Posters touting Erdogan and his "IRON WILL". All photos by the author.
Istanbul is a city where both continents and identities collide, home to a population torn between the competing allures of the East and the West. It is a cultural combat zone of two clashing ideas: one of a secular, European-looking Turkish republic and another of an increasingly authoritarian neo-Islamic empire.
Right now, Istanbul’s roads, bridges and boulevards are awash with millions of colourful flags and portraits. The orange, white and blue banners of the Justice and Development Party (or AKP) have lit up Istanbul’s concrete sprawl. Torn down by anti-government protesters earlier this month, they re-appeared overnight ahead of the key local elections of the weekend just passed. The flags invariably come flanked by iconic images of the party’s founder, the most powerful Prime Minister in Turkish history: Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
On the corner of my street stands a four-storey billboard of Erdogan looking hard, purposeful and in control. It is emblazoned with two simple words: "SAGLAM IRADE", or “IRON WILL”. Before the billboard stands a mounted nest of CCTV cameras, a monument to the omnipresent rule of Turkey’s most divisive character.
Normally, local elections are boring things concerned with mundane matters like rubbish collection and parking spaces. But on Sunday, Turkey's became international front-page news. In Istanbul, Erdogan's name rang through the loudspeakers of roaming AKP buses and was sung by millions of his supporters, who attended pro-government rallies and turned out to vote. It seems that personality, not political ideology, has become the defining feature of politics in Turkey. You choose your guy. The man who best defines your identity as a Turk. Islamic or European. East or West.
Yesterday, the majority of Turkey showed that it considers itself the former, as Erdogan declared victory in local polls that effectively doubled as a referendum on his rule and the identity of the Turkish nation. But it was an uncertain end to a chaotic fortnight of scandal, upheaval and repression. Nine days before the municipal elections, Twitter was banned. Turks trying to use the social network were redirected to a statement from Turkey’s telecommunications regulator, citing a court order applying “protection measures” against the social network.
“Twitter, mwitter!” Erdogan declared in a fiery speech before the ban, “We will rub out all of these from their roots. The international community can say this, can say that. I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the state of the Republic of Turkey is.”
Days later, YouTube was banned. Both sites had been used to spread embarrassing leaks purported to contain blatant evidence of government corruption and included an audio recording of a top-secret security meeting, in which Turkey’s most powerful figures played out the idea of staging a military attack in Syria. Voices can be heard discussing a missile attack on the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, which is located just over the border in Syria. The idea would be to use that to justify military action and, jingoistically, win more votes for Erdogan back home in Turkey.
The leaks are believed to have come from the Islamic preacher, Fethullah Gulen, a one-time ally of Erdogan and exiled leader of a clandestine movement whose followers occupy key posts in the civil service, judiciary and police. Erdogan’s frenzied reaction to the leaks did not bother his strong electoral base, who will continue to support him, come what may.
“Twitter is not innocent, you know,” an Erdogan fan told me at a massive pro-government rally, days before the local elections. “People get drunk, and they connect with each other by Twitter, so then they go onto the streets and they destroy everything, my friend.”
As many as a million pro-Erdogan enthusiasts gathered in Istanbul for the rally, a huge show of support for the PM and the neo-Islamic Turkey he embodies. I asked the guy who thinks Twitter is full of drunken yobs what he thought of the leaks. He said he believed it but simply did not care. Erdogan was his guy, representing his Turkey – the conservative, eastward-looking Turkey that secular Turks have come to hate so much.
Erdogan supporters at an AKP rally prior to the elections
It's election day in Kasimpasha. A conservative, working-class neighbourhood where Erdogan was born, raised and even briefly played pro football for Kasimpasha FC. If any district in Istanbul has love for Erdogan, it’s Kasimpasha. But on the day of the local elections, the offices of the AKP building were shuttered and someone had graffitied “CHP” – the initials of the opposition party – all over it.
“I don’t even tell my family who I vote for,” said Memet Kaplan, a life-long Kasimpasha resident, after I asked him which party he had chosen. “But, I tell you, Erdogan and the AKP will lose a lot of votes in Kasimpasha today.” Kaplan was a long-time supporter of Erdogan and his party. But, he says, the recent YouTube ban and the ongoing street clashes between Erdogan’s opponents and the police that began last summer, lost the Prime Minister a lot of support before the elections.
“He’s bad for business,” continues Kaplan, referring to his silver shop on Istiklal Caddesi. Istanbul’s main shopping boulevard has done recent stints doubling as a battleground for protesters and police. “Tourists are too afraid to come for their holidays.”
This week, I have shaken the hand of every single major Istanbul mayoral candidate, including the mayor himself. Not by choice, mind you, they've just taken to touring coffee shops as part of their intense furious campaign routines. Turnout for the elections was massive. At the time of writing, nearly 53 million Turks were said to have voted in over 194,000 polling stations across the country. The mood, however, has been tense. So far, at least eight people have been killed in clashes between rival political fanatics across Turkey.
“I voted for the first time today,” said Elif Izvatlioglu in Istanbul’s staunchly secular Cihangir neighbourhood. “Normally, I don’t believe in the voting system, but this is important – we have to get rid of this AKP regime.”
Erdogan and his regime were once revered. Three years ago, when the Arab world rose up to demand democracy, the Turkish Prime Minister was held up as the personified example of how Islam and democracy could thrive in tandem. He was lauded not only abroad, but at home, too. Under his rule, Turkey financially flourished, modernised and castrated a once powerful military cadre, removing the threat of future military coups that had, all too often, been able to hold the country hostage. Even some very secular Turkish friends told me that they once loved what Erdogan had done for their country.
Police fire tear gas at protesters in Taksim Square last year
But after police officers violently attacked a peaceful sit-in staged to prevent Istanbul's Gezi Park from being turned into an Ottoman-themed shopping mall, the public began to turn. Last summer, Turkey’s splintered society finally cracked and dissidents occupied the centre of Istanbul. This was the start of Erdogan’s first bad year in office and he reacted with the ferocity of the Middle-Eastern leaders he of whom he was supposed to be the antithesis. Over the past year, Erdogan has descended into a kind of deluded authoritarianism, overseeing an aggressive police crackdown on demonstrations, passing illiberal laws giving the government greater control over the judiciary and security services, imprisoning opponents and censoring both the media and the internet.
On Saturday, ahead of the crucial vote, Erdogan lashed out at his enemies in the style that has come to define him. “They are all traitors,” he bellowed to his supporters at a rally, “let’s give them an Ottoman slap.”
With darkness falling and polls closing, I took the ferry to the Asian side of the city. Young secular, anti-Erdogan Turks who were active during the Gezi Park protests had gathered to watch the election results and see who, exactly, was going to get slapped. A fired-up MacBook projected prohibited Twitter feeds onto a television, alongside breaking news. Those in attendance drank beer and Raki as they prepared to celebrate or commiserate each other. They had all voted today, one even commuting seven hours to and from his hometown to cast his vote where he felt it was needed most.
“ANKARA RED! ISTANBUL RED!” the young Turks chanted, clinking their glasses and dancing. A televised election map showed that Ankara, Turkey’s capital, and Istanbul, Turkey’s heart and soul, were blood red. Meaning, that they had fallen to the opposition – the CHP, or Republican People’s Party, the party of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the secular founder of the modern Turkish state.
The mood, however, soon darkened. NTV, a network with close ties to the government, said that the AKP was actually ahead in both Ankara and Istanbul. Then things got weird. Different channels were posting different results. A reporter from the Cihan news agency publicly stated that the Anadolu Agency was manipulating the results in Erdogan’s favour. The CHP website said that they were leading in Ankara and Istanbul; the AKP website claimed that they were.
A group of anti-Erdogan Turks watch the election results roll in
“Ayman, according to the Anadolu Agency, these are the election results for Turkey,” a friend said laughing, as he handed me an iPhone. It showed a jpg of Turkey, Europe, Russia, The Middle East and the Caucuses – the whole map was coloured orange, the colour of the AKP. “At least we can still joke.”
A colleague called. The police had closed off Taksim Square, the celebrated centre of last summer's dramatic demonstrations against Erdogan. Cops, he told me, were out in the city in full force with armoured vehicles, gas canisters and riot gear.
“Motherfuckers!” someone shouted. “That means they are cheating and expecting us to fight them.”
Through a murky haze of Raki and contradictory information, bizarre stories began to filter through from Twitter. There were sudden power cuts in four Turkish provinces. When the lights came back on, poll numbers had swiftly swung back in the AKP's favour. Turkish elections have long been believed to be free and fair, overseen by the Yuksek Secim Kurulu – independent election monitors. But as the results belatedly arrived, allegations of ballot box manipulation abounded – perhaps unsurprisingly – among Istanbul's anti-Erdogan crowds. “It’s supposed to be independent. But nothing is independent in Turkey right now,” someone shouted in my face.
Slowly, the stats spilled on to the screen. Drinks were spilt. Tears were shed. Swearwords spat. No Istanbul or Ankara for the secular set this time. “Ooof, Ayman, ya, you are lucky you are not Turkish,” a friend said, for Erdogan was again victorious and Turkey will again follow his lead. The Prime Minister, who cast his own vote in Istanbul early Sunday, had given his opponents the full-force Ottoman slap.
“The people have spoken,” he said after declaring victory. “I thank everyone who prayed for our victory across the world.” From a balcony in Ankara, flanked by the same family members and government ministers accused of corruption, he proclaimed to the people of Turkey that they had, “protected the independence struggle of the new Turkey”.
But where, exactly, is this new Turkey going? Erdogan seems to be taking lessons out of Putin's book, planning to either run for presidency, or to change the rules allowing him to seek a fourth term in office as PM. But it won’t be that easy. It was damn close in Istanbul and Ankara. Turkey remains divided and the opposition claim that there are still uncounted votes in the two cities amid blanket claims of electoral fraud. As Sunday night slipped into Monday morning, Turkey felt like a broken nation. The elections' end feels more like a brief respite in combat rather than an acceptance of defeat from either of the two sides battling for Turkey’s future.
There was neither a revival of secularism or a complete celebration of conservatism with these elections. Erdogan’s enemies were unable to break the AKP's dominance even with the Prime Minister engulfed in scandal. But opposition to him endures. It will either manifest itself in outright defiance or apathetic surrender.