Rumblings of dissent in Turkish prime minister’s stronghold

The people of Kasimpasa, Erdogan’s own district, are divided over their famous son

An anti-government protester raises a poster depicting Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan during a demonstration in central Ankara yesterday. Photograph: Umit Bektas/Reuters

An anti-government protester raises a poster depicting Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan during a demonstration in central Ankara yesterday. Photograph: Umit Bektas/Reuters

 

Around a sun-dappled cafe table in Istanbul’s hardscrabble Kasimpasa district, Hatice Ustbas and her friends are arguing over their neighbourhood’s most famous son – Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Appearances can be deceptive: of all the women nursing tulip-shaped glasses of tea, Hatice is the only one who does not wear a headscarf. Yet she is Erdogan’s staunchest defender at the table. Hatice bristles at the suggestion that his bullish handling of what began as a small protest over the razing of an Istanbul park has now sparked demonstrations across Turkey and the biggest challenge to his leadership in more than a decade in power.

“At a time like this people should remember what Erdogan has done for this area, what he has done for Turkey,” she says of the man some Kasimpasa residents refer to as Baba, or father, in Turkish. “The first protests over the park were acceptable but later they became something different: a provocation by people with certain agendas.”

Across the table, septuagenarian Nebahat Kopuz shakes her head. Having long voted for Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice & Development Party (AKP), she agrees with the protesters chanting “Tayyip Istifa! [Resign!]” a short walk away in Taksim Square, site of the park controversially earmarked for development.

“It felt like we were almost close to civil war,” she says of the days last week when riot police filled the streets and clouds of teargas floated over Istanbul.

“I have never seen anything like it. I was afraid even in my own home. Erdogan should have tried to calm things but his words were divisive.”

Hatice Aydeniz nods in agreement. “He’s the prime minister of Turkey and the prime minister shouldn’t use words like ‘looters’ and ‘extremists’ to describe the people.”


AKP heartland
Kasimpasa, a conservative district which clings to one of Istanbul’s many hills, is considered an AKP heartland. Its residents are among the 50 per cent of Turkish voters who handed Erdogan’s party a huge electoral victory two years ago.

The AKP’s share of the vote was almost twice as large as that of the biggest opposition party, the CHP. This is the mandate Erdogan boasted of last weekend when he denounced the growing protests against him as ideologically driven.

Many in Kasimpasa and other AKP strongholds share that view, believing that police whom protesters accuse of brutal tactics were simply forced to respond to rioters who, incited by opposition leaders and foreigners, had gone on a rampage. “This was not just an innocent protest about a park, this was the work of external forces who are afraid of Turkey and don’t want to see our country grow and prosper,” says Gungor Sivri, a local barber and AKP voter who talks proudly of how Erdogan steered Turkey towards economic growth and brought it clout on the international stage. “The goal of these protests was to provoke us but Erdogan responded in a commonsense way. However, they should know that we will act if necessary.”


Demands ‘legitimate’
Despite such support, Erdogan has not been immune to criticism from Turkey’s religiously conservative milieu.

In veiled remarks, Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who leads a powerful Islamic movement from exile in the US, has stated that the demands of the protesters were legitimate and the violence used against them reprehensible. Columnists at a newspaper linked to Gulen’s movement have griped over Erdogan’s leadership style.

There are other rumblings of dissent here in Kasimpasa, where the local football club’s stadium was recently renamed after Erdogan.

Residents once took pride in how the prime minister embodied what Turks call “Kasimpasa man”: blunt, macho and prickly. Now some mutter over what they say appears to be a slide towards authoritarianism. Hatice Aydeniz takes umbrage at his repeated declarations that women should have at least three children. “The prime minister is trying to enter people’s bedrooms – it is too much,” she exclaims.


Arrogant and overbearing
Across the square, next to an Ottoman-era cistern, Selim Cicek, a retired printer, argues that Kasimpasa’s local boy made good has become arrogant and overbearing. “Erdogan is like the sultans of the Ottoman Empire,” he says. “He acts like we should petition him and be grateful for every little thing.”

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