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.”