Turkey protests failed to shake grassroots support for AK Party

Conservative heartland benefits from strong pro-business policy of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party

In Kayseri, where Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party’s much-vaunted ‘democratic conservatism’ and its strong pro-business approach have proved popular with the city’s pious capitalists, most of whom have made their fortunes from textiles and furniture manufacturing.

In Kayseri, where Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party’s much-vaunted ‘democratic conservatism’ and its strong pro-business approach have proved popular with the city’s pious capitalists, most of whom have made their fortunes from textiles and furniture manufacturing.

Thu, Aug 1, 2013, 01:00

Rumeysa and her friend Irem sit chatting in the food court of the Kayseri Forum, a shopping mall in the heart of this conservative central Anatolian city which has transformed itself within a generation into one of Turkey’s biggest manufacturing hubs.

Both are students. Rumeysa wears the headscarf; Irem does not. While Rumeysa, a supporter of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party (AKP), frowned on the harsh police crackdown on June’s anti-government protests, she thinks the AKP is steering the country in the right direction. Irem disagrees.

“It feels like only one type of person is on the rise in Turkey today,” she says. “The AKP only look after their own.”

Irem’s is a minority view in Kayseri, where the AKP’s much vaunted ‘democratic conservatism’ and its strong pro-business approach have proved popular with the city’s pious capitalists, most of whom have made their fortunes from textiles and furniture manufacturing.

Turkey’s president, the AKP’s Abdullah Gul, is one of the city’s most famous sons, and seven of the nine local parliamentarians are from the party. It was hardly surprising that, at the height of the nationwide demonstrations, Erdogan chose Kayseri as the backdrop for a fiery speech denouncing the rallies.

Saviour
“The AKP is seen as a saviour here in Kayseri,” says Mahmut Hichyilmaz, president of the Kayseri chamber of commerce, reeling off the city’s annual export figures of $1.65 billion along with plans to create more industrial zones, a high-speed train connection and a ski resort for the nearby Erciyes mountain. “But it’s not just Kayseri, all of Turkey has benefited from the AKP over the past decade.”

Hichyilmaz echoes Erdogan’s framing of the June protesters as “marginals” cooperating with external powers and murky speculators to disrupt average economic growth rates of 5 to 7 per cent and undermine Turkey’s rise as a regional – and G20 – player to be reckoned with.

It’s a common refrain here: locals like to stress their city’s role in what one described as “Turkey’s economic miracle” – development that has resulted in the country’s middle class swelling to 59 per cent under the AKP, up from 25 per cent in 1995.

But for all Kayseri’s reputation as an AKP stronghold, it was not immune to the demonstrations that swept across Turkey after police used excessive force to break up a small environmental protest in Istanbul on May 31st.

Abdullah Ozturk, an electrical engineer in his late 20s, was one of the thousands (he claims up to 10,000) who took to the streets in the city. YouTube videos show clashes between protesters and the police, though far from the scale of what happened in Istanbul and other major cities.

“It was a surprise for people because Kayseri is seen as a quiet, conservative city where everyone supports the government,” says Ozturk. “We proved that is not the case.”

Ozturk, a member of a communist party, described the Kayseri protesters as a mix of leftists, nationalists, supporters of the Kemalist CHP (the AKP’s main opposition), and non-aligned football fans and youth.

‘People woke up’
“The majority were young people, many of whom had no interest in politics before,” he says. “It was as if people suddenly woke up.” Members of the Anti-Capitalist Muslims group, whose founder is from Kayseri, also took part.

At the Istanbul demonstrations in June, one headscarved young woman told me she joined the Anti-Capitalist Muslims to challenge “the Islamic bourgeoisie” of the AKP. Another was even more contemptuous: “[The AKP] love money more than God, money is their religion.”

Ozturk chafes under what, in his view, constitutes a creeping authoritarianism, laced with religious overtones, on the part of the AKP. “They always tell people how they should live, how many kids they should have, what they should wear, what they should drink,” he says. “They are encouraging polarisation. The AKP are behaving like the people they criticised before they came to power.”

Abdullah Ucgul, a CHP coordinator in Kayseri, says his party hopes to capitalise on anti-AKP sentiment in the next elections, though he admits it is difficult to gauge whether the demonstrations will transform into votes for the CHP at the ballot box.

The dilemma for the party, whose share of the vote has haemorrhaged steadily in recent years, is how to challenge the AKP’s dominance, which, polls suggest, was not shaken much by the protests.

“Erdogan might have his flaws,” says Ahmed, a Kayseri resident who voted for the AKP in the last election. “But there isn’t much of an alternative.”