(wsj.com)

Sultan of the Turkish Republic?

a/Opinion by

On March 30th, Turkey will go to the polls in nationwide municipal elections. After a summer of anti-government protests, an economic downturn, and a corruption scandal implicating prominent members of the ruling party’s inner circle, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become a polarizing figure in Turkish society. Although he does not face re-election until 2015, these local elections are widely seen as a referendum on Erdogan’s vision for the Turkish Republic.

In interviews with a broad segment of Turkey’s population, voters expressed their sentiments towards Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the lead-up to the local elections. Due to fears of a government backlash against critics, the subjects of these interviews preferred only to disclose their first names.

Özge, a biology teacher at an Istanbul public high school, says she worries about the direction of the country under continued AKP rule. “The AKP wants to make Turkey look like it was before Ataturk – an Eastern country with no reference to a Western country and no democracy,” she said over tea at a Turkish restaurant. “What I want, and what many people want, is secularism.”

Her concern is a common one among the secular population in Turkey. Erdogan was raised in Kasımpaşa, a religious, working-class neighborhood along Istanbul’s Golden Horn, and has long supported the introduction of Islam into politics. Early on as prime minister, he was careful to balance the country’s secular political culture with the desire of many for a more sharia-based state. Now, many secular Turks worry that this delicate balance has shifted in the direction of Islamism.

Seljuk, a former member of Turkey’s Communist Party, jailed from 1982 to 1992 for voicing his beliefs, was more critical of the AKP’s authoritarianism than its Islamist agenda. “Erdogan plays a game,” he said from the offices of Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, where he is a volunteer. “[Erdogan] is not a person who is really for democracy. He uses democracy to get what he wants. So he’s a fascist.”

When asked about the specific policies that make Erdogan fascist, Seljuk pointed to the lack of freedom in the press. “The newspapers in Turkey are not journalism anymore,” he said. “Erdogan chooses what they write. This is not normal for a democratic country.”

According to the 2014 Journalists Without Borders Freedom of Press Index, Turkey ranks 154th in the freedom of its press, below countries such as Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. It is a source of much amusement here that during the height of the Gezi Park protests last summer, CNN Turk broadcast March of the Penguins rather than footage of the demonstrations.

More recently, Erdogan vowed to “wipe out Twitter,” following the release of audiotapes on the social media site that implicate his regime in wide-scale corruption. In the conservative city of Bursa, where AKP support is high, Erdogan proclaimed to a crowd of supporters that he is not concerned about the inevitable backlash from the West after his banning of the social media site. “I don’t care what the international community says at all,” he yelled in a fiery speech. “Everyone will see the power of the Turkish Republic.”

Hülya, a women’s rights activist for the CHP, says she is disgusted by Erdogan’s crackdown on the media. “When I see this sort of behavior, I think that Erdogan is a dictator, like Hitler was for Germany,” she said in response to a question about Erdogan’s censorship policies. “I don’t want my children to ask me one day: What have you done with our country? How could you have let Erdogan do that?”

The problem for those like Hülya, Seljuk, and Özge is that while Erdogan is altering Turkey’s political culture, away from secularism and toward authoritarianism and Islamism, he is making these changes within a democratic system in which he enjoys broad support. The Western media often neglects just how popular Erdogan is in Turkey. The AKP’s pro-development agenda, paired with its social conservatism and conciliatory attitude toward the Kurdish minority, has won the party support from all segments of Turkish society.

Yavuz, a religious conservative who works as an umbrella salesman in the  vibrant Istanbul neighborhood of Besiktas, said that he supports the AKP because of its social agenda. “In the university dorms, the boys are separated from the girls. That is how it is supposed to be. I don’t want my sister to stay in the same apartment with a strange guy. Would you want that?”

Cengiz, a restaurant owner of Kurdish descent, is more interested in the way in which the AKP has improved the situation for the Kurdish minority. “Before the AKP, the situation of the Kurdish people was so bad. I was not allowed to speak Kurdish in public. It was forbidden.” Now, he says that the rights of Kurds have improved significantly. According to Cengiz, these changes are “because of Erdogan.”

Although the majority of secular Turks do not support the AKP, some more concerned with the economy are willing to make an exception. Since coming to power twelve years ago, Erdogan has improved the country’s notoriously bad infrastructure, slimmed its bloated bureaucracy, liberalized trade, and achieved an eight percent average growth-rate per year. These feats earned the AKP some support among the secular upper-middle class.

Furkan, a student in electrical engineering at Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul, finds himself in this demographic. “Turkey has changed a lot in the past twelve years,” he said nearby the Besiktas ferry. “[Erdogan] has so many projects that he plans and succeeds in. For example, in 2002 the streets were shit, but now have a look. They are beautiful, like the Autobahn.”

When asked how these economic or social successes justify Erdogan’s undemocratic behavior, Muhammad, a student at an Istanbul university he would not disclose, preferred to dwell on the pragmatic. “Look, for the last 12 years, the rule was good. That is what matters.”

As voters go to the polls next Sunday, they will have to weigh the AKP’s economic success against its growing authoritarianism, corruption, and Islamism. Many say this election is one of the most important in years.

—Dan Lombroso is a McGill student abroad at Bogazici University in Istanbul. To see his conversations with over thirty different Turkish citizens about the upcoming elections, visit his photoblog Voices of Istanbul. If you are a Turkish citizen interested in taking part in the project, you can contact him at [email protected]