In Erdogan’s stronghold, adulation and unease ahead of Turkey’s second round
“Sivas once again did the right thing,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, addressing a large gathering in the center of the city, located on a high plain in central Turkey. “I thank each of you for your love and support.”
Erdogan easily won Sivas in the first round of elections on May 14, garnering 69% of the vote. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the main opposition challenger, won just 24%. The president secured a four-point lead nationally in the first round by tapping into a deep source of support in places like this from people who describe themselves as Muslim conservatives or nationalists, or a combination of the two.
But away from Tuesday’s rally of committed loyalists, some in Sivas described support for the president as tenuous, despite his landslide victory – with their votes for him the result of limited choices, or cast primarily out of fear of what his successor might bring. .
Erdogan has the advantage as Turkey’s elections head into the second round
The unease – mostly expressed by younger voters – was one measure of a campaign season as toxic as it has ever been in recent memory, marked by naked calls for nationalism and xenophobia that have eclipsed citizens’ day-to-day worries Turks, stung by economic difficulties and still in mourning. losses caused by the earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 people a few months ago.
Merve Kirac, 27, who sat near Erdogan’s rally but did not attend, said she wanted Turkey to be “better run”. His priorities were “education, the economy and that everyone can express their thoughts and opinions”.
She had voted for Erdogan, but said “of course, if there was a better candidate in the opposition, I would have voted for that candidate.”
Erdogan appeared to acknowledge the volatile state of the electorate on Tuesday, imploring his loyalists to do more to spread the word. Generations of people from Sivas migrated to Istanbul, Turkey’s most populous city, over the years, and they too needed to be persuaded, he told the crowd.
“You will mobilize all your compatriots from Sivas, all your relatives with telephone diplomacy,” Erdogan said. “Are we understood?
Erdogan’s parliamentary alliance has done well in Sivas, a province of 635,000, but the president’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has lost tens of thousands of votes since the last elections in 2018. Between the two contests, Erdogan amassed more power, stepped up the crackdown on dissent and presided over an economic crisis that left every household struggling with skyrocketing inflation – a situation the opposition hoped it would win them votes.
“Let me put it like this. If a decent candidate had come forward, he wouldn’t have won,” said Bahattin Vural, 60, a retired topographer, referring to Erdogan. As for the current government, Sivas had reason to complain. “Unemployment is at your knees here,” he said.
But he too had voted for the president, he said. In the opposition, “there is no leader”. Certainly not Kilicdaroglu: “The candidate was the wrong candidate,” he said.
Ulas Karasu, a Republican People’s Party MP from Kilicdaroglu, or CHP, said the party “struggled with the nationalist rhetoric used” by Erdogan and his allies in the election, which included the groundless accusation which Kilicdaroglu was aligned with terrorist groups, including Kurdish militants.
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The rhetoric “has had a great effect on the people of this province,” he said. “We couldn’t break this black propaganda.” The party was now focusing on undecided voters, including those who had voted for Sinan Ogan, a far-right candidate who won 6% of the vote here.
The lesson of the first round, Karasu said, was that “we ran a soft campaign. We ran a campaign centered on the economy, justice and freedoms. The ruling party campaigned against us based on nationalism – with harsh rhetoric – and our campaign felt soft on that.
Sivas knows the consequences of the inflammatory rhetoric intimately, as the site of a 1993 massacre by Sunni Muslim extremists against a gathering of intellectuals and artists who were members of Turkey’s Alevi religious minority. Thirty-seven people were killed, their names are now commemorated in the lobby of the building where the massacre took place, a former hotel which is now a science and cultural centre.
Some in Sivas said discrimination against Kilicdaroglu, who is Alevi, may have played a small part in his failure to win more support in the province, but it was not the deciding factor. The main problem, they said, was that he was the weakest candidate the opposition could have selected, after more attractive figures were dismissed by Kilicdaroglu or disqualified because they were pursued by the state. .
And Kilicdaroglu was an easy target for Erdogan, who belittled him for years and portrayed him during the campaign as both a terrorist and a collaborator with Western interests – accusations that have stuck in the minds of some voters. .
“I prefer a tough stance against foreign powers and terrorism,” said Bunyamin Eken, 39, who describes himself as a “nationalist for Islam and the Ottoman Empire”. He criticized Kilicdaroglu for saying he would release political prisoners, including Selahattin Demirtas, the former leader of a major Kurdish-led political party.
He worried about the economy. Eken, a machinist, said business had slowed due to less construction activity, a slump that would continue at least until the end of the year, he estimated. But for him, it does not reflect badly on Erdogan.
“Sivas is a very nationalistic province, and he is very much loved here,” he said.
Pakize Duman, 39, said she appreciated Erdogan as a champion of her conservative Muslim identity. “Whoever fights for our cause, we will support him.” This is also the attention that Erdogan paid to this place, she said.
“He comes here for the opening ceremonies. He was the one who had the Garden of the Nation built,” she said, referring to the park where she strolled on Wednesday, opposite a high-speed train station that Erdogan had also brought. in the province. The city’s soccer stadium, the province’s first airport, all were built during his 20 years in power.
“All our hospitals have been renewed, our schools have been renewed,” she said. “He always gets things done.”
As the election nears, Erdogan has been sprinkling trinkets across the country — pay rises for civil servants, tax breaks, energy subsidies — to lure voters. In Sivas, tickets for the new high-speed train to Ankara were offered free for a month.
But presidential inducements did not address what ailed the city, including high unemployment that had forced hundreds of thousands of residents to leave Sivas and move elsewhere in Turkey, including Istanbul. Yonca Kurum, 27, who is unemployed, said her main concern was “job opportunities”, and that she did not know who to vote for in the run-off and was considering not voting at all.
She and her sister, Esra, 24, had voted for Ogan, the far-right candidate, in the first round, a choice they attributed mainly to their “nationalist background”. But as they sat in a tea house under the famous Seljuk-era minarets of Sivas, as a speaker could be heard warming up to nearby Erdogan supporters, they presented their election choices as a dilemma , rather than as an opportunity for meaningful change.
They were concerned about the daily running of the country, but also judged harshly in Sivas if they did not vote for Erdogan. They were unimpressed with Kilicdaroglu’s coalition of opposition parties and generally dismissive of Turkey’s political dynamics. “People vote like they’re choosing a team,” Esra said.
“I wouldn’t call it excitement,” she added, when asked about her feelings about the election. “I would call it anxiety.”