Rumblings in political heartland may spell trouble for Turkey’s AK Party

Hot air balloons rise over the Cappadocian town of Göreme, where 23 hot air balloon companies compete for business. Turkey’s tourism industry could be hurt, however, by images of ongoing protests and an increasingly belligerent prime minister. Photograph: Stephen Starr

Hot air balloons rise over the Cappadocian town of Göreme, where 23 hot air balloon companies compete for business. Turkey’s tourism industry could be hurt, however, by images of ongoing protests and an increasingly belligerent prime minister. Photograph: Stephen Starr

Sat, Mar 1, 2014, 01:00

When Turkey’s AK Party swept to power in 2002, it did so through striking a deep ideological chord with the people of dozens of unremarkable regional cities in Anatolia. Today, the ruling party’s heartland lies in and around the central Turkish city of Kayseri, where ambitions of industrial expansion coupled with conservative Islam mirror perfectly the ruling AK Party’s ethos.

There are several reasons the AK (Justice and Development) Party has taken a stranglehold of Kayseri and wider central Anatolia: Turkey’s president and party co-founder, Abdullah Gül, was born here, while the Sabanci family, employers of almost 60,000 people in a variety of sectors in Kayseri and across Turkey, also call this region home.

Mayor Mehmet Özhaseki was returned to office in a landslide win in 2009, which saw 70 per cent of votes cast go his way. He has been considered the one most responsible for revamping the city’s fortunes.

Campaign trail
Özhaseki is already on the campaign trail for the March 30th local elections, pouring tea for the elderly, opening a new light rail line and hosting hundreds of people at a city youth centre during February.

In what has become increasingly typical of the AK party’s extravagant approach to public projects, he announced plans for an ambitious multibillion- dollar urban overhaul of the city in January, which is to include a 500,000sq m park with extensive water features.

A foremost “Anatolian tiger” city, Kayseri is also home to a newly-built, futuristic-styled football stadium; and of the more than 900 factories in the city’s industrial zone, 139 have opened in the past 10 years alone. Cement and brick factories scattered across the region’s rural hinterland suggest a motivated local economy at work.

Direct flights to Tehran, London and almost 70 other destinations have added to the sense of an emerging cosmopolitanism. The city also serves as the gateway to Cappadocia, an hour’s drive west and an important source of foreign currency for the region.

Cappadocia, an area spread over silky-smooth plains with fairy chimneys and houses built into rock, has an otherworldly feel. But here, too, industry is hard at work.

On a recent February morning at least 43 hot air balloons had appeared over the village of Göreme by 7am. Here, 23 hot air balloon companies compete for business and though the balloons are an impressive sight, operators expect three times as many customers – 2,000 per day paying around €130 each – by summer.

However, 80 per cent of Turkey’s tourism revenue comes from the pockets of foreign visitors, and images of ongoing protests and an increasingly belligerent prime minister hurt places such as Cappadocia more than most.

The release this week of a series of phone recordings allegedly made last December between prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his son, Bilal, has thrown the government into renewed woedifficulties. Ankara has denied the recordings are authentic, and blamed a host of opponents for trying to blacken the prime minister’s name.

But for some, Erdogan’s rhetoric may be wearing thin. “The truth is,” said Fatih, a restaurant waiter in Göreme, Cappadocia, “is that everyone here hates Erdogan, but there is no alternative. Who is there to stand against him?”

For Kayseri’s booming factories, the global pull away from emerging market investments is worrying. Coupled with an increase in Turkish interest rates from four to nine per cent in January, questions fester about what lies ahead for the Anatolian tiger region.

Kayseri has some of the worst air quality of any Turkish city, while trucks kicking up chalky dust along Cappadocia’s famed trekking routes please few tourists.

The Nationalist Movement Party’s (MHP) mayoral candidate for Kayseri, Mustafa Özsoy, says that over 50 factory enterprises have left the city, many to Ethiopia, citing the weakening of the Turkish lira against the US dollar as a key reason.

Speaking to The Irish Times , Özsoy, the chief challenger to the AK Party for mayor in this month’s local elections, echoes other opposition politicians across Turkey: that the incumbent is old, that he’s been in power for 20 years and that “we need new blood in that position”.

Though nationally a minor political player, at the last local elections in 2009, the right- wing MHP won 27 per cent of the province’s assembly seats.

“Kayseri last year had 52,000 tourists coming from outside the city; the potential touristic number calculated is 5.2 million people a year,” he said. Özsoy also wants to build a 32-kilometre pass along the Zamanti river, a kayaking favourite, and to expand the city’s timeworn airport, should he be elected mayor.

Weakened vote
Although the AK Party is expected to hold sway in both the Kayseri mayoral and provincial ballots, recreating the sweeping victory of 2009 may be beyond it.

A weakened vote on March 30th may point to more trouble down the road for prime minister Erdogan, who has designs on competing in next August’s presidential race.

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