacist attitudes and values associated with racism in the US can be found among the Turkish circles influenced by a hard-core secularist-nationalist worldview when it comes to their treatment of, and outlook on, people who identify with religion as a lifestyle and/or with a minority ethnic group. The attacks on Erdogan, stemming from these ideologies, even before his becoming Prime Minister can be compared to racist attacks on Obama. Despite the strong presence of these groups, within the last decade, all cultural and ethnic identities and political ideas have finally found acceptance in Turkey.

Nowadays, there is much talk about the imprisoned journalists in Turkey. In fact, it is impossible to point to any member of the press from any established media organ who is imprisoned for opposing or criticizing the government. Among the media outlets currently operating in Turkey, you can even observe those which, without being subject to any punishment, openly accuse the government of being a traitor and of serving the interests of outside forces, mainly the U.S. Those oft cited imprisoned journalists are not in prison for what they have written, but for other violations of the law which is aligned with the "war on terror" mentality which dominates a great proportion of the globe nowadays. It is expected that the progress achieved in the Kurdish Peace Process and the new constitution being drafted will eliminate these restrictive laws.

 In comparison to the developed world, Turkey had nearly meaningless regulations on alcohol and abortions. When compared to US standards, Turkey's new abortion law is more lenient, and its alcohol law is not more restrictive.

It is only possible to read the violent protests in Turkey over the course of the past week as the conflict between revolutionary democratic youth and an authoritarian government if one ignores the background provided above. The second mistake is to assume that everyone who joined these protests was motivated by democratic ideals. In fact the majority of the original protestors stopped joining the protests after the protests were hi-jacked by extreme leftist and ultra-nationalist groups, which despise the expression of any minority identities in Turkey. Some elements within the main opposition party supported these protests because they considered it an opportunity to weaken the government.

Every Turkish citizen has the obligation to be concerned about the disproportionate force used by security personnel. Each Turkish citizen has the right to demand a free and unbiased media. However, it is also our obligation to be truthful about the facts of the country, which has experienced four military coups against the popularly elected governments between 1960 and 1997 under the guise of the "legacy of Ataturk," which has only served as a cover for the long-standing authoritarian practices.

Murat Guzel,
Businessman and Chair, Board of Trustee, Wisdomnet


@ ConnorS, thanks for the helpful information to the generally naive public, on who Erdogan really is.

For me, as a Western outsider, the most egregious of Erdogan's behavior was his support of terrorist entities, while being a Nato ally. The West should have cut off Turkey and removed them from Nato when Erdogan did that. Furthermore, Turkey should not be given EU entry with such attitudes. Turkey, with an Islamist leaning, being pushed by Erdogan, would be a Trojan Horse and a horrible threat to Europe if allowed entry into the EU.


The majority of Turks voted for the Islamist government, the majority of Turks will support its measures.


Tayyip Erdogan keeps a contact with Omaba all the time to solve your political problem. 


Who those Muslim will go to suck the leg of non-Muslim powerful leader around when they got the trouble? The world’s popular media says “those are good Muslim”.

Quran13:But those who break the covenant of Allah after contracting it and sever that which Allah has ordered to be joined and spread corruption on earth–for them is the curse, and they will have the worst home….


Everything Erdogan ever did, he did it because it suited his purposes, not because he was some visionary leader with positive aspirations for his country. Every "democratic" advancement he oversaw, he approved because it freed the way for him to expand his power and influence over Turkish politics, with which he could then proceed to pursue his oppressive vision, while filling up his (and his supporters') pockets in the process.

He most certainly did not create an economic miracle, his immediate predecessors did, right before the election that saw Erdogan's admission into power. Erdogan was just lucky to be in the big boy seat in time to reap the fruits of those reforms. He supplemented this by doing what he does best: selling off every vital industry and public good to whichever political ally or nephew thereof supported him best, while cozying up to mid-east dictators and wealthy sheikhs with even worse human rights records to prop up his failed policies. Anyone who studies the current economy of Turkey honestly, and without rose-tinted glasses can tell you that it is all is one big illusion, a mere facade and a bubble waiting to burst, as soon as foreign investments dry up and there are no more national interests left to sell. Unemployment, income inequality are all rampant, and inflation is made to falsely appear low through accounting tricks.

He enjoys sweeping and unprecedented direct decision-making capabilities on all local and national development, large or small. He is the one who decides where Istanbul's massively controversial third bridge will be (so that he and his supporters can buy up the surrounding land), he decides where the widely unpopular nuclear plants will be built and by whom. He picks economic development zones for each city. He decides bidding and contracts on urban regeneration projects. He, and he alone. With all of these, he is the one who reaps the benefits, with zero accountability or democratic process that is answerable to the populace or their interests. Can you imagine the outrage if a US President even though of, let alone attempted, a mere tenth of this?

Nor did Erdogan solve the Kurdish problem - he exacerbated it. He did not end the ethnic conflict- he restarted it after years of ceasefire and had to concede in every which way to get back to the same point where the country was before he took the reins, except under worse conditions.

He jailed students, academics, opponents left and right, while holding them indefinitely without a proper trial or due process. When he could not come up with an excuse to carry out such actions, he made up "reasons" and tried to play the victim card, telling anyone gullible enough to believe him that there were shadowy forces afoot. On the rare chance that his victims survived prison torture and severe inmate neglect and actually saw trials, it was pure puppet theater meant to shock and intimidate.

Every major media outlet was either punished (through arrests, vindictive tax bills and audits, etc); intimidated into self-censorship; or was straight up bought out by his family or cronies. The most famous of these family businesses, owned by his son-in-law, immediately laid off any reporters who were in any way critical of the PM, and proceeded to either run only positive stories or no stories at all. The infamous penguin broadcast of last week is a prime example.

People he would not intimidate, he simply bribed or bought, whether through lucrative contracts, secretly funneled funds, or through favorable appointments.

He politicized every aspect of the country, self-appointed every key position which would make sure any checks and balances and sense of accountability were eliminated, while openly disparaging large segments of the population - often stooping to nauseating levels of crassness.

He disparaged education and academia, labeling anyone that disagreed with his divisive and crass attitude as elitist, and wearing his ignorance as a badge of honor.

He either setup, or collaborated with exiting faux NGOs whose sole purpose is to ensure the continuation of his power, the most infamous of which is the Deniz Feneri foundation.

He tried to dictate what women could do with their bodies. He told them how many children they should have and what role they should have in society. He attempted to chip away at basic rights and told the people it was only for their best interest. That he tried to criminalize adultery a few years ago should tell you everything you need to know about his democratic leader qualities.

Or that he is fond of war criminal Omar al-Bashir and friendly with militant Islamists across the Middle East is perhaps a better indicator of his autocratic credentials?

Worst of all, he did everything on this list and more while filling his pockets with the People's money, and had the audacity to flaunt it (e.g. his "little ship") while grinning defiantly - which is perhaps his worst trait. The hubris. The shamelessness. The uncaring attitude. All the repulsive qualities that earned him the disparaging nickname "the sultan".

Iron-fistedness? Check. Centralization of power? Check. Mouthpiece media? Check. A pathetic cadre of yes-men? Check. Megalomania? Check. Paranoia? Check. Penchant for divisiveness? Check. Nepotism? Theft? Police state tactics? Check, check, and check. These are not the marks of a great leader. These are marks of a thug and a coward, who would rather hide behind intimidation and talk, than to face the will of his constituents. He deserves all the scorn he has amassed and more.


According to poll only very small group supports the demonstration. Except 7 percent of the people who joined the poll, Turkish people think this non-sense should end.

International media still trying to fire up the mischief, Taksim square is almost in piece already. Hopefully it will be completely over soon.



wow, so many words, so little truth. care to elaborate on the ban on atheist websites? care to elaborate on the extended ban of youtube.com? care to elaborate on the "forced resignation" of many prominent journalists? care to elaborate on the recent ban on everything/anything alcohol? care to elaborate on the reyhanli bombing? care to elaborate on the uludere massacre? care to elaborate on how people on the streets repeatedly stated that they are not your usual kemalist crowd and are only/mainly concerned about their civil rights? care to elaborate on the description of protest rights by the current government? care to elaborate on the broadcast of penguin documentaries during the first few days of unrest and police brutality? care to elaborate on anything, really? 

spin doctors spinning truth. one can see all the trouble you go through just to save face for the government, but sooner or later, and hopefully sooner than later, everyone will see behind the smoke screen. the current phase is just the beginning of the end of your lies about what is going on in Turkey.


@PhilipSmeeton that is not entirely accurate. the majority of the turkish people is conservative, either nationalist or islamist. the crux of the fundamentalists, even with a decade of ruling completely tuned into their well-being, should still be around 15%. there is a substantial body of center right who by definition do not like any kind of altercation and are ready to be swayed into voting for an alternative center right party, had one existed.

if the obstinacy of the government, read erdogan, remains intact, it is not completely unreasonable to think that some will cross the barrier and might even vote for a center (psuedo-left) party, chp.

there are reasons to be upset with the current situation, but at the same time, it is not a completely lost cause; at least, not yet. 


@ececan freudian slip much? "Taksim square is almost in piece". i guess somewhere inside there is still a moral entity, trying to make its way out. though, based on the rest of your rhetoric, the odds are not very high for turning back to the objective and moral grounds.