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

Mali's Female Basketball Players Rebound After Islamist Occupation

Islamist extremists ruled northern Mali for most of 2012, imposing strict Sharia law, and now some 18 months later, the region is slowly getting back on its feet More

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

Many Chinese-made products go unsold, for now, with numerous Vietnamese consumers still angry over recent dispute More

Koreas Mark 61st Anniversary of War Armistice

Muted observances on both sides of heavily-armed Demilitarized Zone that separates two decades-long enemies More

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.
Students in Business for Themselvesi
X
Mike O'Sullivan
July 26, 2014 11:04 AM
They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid