Bitter campaigning exposes Turkey’s cultural divide

June 8, 2015
(Supporters of the ruling AK Party wear masks of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan during an election rally in Konya, central Turkey, March 28, 2014. Erdogan pulled out of election rallies in central Turkey on Friday in order to rest his voice after weeks of campaigning around the country, his office said. Erdogan had difficulty speaking at rallies in southeast Turkey on Thursday, ahead of Sunday's local elections. Turkey will hold municipal elections on March 30. REUTERS/Umit Bektas)

(Supporters of the ruling AK Party wear masks of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan during an election rally in Konya, central Turkey, March 28, 2014. REUTERS/Umit Bektas)

The mosques of Konya are 600 km and a world away from the boulevards and sleek bars of coastal Izmir, two Turkish cities separated by a cultural gulf that looks only set to widen after Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

Over the last 13 years, the AK Party founded by President Tayyip Erdogan has transformed the economy and come closer than any other previous government to solving a three-decade Kurdish insurgency in the southeast.

But the conservative, Islamist-rooted AKP has made little attempt to resolve Turkey’s growing polarisation, exacerbating the problem through divisive campaigning, critics say.

That could make it difficult for the AKP to win a broad enough victory on Sunday to change the constitution and fulfil Erdogan’s ambition to secure new executive presidential powers. It could also make Turkey harder to unite and govern once the voting is over.

Turks on both sides of the gulf – pro-Western liberals who look to the secular state founded by Kemal Ataturk and pious Anatolians who rally to Erdogan – have developed siege mentalities, threatened by the other side.

“The opposition can try to dismantle this life of ours, but they won’t be able to,” said 38-year-old Ender, a teacher standing at the gates of the Islamic school where she works in Konya, an industrial city in the Anatolian heartland.

Religion was suppressed in the public sphere under the uncompromisingly secular Kemalists, with women banned from wearing headscarves in universities and in the civil service. That has changed with the AKP, which draws its support from millions of devout voters who long felt marginalised.

The Turkish state is now more visibly Islamic, with thousands of religious schools – like the one where Ender teaches Arabic – springing up with government support. State schools also teach religion, something that rankles secular Turks in places like cosmopolitan Izmir.

“The AKP is trying to turn Turkey into a religious, Middle East-type country where freedoms are limited and women are segregated from the public sphere,” said Sevinc Atalay, a 67-year-old retired primary school teacher.

“These were not the ideals of Ataturk and the modern Turkish people.”


Sunday’s parliamentary election could reshape Turkey’s system of government. Erdogan, intolerant of dissent and hypersensitive to criticism, wants the AKP to win a sweeping majority to allow it to change the constitution.

Recent polls suggest such a convincing victory is unlikely, and the AKP may even struggle to win enough seats to stay in power as a single-party government.

With economic growth stalling, Erdogan – who as head of state is supposed to be above party politics – has become increasingly divisive on the stump.

“Erdogan’s campaign has almost exclusively focused on ideological issues related to Islam and Turkish nationalism. He has drifted away from the broad-based campaigns of earlier elections to a core-voteĀ strategy,” said Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at Chatham House, a UK think-tank.

The AKP’s bitter campaigning will eventually take its toll on Turkish society, said a Fevzi Kilic, a politician from the small right-wing Saadet Party in Konya.

“Erdogan has made out those who don’t vote for him to be traitors,” he said. “I can’t even speak to some of my relatives anymore because of politics.”

Signs of partisanship are clearly visible in the streets of Konya, the hometown of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and once a sleepy city before the AKP came to power and investment poured in, even bringing a high-speed rail link.

“Our Konya, Our Prime Minister,” one enormous banner draped down the side of a building reads. “Looking After Konya’s Son,” says another. In 2011 the city voted overwhelmingly for AKP, with support in some areas nearing 80 percent.

Muzaffer Yilmaz drives a battered taxi in Konya and will vote AKP. He has no doubt his city has benefitted from government patronage, while opposition bastions like Izmir have suffered.

“The president and prime minister are saying they will not let the country get divided but they abandoned Izmir,” Yilmaz said.



Nestled on the western coast and infused with Aegean culture, Izmir is often referred to as the “castle” of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

In 2011, the CHP won 44 pct of the vote in Izmir, far above its 26 percent national share.

“Izmir is a pragmatic, trade-focused city,” said Koray Caliskan, a political science professor at Bosphorus University and a native of Izmir. “Izmir is always against any movement that is introverted in character. The ideological and cultural reflection of this is Kemalism.”

That outlook has come under fire from the ruling party during the campaign.

“What the CHP young people in Izmir understand from freedom is dressing in a very revealing way, getting drunk and partying until morning,” AKP lawmaker Cuma Icten said on Twitter last month.

Many Izmir residents fear their way of life – rooted in the secular political credos of Ataturk – is under threat, and accuse Erdogan of authoritarianism and Islamism.

“Izmir is the modern and enlightened face of this country and will continue to be so,” said Atalay, the retired teacher.

“This is what the AKP cannot stand and is constantly trying to attack.”

via Bitter campaigning exposes Turkey’s cultural divide | Reuters.

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