Turkish century: History looms large on election day

ISTANBUL — From the Aegean coast to the mountainous frontier with Iran, millions of Turks are voting at the country’s 191,884 ballot boxes on Sunday — with both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his main rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu warning the country is at a historical turning point.

In the last sprints of the nail-bitingly close election race, the dueling candidates have both placed heavy emphasis on the historical resonance of the vote falling exactly 100 years after the foundation of the secular Turkish republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923.

In the Istanbul district of Ümraniye on the final day of campaigning, Erdoğan told voters the country was on “the threshold of a Turkish century” that will be the “century of our children, our youth, our women.”

Erdoğan’s talk of a Turkish century is partly a pledge to make the country stronger and more technologically independent, particularly in the defense sector. Over the past months, the president has been quick to associate himself with the domestically-manufactured Togg electric car, the “Kaan” fighter jet and Anadolu, the country’s first aircraft carrier.

But Erdoğan’s Turkish century is about more than home-grown planes and ships. Few people doubt the president sees 2023 as a key threshold to accelerate his push away from Atatürk’s secular legacy and toward a more religiously conservative nation. Indeed, his campaign has been characterized by a heavy emphasis on family values and bitter rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community. Unsurprisingly, he wrapped up his campaign on Saturday night in Hagia Sophia — once Constantinople’s greatest church — which he contentiously reconverted from a museum back into a mosque, as it had been in Ottoman times.    

The state that Atatürk forged from the ashes of the Ottoman empire in 1923 was secular and modernizing, often along Western models, with the introduction of Latin letters and even the banning of the fez in favor of Western-style hats. In this regard, the Islamist populist Erdoğan is a world away from the ballroom-dancing, rakı-quaffing field marshal Atatürk.

The 2023 election is widely being cast as a decisive referendum on which vision for Turkey will win through, and Erdoğan has been keen to portray the opposition as sell-outs to the West and global financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. “Are you ready to bury at the ballot box those who promised to give over the country’s values ​​to foreigners and loan sharks?” he called out to the crowd in Ümraniye.

This is not a man who is casting himself as the West’s ally. Resisting pressure that Ankara should not cozy up so much to the Kremlin, Erdoğan snapped on Friday that he would “not accept” the opposition’s attacks on Russian President Vladimir Putin — after Kılıçdaroğlu complained of Russian meddling in the election.   

All about Atatürk

By contrast, Erdogan’s main rival Kılıçdaroğlu is trying to assume the full mantle of Atatürk, and is stressing the need to put the country back on the path toward European democratic norms after Erdoğan’s lurch toward authoritarianism. While Erdoğan ended his campaign in the great mosque of Hagia Sophia, Kılıçdaroğlu did so by laying flowers at Atatürk’s mausoleum.

Speaking from a rain-swept stage in Ankara on Friday night, the 74-year-old bureaucrat declared: “We will make all of Turkey Mustafa Kemal’s [Atatürk’s] Turkey!”

In his speech, he slammed Erdoğan for giving Turkey over to drug runners and crony networks of oligarch construction bosses, saying the country had no place for “robbers.” Symbolically, he chided the president for ruling from his 1,150-room presidential complex — dubbed the Saray or palace — and said that he would rule from the more modest Çankaya mansion that Atatürk used for his presidency.

Warming to his theme of Turkey’s “second century,” Kılıçdaroğlu posted a video in the early hours of Saturday morning, urging young people to fully embrace the founding father’s vision. After all, he hails from the CHP party that Atatürk founded.

“We are entering the second century, young ones. And now we have a new generation, we have you. We have to decide altogether: Will we be among those who only commemorate Atatürk — like in the first century — or those who understand him in this century? This generation will be of those who understand,” he said, speaking in his trademark grandfatherly tone from his book-lined study.

At least in the upscale neighborhood of Beşiktaş, on Saturday night, all the talk of Atatürk was no dry history lesson. Over their final beers — before an alcohol sale ban comes in force over election day — young Turks punched the air and chanted along with a stirring anthem: “Long Live Mustafa Kemal Pasha, long may he live.”

In diametric opposition to Erdoğan, who has detained opponents and exerts heavy influence over the judiciary and the media, Kılıçdaroğlu is insisting that he will push Turkey to adopt the kind of reforms needed to move toward EU membership.

When asked by POLITICO whether that could backfire because some hostile EU countries would always block Turkish membership, he said the reforms themselves were the most important element for Turkey’s future.

“It does not matter whether the EU takes us in or not. What matters is bringing all the democratic standards that the EU foresees to our country,” he said in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of a rally in the central city of Sivas. “We are part of Western civilization. So the EU may accept us or not, but we will bring those democratic standards. The EU needs Turkey.”

Off to the polls

Polling stations — which are set up in schools — open at 8 a.m. on election day and close at 5 p.m. At 9 p.m. media can start reporting, and unofficial results are expected to start trickling in around midnight.

The mood is cautious, with rumors swirling that internet use could be restricted or there could be trouble on the streets if there are disputes over the result.

The fears of some kind of trouble have only grown after reports of potential military or governmental involvement in the voting process.

Two days before the election, the CHP accused Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu of preparing election manipulation. The main opposition party said Soylu had called on governors to seek army support on election night. Soylu made no public response.  

Turkey’s Supreme Election Council (YSK) has rejected the interior ministry’s request to collect and store election results on its own database. The YSK also banned the police and gendarmerie from collecting election results. 

Erdoğan himself sought to downplay any fears of a stolen election. In front of a studio audience of young people on Friday, he dismissed as “ridiculous” the suggestion that he might not leave office if he lost. “We came to power in Turkey by democratic means and by the courtesy of people. If they make a different decision whatever the democracy requires we will do it,” said the president, looking unusually gaunt, perhaps still knocked back by what his party said was a bout of gastroenteritis during the campaign.

The opposition is vowing to keep close tabs on all of the polling stations to try to prevent any fraud.

In Esenyurt Cumhuriyet Square, in the European part of Istanbul, a group of high-school students gathered on Saturday morning to greet Ekrem İmamoğlu, the popular mayor of Istanbul, who would be one of Kılıçdaroğlu’s vice presidents if he were to win.

Ilayda, 18, said she would vote for the opposition because of its position on democracy, justice and women’s rights.

When asked what would happen if Erdoğan won, she replied: “We plan to start a deep mourning. Our country as we know it will not be there anymore.”

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In epicentre of Turkey quakes, survivors are indifferent to upcoming polls

PAZARCIK, Turkey – In the southern Turkish town of Pazarcik, the epicentre of the devastating February 6 earthquakes, people are focused on just trying to survive. Tens of thousands of residents left the town after the disaster and for the ones left behind without adequate shelter or facilities, holding a presidential election on May 14 seems incongruous.

They live in the dust, surrounded by the wreckage of buildings slated for demolition. The town of Pazarcik, the epicentre of the February 6 earthquakes in Turkey’s southern Kahramanmaras province, is a shadow of its former self. Only a few damaged buildings have been demolished and the rubble cleared away to make way for vacant lots.

“There’s no one left in the streets,” laments Mustafa Kayki, a local elected official of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a rightwing nationalist party. “Around 20,000 people have left Pazarcik since this terrible tragedy. Our voters are scattered. Pazarcik has been scattered. Our dear Pazarcik has turned into hell overnight, dark, a ruined city. It’s painful.” 


Mustafa Kayki, a local member of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), says 20,000 people have fled Pazarcik since the earthquakes. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24


The city was once home to 70,000 inhabitants, mainly Kurds and Alevis, a religious minority that professes a heterodox Islam, which counts, among its members, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the main opposition candidate in the 2023 presidential election.

At a street corner, two construction workers are busy renovating a shop on the ground floor of a building, which has a big pile of cement stacked at the entrance. There are no signs of political campaigning here and the workers appear indifferent about the upcoming polls. “There’s nothing to say. Just look around,” shrugs one worker.

The two workers, who prefer to remain anonymous, are not very affable. They reveal, rather bitterly, that this construction work is financed by the diaspora that left the country for Europe in the 1990s. “Life has resumed since the earthquake but we don’t know how long it will last. Those who had money have long since left,” explains a worker.


A camp for the homeless was set up at the entrance to Pazarcik after the February 6, 2023, quakes.
A camp for the homeless was set up at the entrance to Pazarcik after the February 6, 2023, quakes. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24


When people are asked about the May 14 election, their faces cloud over. Pazarcik’s remaining residents explain that they are “afraid to speak out and get arrested”. There’s a palpable fear of openly criticising the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power for 20 years, and its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appears particularly out of bounds.

“It’s not the right time to organise an election,” says Kayki. “People here are not thinking about elections, they are thinking about how they will survive. What am I going to eat? Where am I going to stay? These are their only concerns.” 

‘I don’t think I will vote’

It’s a view echoed by Adem Kutuk, a 49-year-old carpenter who has lived in Pazarcik for 24 years. “After everything we’ve just been through, I wish there was no election. What’s the point? Only those who live here, in these ruins, can understand. I don’t think I will vote,” he explains before making it clear that he does not want to “talk about politics”.


Carpenter Adem Kutuk says he's overworked rebuilding homes after the earthquakes.
Carpenter Adem Kutuk says he’s overworked rebuilding homes after the earthquakes. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24


In his small workshop, Kutuk is overwhelmed with work. “I wish there was no earthquake. I wouldn’t have so much work today. We have so much, too much work. Everywhere we go, we’re fixing kitchen cabinets, closets … Anything we can get back in shape.”


Adem Kutuk had five workshops before the earthquakes. This is the only one that survived the disaster.
Adem Kutuk had five workshops before the earthquakes. This is the only one that survived the disaster. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24


Shortly after the earthquakes struck, Kutuk and his colleagues went into battle mode, trying to help the victims. “We went to Iskenderun, in Hatay province, to buy particleboard to repair houses,” says the craftsman who now lives in a three-room hut that he built for his wife and two children after the quake.

‘The earthquake changed everything’

Funda Ozdilli has not been as lucky. The 36-year-old housewife lives in a tent – like an estimated 2.7 million people across Turkey rendered homeless by the earthquakes. Ozdilli lives here with her husband and 15-year-old daughter.

“I can’t tell you what we’re going through. Talking about it and living it are two different things,” she says quietly as she does the dishes under a tarp stretched in front of the entrance to her makeshift shelter. “I knocked on many doors to ask for help but they remained closed. I said we were homeless, that we needed a tent. I finally received this one.”

The Kurdish woman has not seen any of the 10,000 liras [465 euros] economic aid promised by Erdogan back on February 9, during a presidential trip to the southeastern city of Gaziantep. “Some people have got 10,000 or 15,000 liras,” she says, referring to a resettlement assistance. “I didn’t get anything. I don’t know why.”


Funda Ozdilli washes dishes in an area outside her tent in Pazarcik, Turkey.
Funda Ozdilli washes dishes in an area outside her tent in Pazarcik, Turkey. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24


Hands plunged in a basin of soapy water, she talks about the stifling heat, the lack of sanitary facilities, the absence of showers, the terror when a snake invited itself into the family tent. “I’m not asking for money. I just want a roof over my head. Is that too much to ask?”

Shelter, a place to call home, that’s all Ozdilli dreams about these days. “If I could find a house for 1,000 pounds [47 euros], I would do everything I could to pay for it.  But how can I pay 3,000 pounds rent every month? My husband is the only one working. We are not rich,” she explains.

Erdogan has promised to build more than 450,000 earthquake-resistant homes “within a year”. It’s an eternity for many who, like Ozdilli, live in precarious shelters. “I’m not going to vote for anyone. Who do you want me to vote for? I don’t think about it. I’m desperate. The earthquake has changed everything. People don’t know who to trust anymore,” she says with a blank look. “No one has the right to ask us for our vote. They have to find solutions for us first. Then we can talk about the vote.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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Conservative Turkish women are turning their backs on Erdogan ahead of vote

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Turkey – Turkey’s May 14 elections are looking uncertain for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan amid a sluggish economy, young Turks less enamoured with the ruling AKP and an opposition that is finally united. Support from conservative women, usually a pillar of his voting base, is also looking less robust ahead of the vote. FRANCE 24 reports.

“I liked him a lot, and I liked the party, as well,” Emine* says, when asked why she has voted for Erdogan for the past 20 years. This housewife lives in the Basaksehir district in Istanbul, one of the many neighbourhoods transformed by the ruling AKP’s urbanisation policy. She was in her early 30s when then candidate Erdogan, who ran as an MP in a March 2003 by-election, emerged as a beacon of hope for women like her: veiled, conservative women who felt marginalised and even disregarded.

The “AKP opened up new areas for conservative women by removing the headscarf ban”, Esra Ozcan tells FRANCE 24. The author of, “Mainstreaming the Headscarf: Islamist Politics and Women in the Turkish Media,” Ozcan cites the fact that veiled women can now serve as police officers, judges, university professors or elected political representatives – all of which was against the law unless they removed their headscarves until the AKP came to power.

“This is indeed a group that experienced an expansion of freedoms under [the] AKP,” says Ozcan, a senior professor of practice at Tulane University in New Orleans.  

Murat Yetkin, a well-known Turkish editorialist, says one of the reasons that explains Erdogan’s extraordinary popular appeal in the early 2000s was the authoritarian tendencies of the ruling coalition at the time that employed openly anti-Islamic rhetoric targeting veiled women. By denouncing this trend, the young charismatic leader became the champion of conservative women who, from then on, formed an important base of his support.

But 20 years later, “Women have changed,” says Ozlem Zengin, vice president of the AKP bloc in the Turkish parliament.

Those who were among Erdogan’s most ardent supporters in the early years  Erdogan has been president of Turkey since 2014 – could turn their backs on him on May 14 for the country’s presidential and legislative elections.

Tradition and domestic violence

Erdogan often reminds the Turkish public of how he helped strike down the headscarf ban. He believes he has done more for women than many of his predecessors, although many deem that this measure alone was not enough.

Erdogan’s speeches reveal a traditional vision of women’s role in society: above all, a woman is a mother (to three children, if possible) who also takes care of the elderly. It is an ideal that remains unchanging even as the country experiences rapid urbanisation and modernisation.

In today’s Turkey, women – even those who wear the veil – want the same opportunities and working conditions as men.

When Erdogan pulled Turkey out of the Istanbul Convention on violence against women in July 2021 it confirmed his anachronistic tendencies. In recent years, the Erdogan government has taken a strong stance in favour of traditional family values and against the LGBT “propaganda” embraced by the Western world and the “normalisation” of homosexuality.

With the upcoming elections likely to be Erdogan’s most contested yet, the decision to incorporate two Islamist parties into his coalition that have called for the annulment of a law protecting women from domestic violence is dividing members of the AKP, a rare feat.

Red line

Zengin, 53, did not mince her words when she stated that the passage of law 6284 would be a “red line”, a comment that attracted a fireball of criticism and threats coming from her own political party. She later tried to put out the flames. “We’re sorry. I don’t want to say anything more about this law. I’m tired. I am saddened when I see the situation of our community. I did not say that the law couldn’t be discussed. I only wish that we can discuss it in a more humane, decent and Islamic environment.”

 Among those that supported Zengin is the Kadem Foundation. It, too, is affiliated with the AKP and its leader is none other than one of Erdogan’s daughters. But the foundation published a tweet denouncing “an insulting and misogynistic campaign” and reminded its followers that “half of the voters who will cast their ballots are women”.

In another sign that Turkish society is evolving on these issues, an episode of “Kızılcık Serbeti“ (“Cranberry Sorbet”), one of Turkey’s most popular TV shows, ended last month with a veiled woman being killed by her husband. The country’s RTUK media regulatory council ruled that the scene “encouraged domestic violence”, demanding the producers pay a heavy fine and taking the show off the air for five weeks. Its fans were surprised to see a documentary on Islamophobia, notably featuring President Erdogan, airing on April 14 instead of the show.

23 women killed by men in March

 According to “We will Stop Feminicides”, 23 women were killed by men and 19 others died in suspicious circumstances in March 2023. The organisation itself is the target of a judicial inquiry and faces closure for “carrying out activities that are against the law and morality”. The last hearing took place in the beginning of April and was adjourned until September 13.

Conservative women are not a homogenous voting bloc in Turkey. But Ozcan is confident that the AKP “has lost sections of it”.

“Young conservative women want to see [the] AKP… go,” she writes. “They have been very disappointed [by the] AKP’s transformation from former victim to a new oppressor. These women identify as Muslims and they don’t want to see Muslims as oppressors.”

When asked why she won’t vote for Erdogan on May 14, Emine responds simply, “Because I started to think with my head.” Still, that doesn’t mean the 54-year-old will be voting for the opposition. For the first time ever, she says she will abstain. 

*Not her real name.

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