Published On: Fri, Mar 28th, 2014

Turkish PM divides nation and neighbourhoods ahead of local elections

A 10-minute drive from the heart of Istanbul, armoured police cars guard the “border” separating a conservative government loyalist area from a neighbourhood backing the leftwing opposition.

Under the embattled prime minister, Recep Tayipp Erdogan, the district of Okmeydani is split down the middle ahead of nationwide local elections this weekend that will decide who gets to run Turkey’s biggest city, as well its political capital, Ankara.

“Our neighbourhood is polarised,” says Aslan, a 30-year-old textile worker. “The division is sharper than before because [Erdogan’s governing] is all about one leader who dominates everything. All his ministers, everyone in their party listens to Erdogan. He is ready to risk anything just to stay in power.”

Tension in the district has soared in the run-up to Sunday’s ballot because of the killings of two youths locally in clashes with police.

Much is at stake. Turks will go to the polls against a backdrop of increasing political turmoil and in the first popular test for Erdogan since last summer’s widespread street protests.

The prime minister has faced multiple challenges to his 11-year-rule amid growing opposition to his authoritarian style. In response to allegations of mass corruption inside the government, Erdogan appears to have opted for a strategy of dividing the country into loyalists and traitors. He purged the police and judiciary of critics and passed laws that weakened constitutional checks and balances on the executive.

In the past week, in a further sign of crackdown on dissenters, Turkey’s telecoms authority blocked access to Twitter and on Thursday announced that it was taking similar action against YouTube.

On Tuesday, the daily newspaper Hürriyet resorted to publishing an open letter to the prime minister after he rounded on its parent company, Dogan Media, for its criticism of the government.

“We expect you to not discriminate between citizens and institutions as the prime minister of 76 million people,” the newspaper told Erdogan. “Whatever percentage of votes you get, it should be your and all of our duty after the elections to defuse the dangerous polarisation and the tension that has spread throughout the whole country.”

The consequences of this divide-and-rule strategy are evident in Okmeydani, a neighbourhood in Istanbul’s central Beyoglu district, that recently made headlines following the deaths of Berkin Elvan, a teenager who died after being hit in the head by a teargas canister during last summer’s protests, and of Burakcan Karamanoglu, a 22-year-old who was shot in the head during clashes between opposing groups in the neighbourhood.

The youths lived on opposing sides of the riven community. In the upper part of Okmeydani, predominantly housing the Alevi minority, countless graffiti slogans show the dominance of radical leftist groups. “No entry to fascists” and “Berkin Elvan is immortal”, they read.

On the other side of the “border”, the flags of rightwing, Islamist and conservative parties prevail. Graffiti proclaims “Okmeydani will be a graveyard for communism” and “Martyrs never die”. Almost all the shops on the lively high street display posters mourning Karamanoglu.

Despite public pleas by both youths’ fathers not to exploit their son’s deaths for political purposes, Erdogan repeatedly lauded Karamanoglu as a martyr during campaign rallies, while calling 15-year-old Elvan, who was killed by a teargas capsule while going to buy bread, a terrorist.

A local shop owner said he was alarmed by the prime minister’s comments: “If you call one boy that was killed a terrorist, and another that was killed in the same neighbourhood a martyr, what do you think will happen?” Does he feel forced to take sides? The man shakes his head, but adds that he is uncomfortable with the rising tension. “There have not been any threats, but the psychological pressure is high. I have children, too, and I am afraid for them and their future.”

Not everyone agrees. In a shop a few yards up the street, the 46-year-old owner brushes off the concerns. “I have lived here for over 30 years,” he explains. “We get along fine. There have been some tragic events, but we will not let that come between us.”

At a nearby election rally for Kadir Topbas, the mayoral candidate of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), hundreds of supporters brandish Turkish flags, AKP scarves and posters of Karamanoglu. It is early afternoon, and the crowd consists predominantly of women.

“We owe much to our prime minister,” says a 42-year-old woman who wishes to remain anonymous. “I still remember when I was not allowed to wear my headscarf, when I was humiliated for it. I remember rubbish in the streets. We didn’t have running water.”

A textile worker, 49, agrees that life has improved under the Erdogan government. “Before there was crime, and the streets were dirty. There was nothing to buy in the store – no sugar, no cigarettes, nothing. Now we have everything in abundance. We also have peace, no more soldiers are dying.” In his eyes, there is no viable alternative. “If the [opposition Republican People’s party] CHP would produce a good leader, we would vote for him. But we can’t see anyone.”

In another part of town some men from Okmeydani have joined the rally of the CHP mayoral candidate Mustafa Sarigül. They say that they feel threatened by the government’s increasingly anti-Alevi stance.

Hamdi, 45, a musician, cites a planned urban renewal project as his biggest fear: “If the AKP wins again, Okmeydani will be lost. It will simply disappear, with all the poor people in it. It will make way for big residences and the rich.”

Referring to recent and repeated attacks on CHP election offices in the area, one man adds: “But they will not win votes by attacking us with knives and sticks. They use religion to divide us, but that will not work either.”

One local craftsman suggests that Erdogan’s style of governing has become untenable for the country: “In Turkey, we now have the situation that one half of the country loves the prime minister unconditionally whereas the other half not only does not vote for him, but truly hates him. One half of the country cannot stand to hear his voice, or see his face on posters, or on TV. How can you rule a country like that?”