In Erdogan Stronghold, Adulation and Unease Ahead of Turkey Runoff

REUTERS/Umit Bektas
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends a rally, ahead of the May 28 presidential runoff vote, in Istanbul, Turkey May 27, 2023.

SIVAS, Turkey – Under rain clouds and helicopters, the president cruised into this city Tuesday on a bus bearing his seal, waving at people who lined the roads, supporters he has leaned on for years and years, and whose votes have helped make him the favorite in Turkey’s pivotal runoff election on Sunday.

“Sivas, once again, did what becomes it,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, addressing a large rally in the center of the city, set on a high plain in central Turkey. “I thank each of you for your love and support.”

Erdogan handily won Sivas in the election’s first round on May 14, garnering 69 percent of the vote there. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the main opposition challenger, earned just 24 percent. The president gained a four-point lead nationwide in the first round by tapping a deep wellspring of support in places like this, from people who describe themselves as Muslim conservatives or nationalists, or some combination of the two.

But away from Tuesday’s gathering of committed loyalists, some in Sivas described the support for the president as tenuous, despite his overwhelming victory – their votes for him the result of limited choices, or cast mainly in fear of what his successor might bring.

The unease – mostly voiced by younger voters – was one measure of a campaign season as toxic as any in recent memory, marked by naked appeals to nationalism and xenophobia that overshadowed the daily worries of Turkey’s citizens, stung by economic hardship and still grieving the staggering loss from earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 people a few months ago.

Merve Kirac, 27, who sat near Erdogan’s rally but did not attend, said she wanted Turkey to be “run better.” Her priorities were “education, the economy, and for everyone to be able to express their thoughts and opinions.”

She had voted for Erdogan, but said that “of course, if there was a better candidate in the opposition, I would have voted for that candidate.”

Erdogan seemed to acknowledge the unsettled state of the electorate Tuesday, imploring his loyalists to do more to get the word out. Generations of people from Sivas had migrated to Istanbul, Turkey’s most populous city, over the years, and they needed to be convinced too, he told the crowd.

“You are going to mobilize all your countrymen from Sivas, all your relatives with telephone diplomacy,” Erdogan said. “Are we understood?”

Erdogan’s parliamentary alliance fared well in Sivas, a province of 635,000 people, but the president’s own Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has lost tens of thousands of votes since the last election in 2018. In between the two contests, Erdogan accumulated more power, intensified a crackdown on dissent and presided over an economic crisis that has left every household grappling with sky-high inflation – a state of affairs the opposition hoped would win them votes.

“Let me put it like this. If a decent candidate had stood, he would not have won,” said Bahattin Vural, 60, a retired topographer, referring to Erdogan. When it came to the current government, Sivas had plenty to gripe about. “Unemployment is up to your knees here,” he said.

But he too had voted for the president, he said. Among the opposition, “there is no leader.” Certainly not Kilicdaroglu: “The candidate was the wrong candidate,” he said.

Ulas Karasu, a member of parliament from Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party, or CHP, said the party “had a difficult time with the nationalist rhetoric that was used” by Erdogan and his allies during the election, which included the baseless accusation that Kilicdaroglu was aligned with terrorist groups.

The rhetoric “had a big effect on the people in this province,” he said. “We were not able to break this black propaganda.” The party was now focused on undecided voters, including those who had cast ballots for Sinan Ogan, a hard-right candidate who won 6 percent of the vote here.

The lesson from the first round, Karasu said, was that “we carried out a soft campaign. We carried out a campaign that was focused on the economy, on justice and on freedoms. The ruling party carried out a campaign against us based on nationalism – with harsh rhetoric – and our campaign felt soft in the face of this.”

Sivas is intimately familiar with the consequences of incendiary rhetoric, as the site of a massacre in 1993 carried out by Sunni Muslim extremists on a gathering of intellectuals and artists who were members of Turkey’s Alevi religious minority. Thirty-seven people were killed, their names now memorialized in the lobby of the building where the massacre took place, a former hotel that is now a science and culture center.

Some in Sivas said that discrimination against Kilicdaroglu, who is Alevi, may have played some small part in his failure to win more support in the province, but it wasn’t the deciding factor. The main issue, they said, was that he was the weakest candidate the opposition could have selected, after more enticing figures were sidelined by Kilicdaroglu or disqualified because they were prosecuted by the state.

And Kilicdaroglu was an easy mark for Erdogan, who has belittled him for years and cast him during the campaign as both a terrorist and a quisling for Western interests – accusations that stuck in the minds of some voters.

“I prefer a strong stance against foreign powers and terrorism,” said Bunyamin Eken, 39, who described himself as a “nationalist for Islam and the Ottoman Empire.” He faulted Kilicdaroglu for saying he would release political prisoners, including Selahattin Demirtas, the former leader of a large Kurdish-led political party.

He did worry about the economy. Eken, a machinist, said business had been slow because of less construction activity, a crisis that would continue at least through the end of the year, he reckoned. But for him, that did not reflect poorly on Erdogan.

“Sivas is a very nationalist province, and he is very beloved here,” he said.

Pakize Duman, 39, said she valued Erdogan as a champion of her conservative Muslim identity. “Whoever fights for our cause, we will support them.” It was also the attention Erdogan paid to this place, she said.

“He comes here for opening ceremonies. He is the one who had the Nation’s Garden made,” she said, referring to the park where she strolled Wednesday, across the street from a high-speed railway station Erdogan had also brought to the province. The city’s soccer stadium, the province’s first airport – all were built during his 20 years in power.

“All of our hospitals have been renewed, our schools have been renewed,” she said. “He is always getting things done.”

In the run-up to the elections, Erdogan sprinkled baubles around the country – wage raises for public workers, tax relief, energy subsidies – to entice voters. In Sivas, tickets on the new high-speed train to Ankara were offered free for a month.

But presidential enticements did not fix what ailed the city, including a high unemployment rate that had forced hundreds of thousands of residents to leave Sivas and settle elsewhere in Turkey, including in Istanbul. Yonca Kurum, 27, who is unemployed, said her primary worry was “job opportunities,” and that she was torn about who to vote for in the runoff, and was considering not voting at all.

She and her sister, Esra, 24, had voted for Ogan, the hard-right candidate, in the first round, a choice they attributed mainly to their “nationalist background.” But as they sat in a teahouse underneath Sivas’s famed Seljuk-era minarets, as a speaker could be heard warming up Erdogan’s supporters nearby, they framed their election choices as a dilemma, rather than any opportunity for meaningful change.

They were concerned with the country’s day-to-day management, but also judged harshly in Sivas if they did not vote for Erdogan. They were unimpressed with Kilicdaroglu’s coalition of opposition parties and generally dismissive of Turkey’s political dynamics. “People vote as if they are picking a team,” Esra said.

“I wouldn’t call it excitement,” she added, when asked about her feelings regarding the election. “I would call it anxiety.”