News / Middle East

    Food and Fuel Trump Graft for Turkey's Local Elections

    A helicopter carrying an election banner of Turkey's ruling AK Party (AKP) mayoral candidate and current mayor Melih Gokcek flies over Ankara, March 18, 2014.
    A helicopter carrying an election banner of Turkey's ruling AK Party (AKP) mayoral candidate and current mayor Melih Gokcek flies over Ankara, March 18, 2014.
    Reuters
    Taxi driver Ramazan Aktay is quick to shrug off the corruption scandal swirling around Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at least as long as the ruling party keeps delivering free food and coal to his working class suburb of Ankara.
             
    Allegations of government graft, which Erdogan has cast as a campaign to destroy him by political enemies at home and abroad, have spiraled into the biggest challenge of his 11-year rule, unnerved foreign investors and raised questions about Turkey's commitment to democratic reforms.
             
    In other countries, his opponents complain, a scandal of such proportions, with voice recordings purportedly detailing corruption among his inner circle appearing on social media on a daily basis, would bring a prime minister down, or at least force him to publicly confront the allegations head on.
          
    Yet few in Turkey doubt Erdogan's AK Party will emerge triumphant, if weakened, from local elections on March 30, carried on a wave of support from a conservative and pious segment of society that sees him as a hero for raising living standards and breaking the hold of a secular, urban elite.
          
    “This is a poor neighborhood. We got 50 bags of coal and then another 20 as the elections near. They distribute everything; food, clothing, detergent,” Aktay, 33, said of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, standing among dilapidated homes in Ankara's Mamak district.
             
    “Can the CHP do that?” he asked, referring to the main opposition Republican People's Party, seen by many like Aktay as the bastion of a secularist elite out of touch with Turkey's masses.
              
    The deliveries from Ankara mayor Melih Gokcek, an AKP veteran who has run the capital's municipal affairs for two decades, include coal for heating and food supplies such as honey and flour. His spokesman calls it “social aid.”
              
    Opponents say it is buying votes.
              
    But the handouts reinforce what his supporters see as Erdogan's greatest success over the past decade - spreading wealth and involvement, and bringing services like healthcare and education, roads and cheap air travel to the poor.
              
    It is a record that engenders fervent loyalty.
              
    “Were you surprised?” asked Cevdet, a 37-year-old mechanic and Mamak resident, as the conversation turned to the graft scandal. “All politicians steal. At least these guys are getting some work done. If I were doing his job, I would steal too.”
              
    Everything to fight for
              
    The local elections will be the first concrete test of Erdogan's popularity since anti-government protests rocked major cities last summer and the corruption scandal erupted in mid-December. They are widely seen as a referendum on his rule.
             
    The race for Ankara is set to be among the closest, with some opinion polls predicting an AKP loss, potentially a major embarrassment for Erdogan. Pictures of the prime minister and Gokcek hang on promotional banners across the capital.
          
    The AK Party won about 40 percent of the municipal vote across the country in 2009, a level the party aims at least to match again. Strong showings in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir on the Aegean coast - a stronghold of the CHP - could encourage Erdogan to run for president five months later.
              
    Ankara mayor Gokcek, an argumentative character known for fiery comments in person and on Twitter, is up against the CHP's Mansur Yavas, a mild-mannered lawyer who lost to Gokcek five years ago, when he ran for the nationalist MHP.
              
    Yavas came third in those elections, securing almost 27 percent to Gokcek's 38.5 percent. After switching to the CHP, polls show him almost neck and neck with the incumbent, whom he dismisses as too authoritarian after two decades at the helm.
              
    “He is running Ankara on his own, punishing everyone who doesn't vote for him,” Yavas told Reuters.
              
    A promotional video on Ankara municipality's website shows in detail how applications for Gokcek's aid packages are made, and how boxes of food and cleaning items are delivered by workers in official blue shirts.
              
    Residents say the boxes include over two dozen items, among them flour, sugar, rice, honey and jam as well as detergents. Coal is distributed in green bags from municipality trucks.
              
    “We don't distribute these hoping for votes. We've helped people from other parties too. We don't ask which party you vote for,” a spokesman for Gokcek said, adding the program had been running throughout the mayor's tenure, with recipients chosen by income levels not party affiliation.
              
    Ambitious plans
              
    His handouts have not won all hearts in Ankara, which is home to communities on the poverty line but also to some of Turkey's richest people in newly built neighborhoods of gated villas.
              
    Several hundred protested under rain in late February as Gokcek and Erdogan opened a controversial highway link that cut through the side of Ankara's forested Middle East Technical University (METU) campus, sparking weeks of protests.
              
    Local residents were outraged at the cutting down of what they said were thousands of trees, questioning why it was done in the middle of the night under heavy police protection and during the Muslim holiday of Eid.
              
    “If you are providing a service to your city, why are you doing it at midnight? If you're not doing anything wrong, then why the secrecy and heavy security?” asked Akif Keskin, 23, student living in the upscale borough of Cankaya.
              
    An unrepentant Gokcek has ambitious plans for the city – vain in the eyes of his detractors - which echo those of Erdogan, whose plans include a third airport, billed to be one of the world's biggest, and a shipping canal to rival Panama or Suez.
              
    “Our city has everything but tourism,” Gokcek told Haberturk TV recently, adding his planned “Ankapark” amusement park would draw 10 million tourists a year and that his dramatic new “Seljuklu” city gates and clock towers, criticized for their gaudiness, would add to the city's appeal.
              
    “I love my gates. Once they are illuminated, they will look glorious,” he said.
              
    By contrast, Yavas plans to put the brakes on Ankara's mushrooming building projects, reduce traffic congestion with new rail lines and create more green spaces. It is not just the urban elite he is appealing to.
              
    AKP campaign buses do not visit the poor suburb of Tuzlucayir, residents say, a district dominated by Alevis, a religious minority in mainly Sunni Muslim Turkey who espouse a liberal version of Islam and have often been at odds with Erdogan's Islamist-rooted government.
               
    The district saw clashes night after night with riot police after residents protested against a plan to build a Sunni mosque next to a cemevi, an Alevi place of worship.
              
    “Nobody votes for them here,” Mustafa, 56, said of the AKP while sitting outside his grocery shop.
              
    “They didn't have many fans and after that stupid mosque-cemevi project, they don't stand a chance.”
              
    Gokcek's aid boxes would have little impact here.
              
    “I vote for my honor, not for money. No matter how much money they'd give me, I'd never vote for them,” said Zekiye, a 69-year old former school teacher.

    You May Like

    South Sudan Sends First Ever Official Olympic Team to Rio

    VOA caught up with Santino Kenyi, 16, one of three athletes who will compete in this year's summer games in Brazil

    Arrest of Malawi's 'Hyena' Man Highlights Clash of Ritual, Health and Women's Rights

    Ritual practice of deflowering young girls is blamed for spreading deadly AIDS virus

    Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    VOA finds things Americans take for granted are special to foreigners

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Processi
    X
    Katherine Gypson
    July 27, 2016 6:21 PM
    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video A Life of Fighting Back: Hillary Clinton Shatters Glass Ceiling

    Hillary Clinton made history Thursday, overcoming personal and political setbacks to become the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major U.S. political party. If she wins in November, she will go from “first lady” to U.S. Senator from New York, to Secretary of State, to “Madam President.” Polls show Clinton is both beloved and despised. White House Correspondent Cindy Saine takes a look at the life of the woman both supporters and detractors agree is a fighter for the ages.
    Video

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.
    Video

    Video First Time Delegate’s First Day Frustrations

    With thousands of people filling the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, VOA’s Kane Farabaugh narrowed in on one delegate as she made her first trip to a national party convention. It was a day that was anything but routine for this United States military veteran.
    Video

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.
    Video

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora