- by Orla Guerin
- BBC News, Istanbul
After two decades in power and more than a dozen elections, Turkey’s authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan knows how to operate a room. At a taxi drivers’ conference in Istanbul, they couldn’t get enough of it.
He controlled the crowd like an orchestra conductor. They cheered and clapped – and booed the opposition – when signaled. The venue was a waterside convention center in Istanbul, built during his tenure as the city’s mayor.
The gathering climaxed when the president delivered his parting shot: “One nation, one flag, one homeland, one country.” By then, many of the elderly drivers were on their feet, punching the air or raising one arm in salute.
Ayse Ozdogan, a modestly dressed woman with a headscarf, came early with her taxi driver husband to hear every word of her driver. A crutch settled into the seat next to her. She struggles to walk but can’t stay away.
“Erdogan is everything to me,” she said with a wide smile. “We couldn’t get to hospitals before, but now we can get around easily. We have transportation. We have everything. He developed roads. He built mosques. He developed the country with high-speed trains and subways.”
The president’s nationalist message drew many in the crowd, including Kadir Cavlioglu, 58, who has been driving a minibus for 40 years. “Since we love our country and our nation, we walk firmly behind the president.”
“We are with him every step of the way,” he said, “whether the price of potatoes or onions goes up or down. Dear President, he is our hope.”
When Turks went to the polls earlier this month, they weren’t voting with their money. Food prices are on the rise. Punishment inflation rate reached 43%.
However, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who controls the economy and many other things here – came out on top with 49.5% of the vote. That confused analysts and provided a lesson here – beware of polls.
His rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the secular opposition, received 44.9%. So, the electorate in this polarized country was split – both sides strongly opposed but there were only 4% apart.
The ultra-nationalist candidate, Sinan Ogan, received an unexpected 5.2% vote, pushing the competition into a second round on Sunday. He has now supported President Erdogan.
Why did most voters stick with him despite the economic crisis, and the government’s slow response to the catastrophic twin earthquakes in February, which killed at least 50,000 people?
“I think it is [ultimate] “Teflon politics,” says Professor Süley Özel, who lectures on international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, also has a common touch. You can’t deny that. exudes strength. This is something Kilicdaroglu does not do.”
Backed by the opposition’s six-party alliance, Kilicdaroglu used to breathe hope, promising freedom and democracy.
But after being disappointed in the first round, he made a sharp turn to the right. Now there are fewer caring grandfathers and more patriotic militants. According to a Turkish journalist, “It’s a race to the bottom.”
“I am announcing here that I will repatriate all refugees once I am elected president,” Mr. Kilicdaroglu said at a recent campaign rally.
This includes more than three million Syrians who have fled the war in their country. It is a message that is going well in Türkiye.
No matter who will be the next president of Turkey, nationalism is already the winner here. Voters elected the most patriotic and conservative parliament ever, with Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party coalition retaining control.
For some young voters, it is as if Death has already been thrown in here. Sitting on a red sofa under a rainbow flag, Zeynep, 21, and Mert, 23, serve hot Turkish tea and worry about the future.
Both study psychology at Bogazici University, a respected educational institution with a history of now-suppressed student protests. Their friendship began at the university’s LGBTQ+ club, which has since closed. Pride parades have been banned as of 2015.
During the election campaign, the president has been targeting the community. “No homosexuals come out of this nation,” he said at a rally in the city of Izmir. “We don’t distort our family structure. Stand up straight like a man, and our families are like that.”
Society now faces increased danger, according to Mert, who has dark, shoulder-length hair and earrings.
“Erdogan himself, in every speech and every event he holds, has begun to portray us as targets,” he said. “Day after day, the state is making an enemy out of us.”
A new Turkish century
“What the government says has an impact on people. You see it reflected in those close to you, even in your family. If this continues, then what? We always end up living on alert, always on edge, always in fear,” he said.
Zainab – with dark eyes and expressive hands – still hopes for a new era but knows it may not come. “I am 21 and they have been here for 20 years,” she said.
“I want a change, and if I don’t see that I will be sad and afraid. They will attack us more; they will take away our rights more. They will ban a lot of things, I think. But we still do something, we will still fight.”
On Sunday, voters will head to the polls for the first presidential run-off in their history as their country enters a turning point.
It has been nearly 100 years since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established Turkey as a secular republic.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan promises a new “Turkish century” if he is re-elected.
His supporters say he will further develop and strengthen Türkiye. His critics say it will be less Ataturk, more Islamization, and a bleaker future.
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