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

    New EU Asylum Rules Could Boost Rightists

    New regulations will seek to correct EU failures in dealing with migrant crisis, most notably inability to get member states to absorb a total of 160,000 refugees

    More Political Turmoil Likely in Iraq as Iran Waits in the Wings

    Analysts warn that Tehran, even though it may not be engineering the Sadrist protests in Baghdad, is seeking to leverage its influence on its neighbor

    Goodbye Ketchup, Hello Sriracha!

    How immigrants are triggering a great transformation in American cuisine

    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.
    Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Rulingi
    X
    May 03, 2016 5:16 PM
    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.
    Video

    Video Elephant Summit Results in $5M in Pledges, Presidential Support

    Attended and supported by three African presidents, a three-day anti-poaching summit has concluded in Kenya, resulting in $5 million in pledges and a united message to the world that elephants are worth more alive than dead. The summit culminated at the Nairobi National Park with the largest ivory burn in history. VOA’s Jill Craig attended the summit and has this report about the outcomes.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Ethiopia’s Drought Takes Toll on Children

    Ethiopia is dealing with its worst drought in decades, thanks to El Nino weather patterns. An estimated 10 million people urgently need food aid. Six million of them are children, whose development may be compromised without sufficient help, Marthe van der Wolf reports for VOA from the Metahara district.
    Video

    Video Little Havana - a Slice of Cuban Culture in Florida

    Hispanic culture permeates everything in Miami’s Little Havana area: elderly men playing dominoes as they discuss politics, cigar rollers deep at work, or Cuban exiles talking with presidential candidates at a Cuban coffee window. With the recent rapprochement between Cuba and United States, one can only expect stronger ties between South Florida and Cuba.
    Video

    Video California Republicans Weigh Presidential Choices Amid Protests

    Republican presidential candidates have been wooing local party leaders in California, a state that could be decisive in selecting the party's nominee for U.S. president. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports delegates to the California party convention have been evaluating choices, while front-runner Donald Trump drew hundreds of raucous protesters Friday.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Football Team Helps War-Torn City Cope

    With the conflict still raging across much of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, between the rebel PKK and the Turkish state, many Kurds are trying to escape the turmoil by focusing on the success of their football team Amedspor in Diyarbakir. The club is increasingly becoming a symbol for Kurds, not only in Diyarbakir but beyond. Dorian Jones reports from southeast Turkey.
    Video

    Video ‘The Lights of Africa’ - Through the Eyes of 54 Artists

    An exhibition bringing together the work of 54 African artists, one from each country, is touring the continent after debuting at COP21 in Paris. Called "Lumières d'Afrique," the show centers on access to electricity and, more figuratively, ideas that enlighten. Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, the exhibition's first stop.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora