Symbolism, history and nationalism put Erdogan in strong position ahead of presidential runoff

Emotion trumped economics in the 2023 Turkish presidential campaign, forcing the opposition to embrace nationalism ahead of Sunday’s runoff. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was ahead of the curve, using a mix of nationalist rhetoric, pan-Islamic heroism and historical references in a bid to enter his third decade in power.

A battle for auditory supremacy is raging at the Kadikoy ferry terminal, where boats plying the Bosporus Strait shuttle passengers from Istanbul’s Asian and European sides.

On a giant screen mounted on a truck right by the waterway, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition candidate in Turkey’s 2023 presidential runoff, is promising to deal with all the problems plaguing the country today. The economy is in shambles, rights and liberties have been shrunk, and the “politics of negativity” has divided the nation, he booms.

 

Commuters watch a Kemal Kilicdaroglu campaign clip at the Kadikoy ferry port in Istanbul. © Leela Jacinto, FRANCE 24

 

A few yards away, the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) stall is selling their candidate, the incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at top volume. The loudspeakers here are belting out a vibrant, catchy campaign tune. “Once more, and again…choose Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” blasts the sound system as flag-waving supporters keep the beat with their arms.

 

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan man a campaign stall at the Kadikoy ferry wharf in Istanbul.
Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan man a campaign stall at the Kadikoy ferry wharf in Istanbul. © Leela Jacinto, FRANCE 24

 

This city bridging two continents is deeply divided over the two men contesting Turkey’s first-ever presidential runoff on Sunday, May 28. The electoral face-off comes two weeks after the first round handed Erdogan just 0.5 percent less than the 50 percent of the vote needed for an outright win.

It was a surprisingly strong showing for the man who has led Turkey for two decades, overseeing the recent economic crisis and weathering criticisms of governmental negligence following devastating earthquakes earlier this year.

The opposition focused on Turkish wallets, following the familiar US campaign dictum, “It’s the economy, stupid”.

But it wasn’t. In the end, emotions trounced economics.

Kilicdaroglu’s signature campaign video featured the septuagenarian candidate bemoaning the rising price of onions at a kitchen table.

The high point of the incumbent’s campaign saw the president instrumentalising the inauguration of a warship, the TGC Anadolu, at an Istanbul port. “We see this ship as a symbol that will reinforce our position as an assertive country in the world,” Erdogan proclaimed at the inauguration ceremony on April 23.

Symbolism has been the driving force behind Erdogan’s stratospheric rise to power and his ability to retain it despite the odds. His melding of nationalist rhetoric, pan-Islamic heroism, religious tropes and historical references presents a populist package that has flattened political opponents in the past and looks set to do so again.

And to do that, Erdogan always has Istanbul.

Harnessing Istanbul’s rich history 

It was as Istanbul’s mayor that Erdogan referenced a banned poem by an Ottoman-era Turkish nationalist, earning him a short stint in jail and a victim narrative that galvanised his supporters.

More than a quarter-century later, Erdogan faces his first presidential runoff on a date weighted with a historical significance not lost on Turks.

On May 28, 1453 Sultan Mehmet II commenced his final attack on Constantinople, breaching the Byzantine capital’s mighty walls. The next day, the city of the world’s desire, which had been unconquered for a thousand years, fell under Ottoman control.

If Erdogan wins the runoff on Sunday May 28, the president will be in Istanbul the day after the election, according to the presidential office. It will mark the 570th anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople.

‘I prefer a courageous leader’

In the city that birthed Erdogan’s political career, Istanbullus – as residents call themselves – are already beginning to act as if an Erdogan reelection is a done deal just days before Sunday’s vote.

For those suffering the effects of the economic crisis, but plan to vote for Erdogan anyway, there’s a distinct lack of excitement, but some comfort in continuity.

Sitting on a park bench in Fatih, a conservative Istanbul district by the Bosporus, Hussein Polat sounded resigned over the country’s future.

“I was upset, really depressed about my financial situation and I didn’t want to vote in the first round. But in the end I did vote, and I voted for Erdogan,” said Polat as he tossed a handful of wheat grains to a growing flock of pigeons.

At 64, Polat’s economic prospects look bleak after working nearly 50 years in a shoe repair store and a tea stall.  “I can hardly make ends meet, the prices of even the basics have shot up. Nobody wants to give me job now that I’m 64. Life is so difficult these days,” he said.

 

Hussein Polat takes a break from feeding pigeons at a park in Fatih, Istanbul.
Hussein Polat takes a break from feeding pigeons at a park in Fatih, Istanbul. © Leela Jacinto, FRANCE 24

 

Despite his economic difficulties, Polat did not opt for change at the ballot box because he said he didn’t know much about Kilicdaroglu’s policy platform.

“I really didn’t get a sense of the other guy,” said Polat, referring to Kilicdaroglu.

It’s a common admission among older Turkish voters who get most of their news from TV stations following years of clampdowns on the press by the Erdogan administration.

During the month of April, Erdogan had exactly 60 times more coverage on the public TV channel TRT Haber (TRT News) than his main challenger, according to the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontier (RSF). Kilicdaroglu received 32 minutes, said RSF, quoting unnamed sources within Turkey’s High Council for Broadcasting (RTUK). “In other words, a public TV channel not only acted as a state TV channel but also sided with one candidate against another,” the NGO reported.

Despite his professed lack of awareness of Kilicdaroglu’s platform, Polat said he was convinced that Erdogan possessed more leadership skills than his rival. “Erdogan has more courage than Kilicdaroglu. I don’t believe in Kilicdaroglu’s promises. I prefer a courageous leader who is trustworthy. With Erdogan, even if we have difficulties with him, he has built bridges and mosques. I’m a nationalist, and I’ll vote for the man who’s good for the nation,” insisted Polat.

On a ferry ride from Istanbul’s European side to Kadikoy, on the Asian side, Ahmet Alton, a retired civil servant, said he benefitted from Erdogan’s decision to increase pensions by 2,000 liras ($100) in late March.

“The opposition is not trustworthy,” said Alton. “They can make all the promises they like. I don’t believe they can keep them,” he concluded.

Men, women and veils again

While Erdogan’s supporters felt free to voice their distrust of the opposition, the same was not true for many Kilicdaroglu supporters.

Sitting on a bench, watching the sun set as she waited for the ferry, a 30-year-old architect from Istanbul’s Uskudar district agreed to talk only if her identity was not revealed and her name changed to Zeinab Bilgin.

“I support Kilicdaroglu, but if I reveal it publicly, and if Erdogan wins, and I apply for a job and they do a background check, they will know I’m a CHP supporter. Then I’ll have problems getting jobs,” she said, referring to Kilicdaroglu’s secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

The main electoral issue for Bilgin is women’s rights following the shock win in the May 14 parliamentary elections for the Kurdish conservative Free Cause Party (Huda-Par).

Once a fringe party sidelined for its links to a Kurdish Islamist armed group operating in the 1990s, Huda-Par aligned with the ruling AKP in the 2023 vote. The alliance won the party four seats in Turkey’s 600-member parliament, alarming women’s rights activists.

The Islamist party has called for the repealing of laws providing protection for domestic violence victims and has said women’s working conditions should be revised so that they “befit their nature”. 

For Bilgin, the rise of parties such as Huda-Par would mean a rollback of women’s rights in Turkey. “In the West, people are talking about AI and ChatGPT. In Turkey, we’re still talking about the headscarf and religion and 1453,” she said, referring to the year Constantinople was conquered.

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