Beaming down from a three-story-high red banner over a main shopping street, the local boy who rose to the heights of power, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, urges the residents of this Black Sea town to “come on, lay claim to your president.”
For more than a decade, Erdogan, 61, has been the dominant political figure in this country of nearly 80 million, first as prime minister and since August as president. Sunday’s general elections will determine whether man already accused of autocratic rule becomes still stronger.
Should the right-of-center, pro-Islamist Justice and Development party he founded win an absolute majority in the 550-seat Parliament, it intends to amend the constitution and turn his figurehead post into a more powerful American-style presidency.
But the “claim your president” banners, seen in many places around the town where Erdogan was born, offer evidence that he has jumped the gun.
These are parliamentary elections and he’s not the ballot. Under the current constitution, he’s supposed to be politically neutral, so every poster linking him with the vote or with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, every public appearance in which he takes sides, adds to the case his opponents are making that he has violated the constitution.
But Erdogan has turned this into a referendum on himself. And while there’s almost no chance his home region will vote against him – in 2011, it returned three members to Parliament from his party, known by its Turkish initials, AKP – the race here provides indications why the country may hold back from giving him the super-majority needed to revise the constitution.
It’s a combination of unhappiness over the country’s uneven economic development, disquiet over the corruption scandal that Erdogan has done his best to suppress and the wit of other politicians in exploiting voter discontent – most of all the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, which is running in national elections for the first time and can upset the Erdogan applecart if it receives 10 percent of the vote and enters the Parliament.
Erdogan’s critics here are cowed, but they still speak out.
“People here don’t read. They don’t think. We don’t have jobs. But still they give their votes to Tayyip. They are stupid,” said Emel Igrek in a random street interview in Riza’s pedestrian zone.
A group of about five middle-aged men was listening and took offense. “You call us stupid? Take back your words,” said one, as the group advanced towards her.
Ahmet Bayrakter, 18, about to graduate high school, will be voting for the first time, but not for Erdogan’s AKP. “I have pressure on me at school,” he said, where most of his classmates will be supporting AKP “because it’s Erdogan’s hometown.” But he won’t.
More typical was Ismet Civelek, 20, whose praise for Erdogan seems straight out of the party talking points. “He’s the charismatic leader, a man of international political influence. Even the Arab countries respect him. When I talk about him, I get goosebumps,” he told a group of visiting reporters.
As Turkey’s most powerful leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the republic in 1923, Erdogan doesn’t take criticism kindly. While claiming to advance democracy, he’s stifled dissent, used his powers to suppress media freedom, repeatedly clamped down on social media and further undercut Turkey’s already weak judiciary. Faced with a major corruption scandal, he reassigned prosecutors, judges and police by the hundreds and mounted a vendetta against Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Islamist scholar with a wide following in the Turkish police and judiciary, accusing him of creating a “parallel state.”
Ten months as president hasn’t diminished Erdogan’s streetfighter instincts. This past week, he was on the offensive, saying of the leaders of the other parties that “lying has become their character,” starting a criminal suit against the editor of the respected daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, one of the few remaining independent news outlets, and denouncing The New York Times, the BBC and CNN. But he wouldn’t agree to a national debate with the other parties, rarely does a news conference and gives interviews mostly to government-friendly news outlets. He also denounced the Kurdish party, members of the Alevi faith, “the Armenian lobby, homosexuals” and others.
Despite opposition party efforts to highlight the scandal, leaders of Erdogan’s AKP, using their absolute majority in Parliament, have suppressed the debate. But Erdogan’s excesses, including construction of a 1,150-room presidential palace in Ankara, cannot be covered up. When opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu accused Erdogan of installing gold-plated toilet seats, Erdogan in a familiar mode started a libel suit against him.
Bayraktar, the high schooler, says his friends all know about the corruption, “but they say it’s OK.” But he feels that corruption “is very detrimental” to Turkey.
Any follower of Gulen has all the more reason to vote for another party. Enver Ak, the owner of a dry cleaning shop, told reporters that “people were content with Erdogan’s image as a tough guy, but now he’s gone too far.” Erdogan’s attitude is “you’re either with me or against me,” he said. “And I feel like one of the others.” Ak said he is a follower of the moderate Islamist preacher. As for the corruption scandal, “that is the just the point. This is what changed people’s views about the AKP.”
Ak said the best alternative he could see for now is the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, the left-of-center party founded by Ataturk, which dominated Turkish politics for more than seven decades.
Rize is in the heart of Turkey’s tea producing region and offers a product that is grown organically, but even with state aid, the agricultural sector is not faring well, in part because of tea smuggled in from other countries where production costs are lower. Although Erdogan maintains a family home in Rize and visits once or twice a year, there is little sign of the political largesse one might expect after more than decade in the highest offices of the land. With a sputtering economy and a population of 320,000, down 10 percent in the past decade, Rize, like so many cities on the Black Sea coast, can’t even take advantage of its siting, because the town is cut off from the sea by a four-lane highway.
Kenen Birik, a CHP candidate in Rize, said townspeople pay four times as much in taxes as they receive in benefits. He said the AKP, as part of its election tactics, went to the headmen, the non-political elected leaders of villages, in the region and demanded they organize locals to attend AKP rallies.
Osman Cem Kazmaz, the candidate of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, seemed confident that he’d soon be taking his seat in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. “We have the support of the public,” he said. “The AKP forced people to come to their meeting. For us, people were free to attend. It was a big crowd.” Among his campaign promises: to raise the state subsidies for tea.
The most quixotic of the parliamentary candidates here is Selda Harafazli, 30, who moved here with her parents two years ago from Fethiyeh and is campaigning for the Kurdish HDP party. Ever since she announced, her family has been under pressure from other family members, some of whom have threatened her safety, but she said police did not respond to her complaints.
City authorities told her father, who owns a café on the city’s waterfront, that a new outside deck he’s built over the water is illegal. She said Kurdish candidates cannot put up their posters or distribute campaign literature anywhere in the region. But she is sure she has had a big effect on voters here. Of the 190,000 people in the region who voted in 2011, only 5,000 voted for Kurdish candidates. Harafazli hopes to double that – not to obtain entry into the Parliament, but to help the HDP, which must receive 10 percent of the national vote to secure seats.
HDP – which in the past has been linked with the outlawed Kurdish PKK separatist group, has been the target of some 200 attacks around Turkey in the run-up to the elections. In Trabzon, the biggest city in the region, Huseyin Taka, the head of the HDP party, said the party couldn’t rent space from local landlords and operates out of borrowed quarters. When they moved in, a crowd of about 150 people gathered outside the building, menacing the group. So they’re not distributing literature or showing their flag.
Instead they’re stressing that their tent is open to all the minorities of Turkey. “We have candidates from all minorities – Christians, Muslims, secularists, Turks, Yezidis, Armenians, gays and lesbians,” he said. He was sitting at a table with the rainbow flag in front of him, having just signed a protocol committing the HDP to be an advocate for gay and lesbian rights in Parliament. If HDP makes it into the Turkish Parliament, half the 70 seats will go to women, he said.
If HDP fails to enter Parliament, the AKP will probably take most of votes and could acquire a super-majority, probably not the two-thirds needed to approve a new constitution in Parliament alone, but quite possibly the three-fifths needed to to put a new constitution to a national referendum.
The unstated message is that the HDP, if elected, will put a brake on Erdogan’s accretion of power and even force a coalition government.
“This is a common understanding: if you hate Erdogan, you should vote HDP,” said Behlul Ozken, who teaches international relations at the Marmara University.