“Why are you so curious,” Cehan finally asked after at least 40 minutes of Google Translate-aided conversation. And suddenly, it occurred to me that his honest responses could have got him in trouble if he was not careful. Sitting on a public bench in Kaleici, Antalya, overlooking the blue Mediterranean waters, we discussed politics, President Erdogan’s possible return, growing religiosity in Turkey, steep inflation, and the Kurds.
On May 15, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — an Islamist who was imprisoned on the charges of inciting religious hatred and violence in 1999 while holding the mayoral office of Istanbul — prayed at Hagia Sophia for his return as Turkey’s most powerful man despite growing anti-incumbency sentiments. In the opinion polls before the May 14 elections, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Mr. Erdogan’s rival and the opposition coalition candidate, was said to have a slight edge. However, the preliminary results showed that Mr. Erdogan won 49.5% of the votes against Mr. Kılıcdaroglu’s 44.9%, and his coalition has secured a comfortable majority in Parliament.
A resurgent Mr. Erdogan will now face off Mr. Kılıcdaroglu in a presidential run-off May 28.
Stirred but not shaken
Clearly, his hold over Turkey is stirred, not shaken. For each Ataturkist Turkish citizen, there’s at least one staunch Erdogan supporter and half a decrier of the “West’s conspiracy to undermine Islam”.
Cehan, 36, is a fitness trainer in Antalya and he wasn’t expecting to be ambushed by a curious foreigner on a sunny afternoon. He was there with his friend, Orhan, smoking cigarettes and drinking beers that the duo kept furnishing from a tiny black plastic bag. “If he [Erdogan] comes back, we won’t be able to drink beers in public like this,” he typed on his phone and offered me a pint that I was too happy to accept. “My parents are Ottoman supporters, but I am an Ataturk,” he said, referring to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern, secular Turkey.
He declared with mellow pride and echoed the sentiment of many a man and woman in Istanbul, Izmir, Bursa and Pamukkale.
The night before, Semi, 29, a jeweller, was a lot more boisterous. He spoke English with reasonable ease. “I live away from my family because they don’t understand my life and choices. I was with them for Bayrham Ramzan (Id-ul-Fitr) but that’s all. They are becoming increasingly religious, and I cannot deal with it any more.” Semi, however, believes in the Illuminati. He will vote against Mr. Erdogan.
Message to Muslims
Barak, 34, a tourist guide in Istanbul, had given me a great primer the day I landed in Turkey on what most young people in coastal Turkish cities thought of the two decades of President Erdogan’s rule. His guided tour in the Sultanahmet neighbourhood of Istanbul was deeply political in spirit. “The Ottomans decided to convert Hagia Sophia, the church, into a mosque [in the 15th century, after the fall of the Constantinople] They wanted to send a message to all the Muslims worldwide that now they were the caretakers of Islam. Many centuries later, the same message has been conveyed with the conversion of Hagia Sophia the museum into a mosque.”
Ataturk, who abolished the Caliphate, closed down Hagia Sophia in 1930. Five years later, it was was reopened as a museum. Mr. Erdogan turned it back to a mosque in July 2020.
“Erdogan has destroyed our country beyond repair,” Barak continued. “People wanted employment, education, and healthcare, he gave them religion. A lot of people in Turkey are not practising Muslims. They gravitated towards ‘nationalism’ to make up for that. Erdogan exploited this. He also exploited the fact that the global economic crash of 2008 did not affect Turkey as badly as it did the rest of Europe and the US.”
Sitting in a historical coffee house in Istanbul — where poets, writers, and philosophers have been communing for centuries — Barak was relentless. “He (Erdogan) has ensured that there are spiralling queues in front of the Hagia Sophia to show that the world is at his doorstep. The Blue Mosque has been under supposed renovation for the past two years and is inaccessible to tourists. And there are these inconvenient barricades outside Hagia Sophia, so, obviously, the crowds build up and give the impression that the world has congregated to applaud his decision to turn it into a mosque.”
Selma and Rashet* (names changed) run a cafe near Suleimani mosque in Istanbul. Rashet is a bit careful while expressing his angst. “We often get into trouble for critiquing Erdogan in front of the foreigners. I have nicknamed him ‘the tall man’ and we spell out KURD while talking about these oppressed people. The police can pick us up for questioning and detain us for talking about the K.U.R.D.S.”
The Kurdish question
The Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Turkey and an armed conflict between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish militia group, and the Turkish state has been ongoing since 1978. In November 2022, a bombing in Istanbul, allegedly carried out by a Kurdish-Syrian separatist, claimed six lives. “Yes, there are Kurdish terrorists in Turkey but why punish the innocent Kurds for the terrorists’ actions?” Rashet asked.
After the failed military coup attempt in 2016, Mr. Erdogan undertook a purge that saw his dissenters across civil, military and educational institutions either getting sacked or arrested. His powers grew with the constitutional referendum in 2017 through which the Turkish parliamentary system got converted into a presidential system.
“You know Mussolini? Erdogan is our Mussolini. You know Hitler, he’s our Hitler,” an impassioned native interrupts me as I chat, days later, with Çevat and Sara (names changed), the local shopkeepers of Derinkuyu village in the Anatolian plateau region of Turkey. This statement came as a mild surprise. Geographically speaking, rural Anatolia (Anadolu in Turkish) has been rallying behind Erdogan, as against the ‘liberal’ cities of Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara, Antalya et al. Konya, the biggest province of Turkey, is called Erdogan’s fortress.
Despite the criticisms he faces and the mounting economic woes of Turkey, including runaway inflation, the President’s supporters remain adamant and confident. Mehmet, 20, who works in a small cafe in the Ilhara Valley in the tourist-riddled Cappadocia region, says, “Inshallah, Erdogan!” He responded to my sly question about the next possible President that I cautiously slip in after almost an hour of Google Translate-facilitated conversations about food, fashion, education, family, and girls. I smile and ask about the state of the economy. This time his father, Yunus, gesticulates, “Prices up up up!”
Inflation has been Erdogan’s biggest challenge as it surged to above 85% last year and is hovering around 40% now. Why is he not able to control inflation, I enquire. Mehmet punched the following on my keypad: “Everything is in control. All is well. Mashallah.”
My conversation is interrupted by an incoming canvassing party. Yilmaz Ilhan, a local candidate, arrives with his supporters to seek votes. Contesting as an independent, he is sure that Mr. Erdogan will come back. His confidence is built on the support of people like Gursen and Sinaan (names changed), the police guards posted outside a heritage site in the region. But equally confident was Birsen Aliçi, a political worker of the Turkish Workers’ Party (TIP), who was putting up posters of her candidates at midnight in Antalya and wanted me to meet them. “We’ll make sure Erdogan does not come back to power. Turkey has had enough.”
There is Najat (name changed), too. A hardcore Ataturkist, Najat works with Turkish Airlines. “Even if I woke up on May 29 and saw the regime change, I won’t be able to believe it. He (Erdogan) will not go easily. He cannot afford to, there are too many skeletons in his cupboard. His family, friends, and coterie have indulged in corruption and crimes and won’t survive out of power. Yes, you may call me a pessimist.”
As despondency surges in the anti-Erdogan camp, all eyes are now on Ekrem İmamoğlu, mayor of Istanbul and Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s vice presidential candidate. What Turkey decides will have consequences not just for the country, but for the rest of the world, too.
Nishtha Gautam is a Delhi-based writer, entrepreneur.
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