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July 02, 2013

Tough Childhood, Political Battles Marked Turkey's Embattled PM

by Scott Bobb

The recent protests in Turkey have brought together various opposition groups with vastly different political agendas. They have united in calling for the end of the 11-year-old government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, though the Turkish leader shows no sign of backing down.

Istanbul's Kasimpasa neighborhood, a working class district where everybody knows and supports each other.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan grew up in this modest apartment building. The residents are proud of it.

Some gather in the neighborhood tea shop to play cards and chat. Unemployed waiter Onder Terkan said Erdogan is popular because he is a devout Muslim.

“We like our prime minister because he prays and fasts [like observant Muslims]. Our country is 98 percent Muslim and a prime minister who follows our beliefs, of course, everybody will like him,” Terkan said.

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Not everybody. Anti-government demonstrations continue in Taksim Square. They began one month ago over the proposed demolition of a park but have broadened into a general call for Erdogan to resign.

“He [Erdogan] uses disproportionate force. He oppresses people. He sees only one side," said security guard Sati Ay. "We don't know why. He never listens to us. He just acts like a dictator.”

But in Kaptanpasa where residents are known to be tough, many say the prime minister should not back down.   

“Sometimes he's rough. Sometimes he's soft. And people like this characteristic [quality]. More than 50 percent of them support him,” stated textile worker Eris Dogan.

Erdogan, now 59 years old, became prime minister in 2003. He has been re-elected twice by an ever-larger percentage of the voters.

As a boy he worked odd-jobs to help support his family. He became active in political Islam as a teenager and served four months in jail in 1998 for reading an Islamist poem at a rally. As mayor of Istanbul in the mid-1990s, he was popular for cleaning up and modernizing the city.

A professional football player in his youth, he built a stadium for his old team, Kasimpasa Spor, that bears his name. As prime minister he has launched many infrastructure and urban renewal projects. Under his leadership, Turkey's economy has quadrupled and the middle class has grown. But critics say his programs mostly favor the rich.

In Kaptanpasa, some patrons privately express reservations about their favorite son.

“He was a good friend. He was nice, a good person. And he was loyal to his friends. But I don't know now. Now he's too high, like in a helicopter in the sky,” said 72-year-old retiree Hidir Aydin.

But Aydin does not want to speak ill of his former neighbor. Besides, he said, he was a good football player.