Loved and Feared, Invincible Erdogan Is Istanbul’s Favorite Son
Turkish pensioner Tenzile has one question about the boy she watched play soccer with his friends on her cobbled street in Istanbul all those years ago: How could anyone possibly dislike Recep Tayyip Erdogan?
“We know he’s honest, we trust him," Tenzile said through the metal bars on her window as she waited for the vegetable vendor to pull up in his car. She preferred to keep her family name to herself. "After he came to power, everybody got food, everybody got a job. Life was perfect. I wish everyone was like Erdogan."
Ardent supporters such as Tenzile see the crushing of a coup on July 15 as a validation of the enduring grassroots strength of Erdogan 14 years after coming to power. As the prime minister who tripled the size of the economy in a decade and now the most powerful president since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern Turkish state, Erdogan has beaten the same drum: stick with me or it will be anarchy, and each time it works.
Thousands responded to his call to take to the streets and public squares, while security forces rounded up thousands of opponents and shut media outlets. While Turkey remains divided, it reflected the adoration for the man loyalists believe turned their country into a regional powerhouse and stood up to secularists who banned devout Muslims from openly leading a conservative life, according to interviews with Turks of all ages in different districts of Istanbul.
"Erdogan has made the country richer than ever before, Turkey has more prestige than ever before and my family has more money than ever before,” said Haydar Sur, 50, who works in public health, as he finished up a syrupy, cream-topped bread pudding at a restaurant in the Uskudar area next to the Bosphorus. “What more can anyone expect from a president?"
The foiled attempt by a faction of the military to usurp power added to the catalog of insurgencies that Erdogan has put down over the past three years.
Nationwide protests triggered by his plans to bulldoze an Istanbul park were crushed. Corruption charges ended with a clear out of prosecutors. Journalists and academics were jailed on allegations of orchestrating an uprising. A surge in the popularity of an opposition Kurdish party last year was followed by a restart of the country’s ethnic conflict, a second election and a new parliamentary majority for the AK Party he co-founded and has held power since 2002.
His ability to survive has created the impression that “he’s on top of it all, almost a sense of invincibility," said Ilter Turan, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. "He has emerged stronger in the sense that the possibility of a military coup has been totally eradicated and, also because of the coup, it’s very difficult at this particular moment to be critical of him."
A former mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan, 62, has special appeal for the lower-income class in the city. The AKP took more than half the seats in the city of 14 million in November’s election with the three other parties sharing the rest.
The stadium of the local soccer club in Kasimpasa, the central Istanbul district where he grew up, is named after him. Neighbors have fond memories of the middle-school boy from a three-room apartment in a modest six-story building where he later brought his bride to live. He likes tea with simit, a large bun encrusted with sesame seeds, said one driver.
Semiha Karaoglu, who runs her father’s grocery store just across from Erdogan’s former home, recalls how "Brother Tayyip" used to buy candy for the neighborhood children every Friday after he became mayor in 1994. He would let the children choose which type of candy they liked and "I would tell him, ‘you’re spoiling them,’" said Karaoglu, 50, her hair covered with a pink and purple scarf. "His generosity helped him on his way up."
When Karaoglu married in 2008, she invited Erdogan. He couldn’t make it so sent his brother to act as her witness, as well as his mother and sisters, she said. "I was very happy," Karaoglu said. "He’s still one of us."
That’s not to say such gushing support will last, and what happens next to the economy will be critical.
World Bank figures show gross domestic product per person rose to $10,800 from $3,570 between the AKP winning the 2002 election and when the economy started to creak in 2013 and opposition to Erdogan increased. The lira has lost about a third of its value against the dollar since then and the economy has shrunk by $100 billion.
The coup, the three-month state of emergency parliament has imposed and the ensuing government crackdown against Erdogan’s opponents roiled financial markets again. S&P Global Ratings downgraded Turkey’s credit rating and Moody’s Investors Service put the nation’s investment grade on review.
Erdogan keeps reminding his constituents that "they will never have it as good as they had it under him," said Turan. “But if the economic prosperity stops then his credibility will suffer significantly. This is his biggest challenge now."
So far, even some of those Turks who regard him as authoritarian and are alarmed by his brand of political Islam are also happy he hasn’t been overthrown. They just have misgivings over how he will capitalize on it.
"Only Erdogan has benefited from the coup and now I’m worried he will use it to become more powerful," said Ardan, a 20-year-old philosophy student in the trendy district of Karakoy as jazz music blared from a nearby cafe. "We can’t talk about optimism. We are in uncharted waters. They can come and take us for anything now.”
Others are more sanguine. Ramazan Birkik, 28, a Kurdish grocer in the conservative Fatih area said he’s not worried about the future. He said he was just angry at the soldiers who took part in the coup because they used taxpayers’ money to do so.
Zafir Demir, a muhtar, or local community leader, in the Hekimpasa area, said Turks who oppose Erdogan and his party should refrain from criticizing him. "It’s not time for it," said Demir. "We are all in the same boat and we have to support democracy. It’s not about Erdogan or the AK Party. If people don’t defend the legal system what will replace it is chaos."
Across the road from Erdogan’s old home in Kasimpasa, Tenzile said she regularly visited his parents before they died. She and his mother shared the same first name, she said proudly.
"Oh, he’s a little child,” Tenzile said, her deeply lined face breaking into a wide grin. “How can I not love him?"
--With assistance from Selcan Hacaoglu and Benjamin Harvey.