BAYBURT: Old Fiat cars and yellow tulips dot the eastern Turkish town of Bayburt, the heart of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ultra-loyal conservative base that is ready to extend his two-decade rule to 2028.
Betraying a serene calm hanging over the picturesque province of the same name, Bayburt voters roared into life for Erdogan in the first round of Turkey’s presidential election on May 14.
Almost 80 per cent of the electors there plumped for Erdogan, his highest vote share in a single province, helping him win 49.5 per cent of the national ballot and become a strong favourite in Sunday’s runoff vote.
“Getting to know the heart of Bayburt is getting to know Turkey,” said Orhan Ates, a newly elected MP for Erdogan’s ruling Islamic-rooted AKP party in the parallel parliamentary vote.
“Are you ready to re-elect our president?” he asks passers-by, greeting men holding Islamic prayer beads with a knowing nod.
A 47-year-old eye doctor, Ates holds impromptu appointments with patients in the street, issuing a prescription on a crumpled piece of paper to one man wearing worn-out shoes.
“I started as a shoe shiner, I became a medicine professor. People see themselves in me, like we see ourselves in Erdogan,” whose family originates from neighbouring Rize province, Ates told AFP.
Erdogan “talks to everyone, not just to the elites”, he said.
“We’re a big family here and Erdogan is a part of it. He’s as solid as our castle,” said provincial AKP official Haci Ali Polat, referring to a centuries-old fortress towering over the town.
Residents who spoke to AFP said they stayed faithful to Erdogan because he repelled attacks by foreign powers, just as Bayburt fought Russian invaders in the 19th century.
“We are nationalist and conservative and we love Erdogan,” enthused Bedirhan Bayen, a 26-year-old university graduate speaking from his father’s shop.
“What people want is a strong leader,” he said, admitting he would have liked a “new face” but judging secular opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu as “weak”.
Mohammad Emre Teymur works in the construction industry — a sector that enjoyed an unprecedented boom under Erdogan — and refuses to see Turkey’s raging economic crisis as a reason to abandon the president.
“Erdogan has produced his own ships, his own weapons, his own planes,” said the 19-year-old, who earns 10,000 lira ($500) a month.
“You don’t vote for a ‘cucumber’ due to the price of onions,” he added, using a pejorative term to refer to Erdogan’s secular challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Favours in return?
Nestled between the Black Sea and Mount Palandoken, Bayburt is Turkey’s least economically productive province and its smallest by population, only counting 84,200 inhabitants.
But it was once a stopping point on the ancient Silk Road that channelled trade between Asia and Europe, an era of prosperity many locals yearn to recover.
Bayen pointed to Erdogan’s unabashed Islamic-rooted policies, subsidies for farmers and the construction of dams that have helped agriculture.
“There’s a whole system in place and no one wants to lose it,” he told AFP.
“It would be brilliant if he (Erdogan) rewarded us in return, if he built a factory for us, offered us job opportunities,” added Yusuf Yolcu, a man in his 50s who works in insurance.
Speaking from his clothes workshop, Bulent Hacihasanoglu said some people in small villages were too frightened to vote differently “for fear of being blacklisted”.
Hacihasanoglu still openly backs Kilicdaroglu and his promise to “return to the parliamentary regime”, which Erdogan ended after a 2017 constitutional referendum that granted the president sweeping powers.
But Yolcu insisted the people of Bayburt have always been loyal, arguing that “no incident” happened in the province during a 1980 military coup and major anti-government protests in 2013 that rocked Turkey.
Erdogan, 69, who has amassed greater powers during his 20 years in office, finished a first-round election on May 14 just short of a victory and also retained a majority in parliament. That came despite rampant inflation and the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake that killed over 50,000 people in the country’s south.
His challenger in the runoff is Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the 74-year-old leader of the main opposition social democratic Republican People’s Party and the joint candidate of a six-party alliance, who has promised to undo years of democratic backsliding under Erdogan, to repatriate Syrian refugees and promote rights of women.
Here’s a look at the main domestic issues shaping the election, and where Erdogan and his challenger stand:
RECOVERING FROM DISASTER: Turkey is grappling with a difficult recovery from February’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake, the deadliest quake in the country’s modern history. It destroyed or damaged more than 300,000 buildings. Hundreds of thousands of residents are sheltering in temporary accommodation like tents. Some 658,000 people were left jobless, according to the International Labor Organization.
The World Bank estimates that the earthquake caused $34.2 billion in “direct damages” — an amount equivalent to 4% of Turkey’s 2021 gross domestic product. The recovery and reconstruction costs could add up to twice that much, the international financial institution said.
Erdogan’s government, meanwhile, has been accused of setting the stage for the devastation with lax building code enforcement. Some people left homeless or struggling to earn money also found the government’s earthquake response to be slow.
Despite the criticism, in the parliamentary election Erdogan’s alliance won 10 out 11 provinces in areas affected by the quake, signaling that the president’s focus on rebuilding during the campaigning has paid off. Erdogan has pledged to construct 319,000 homes within the year and has attended a number of groundbreaking ceremonies, trying to persuade voters that only he can rebuild lives and businesses.
Kilicdaroglu says his government would give houses to quake victims for free instead of the 20-year repayment plan envisaged by Erdogan’s government.
REFUGEES NO LONGER SO WELCOME: Refugees, especially those fleeing civil war in neighboring Syria, were once greeted with open arms in Turkey, but anti-migration sentiment is on the rise amid the economic downturn. A shortage of housing and shelters in the quake-hit provinces has increased calls for Syrian refugees to go home.
The soft-mannered Kilicdaroglu had vowed to repatriate Syrians within two years, saying he would seek European Union funds to build homes, schools, hospitals and roads in Syria and encourage Turkish entrepreneurs to open factories and other businesses there. In a bid to woo nationalist voters in the lead up to the runoff race, Kilicdaroglu hardened his tone, saying he would send refugees packing within a year of being elected. He has since also won the backing of an anti-migrant party.
Under mounting public pressure, Erdogan’s government has begun constructing thousands of brick homes in Turkish-controlled areas of northern Syria to encourage voluntary returns. On Thursday, Erdogan announced in a television interview that Qatar was funding a separate housing project that would help resettle up to a million Syrians.
His government is also seeking reconciliation with Syrian President Bashir Al Assad to ensure their safe return.
Erdogan said Thursday there are some 4 million refugees in Turkey, including around 3.4 million Syrians, but anti-migrant parties say the figure is closer to 13 million.
A MORE DEMOCRATIC TURKEY?: The coalition of six parties has declared a commitment to restore Turkey as a parliamentary democracy and to give citizens greater rights and freedoms should their alliance win the elections.
Erdogan succeeded in getting a presidential system of governance narrowly approved by referendum in 2017 and introduced in 2018. The new system abolished the office of the prime minister and concentrated a vast amount of powers in the hands of the president.
The alliance has outlined plans for a greater separation of powers, including an increased role for parliament and an independent judiciary.
WHAT ABOUT FOREIGN POLICY?: Under Erdogan, Turkey has, at times, become a difficult NAto ally, often pursuing its own agenda. It has cultivated close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and blocked the alliance’s expansion. However, it has also emerged as a key mediator between Russia and Ukraine, helping broker a crucial deal that allowed Ukrainian grain shipments and alleviate a food crisis.
The opposition alliance has signaled it would pursue a more Western-oriented foreign policy and seek to rebuild ties with the United States, the European Union and Nato allies.