Ramazan Kacmaz says his family of five wouldn’t have survived eastern Turkey’s harsh winter without the free coal he received, courtesy of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
For him, that outweighs the millions of dollars in bribes that Erdogan and his government are accused of pocketing.
“I don’t care about the corruption allegations,” Kacmaz, a 49-year-old Kurd, said at a March 14 rally for Erdogan’s party, where he was selling green almonds on a pushcart. “I have no question in my mind about Erdogan, he loves the poor and we are supporting him.”
More than 10,000 people joined Kacmaz to greet the premier in the southeastern city of Batman, where he was campaigning for the March 30 local elections. The crowd was swollen because some schools were closed, while buses brought in supporters from nearby cities. It remained testament to the backing Erdogan enjoys among poorer Turks, who have seen living standards surge under his 11-year rule.
That’s one reason the premier has a fighting chance of pulling off a ballot victory that he says will be enough to lay the graft charges to rest. In a local equivalent of Watergate and Wikileaks combined, a deluge of wiretapped recordings from police investigations has flooded the Internet, calling into question everything from the financial probity of ministers to their religious piety to the independence of a media browbeaten by the government.
Erdogan’s opponents have taken to the streets again, in protest. Yet polls still give his Justice and Development Party or AKP, which says the allegations have been fabricated by its enemies, a clear lead.
“The corruption scandal so far has not been a game-changer, and is unlikely to undermine the AKP’s support in upcoming local polls,” said Naz Masraff, an analyst at political-risk assessor Eurasia Group in London. “For the poorer sections of the AKP’s base, the economy will matter considerably more.”
Turkey’s economy has grown about 5 percent a year since Erdogan’s party came to power in 2002. Measured by purchasing power, output per capita has almost doubled to more than $15,000, according to the International Monetary Fund.
That doesn’t make him invulnerable, because there are signs that the economy will at some point take a hit from the scandal.
The benchmark stock index is down about 13 percent since the graft probe was made public on Dec. 17, forecasters from JPMorgan Chase & Co. to Morgan Stanley have slashed growth forecasts, and the lira’s slide pushed the central bank into an emergency rate increase in January.
And the local vote is just the first in a sequence that will see Turks elect a president in August and a new parliament next year.
Eventually, “falling growth numbers, increasing unemployment and inflation will likely undermine the AKP’s support, and particularly among the poor,” Masraff said. Also, “more credible allegations linking Erdogan and his close associates to corruption” could still affect this month’s results, she said.
While polls vary wildly, most show AKP leading competitors in the race, after winning 39 percent of the vote in the last local ballots in 2009. In the 2011 parliamentary election, it got 50 percent.
Seeking to shore up that vote, Erdogan has racked up thousands of miles traversing the country for rallies. Everywhere he goes, from Istanbul in the northeast to Batman near Syria, he can point to local achievements that carry his party’s signature.
In Batman, a largely Kurdish city, those include the removal of decades-old restrictions on the Kurdish language in education and media. Erdogan’s government has also broken taboos by starting a dialogue with Kurdish militants to end a 30-year conflict that has left tens of thousands dead.
“We think we found a good partner and clicked with Erdogan,” said Sertac Okay, a member of a platform that brings together Kurdish non-government organizations. “The Kurds fear that graft allegations may undermine the peace process.”
In Istanbul, where Erdogan was mayor and his party has been in charge since the 1990s, taxi-driver Engin Can, 36, points to each metro station he drives past. “None of this was here before,” he says. “It’s a gift from Erdogan.” In the past, he said, the city’s poor walked on broken sidewalks and waited for broken-down buses.
Can, like voters at the Batman rally hundreds of miles southeast, cites religious reasons for supporting the government as well as economic ones. “Erdogan’s a proud Muslim, I’m a proud Muslim,” he said.
Erdogan’s party has roots in Islamist movements, and has lifted curbs on religious expression that were in force under past governments when the secular army was Turkey’s dominant political force.
“He freed Islamic headscarves, he brought freedoms to us,” said 58-year-old farmer Sadik Coskun, who drove to Batman with his family from a nearby village to hear Erdogan speak. “They are flinging dirt at the premier because they are jealous of his success, the stability that he brought to the country.”
Turkey’s opposition says the government exploits religion to appeal to voters, while its solicitude for the poor often amounts to election bribes.
In the western town of Turgutlu, authorities have been handing out 50-lira ($22) food vouchers. Election officials ordered a halt after an objection by the Republican People’s Party, Vatan newspaper reported yesterday. During the 2009 campaign, the distribution of free washing machines, televisions and refrigerators sparked similar complaints.
Batman in the east has more than its share of poor. It had the highest unemployment rate in the country in 2012, 25 percent compared with a nationwide figure of 10 percent, according to official data.
Erdogan’s government has invested more than $30 billion in the southeast, building hospitals, schools and airports. In a speech lasting more than an hour at last week’s rally in Batman, the premier promised to keep expanding services and creating jobs.
He’s the only Turkish politician who can be trusted to do that, said Kacmaz, the almond-seller, who was listening. “There’s no one around better than him.”
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