- By Orla Guerin
- BBC News, Istanbul
After two decades in power and more than a dozen elections, Turkey’s authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan knows how to work a room. At a convention for taxi drivers in Istanbul, they couldn’t get enough of him.
He controlled the crowd like the conductor of an orchestra. They cheered and clapped – and booed the opposition – at the right time. The venue was a waterfront convention center in Istanbul built during his time as the city’s mayor.
The rally reached a crescendo as the president delivered his farewell shot: “One Nation, One Flag, One Motherland, One State.” By this time, many older drivers were on their feet, slapping the air, or raising an arm in salute.
Ayse Ozdogan, a conservatively dressed woman with a headscarf, had arrived early with her taxi driver husband to hear every word of her leader. A stool rested on the seat next to her. She struggles to walk but couldn’t stay away.
“Erdogan is everything to me,” she said with a broad smile. “Before, we couldn’t go to hospitals, but now we can move around easily. We have transportation. We have everything. He has improved the roads. He has built mosques. He has developed the country with high-speed trains and metro lines.”
The president’s nationalistic message appealed to many in the crowd, including Kadir Kavlioglu, 58, who has been driving a minibus for 40 years. “Because we love our homeland and our nation, we are steadily trailing behind the president.”
“We are with him every step of the way,” he said, “whether the price of potatoes and onions is rising or falling. My dear president is our hope.”
When Turks went to the polls earlier this month, they didn’t vote with their wallets. Food prices are skyrocketing. Inflation is as high as 43%.
Still, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who controls the economy and many more here – emerged with 49.5% of the vote. That confused analysts and taught a lesson here – watch out for polls.
A divided country
His rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the secular opposition leader, got 44.9%. The electorate in this polarized country was thus divided – the two parties were adamantly against each other but separated by only 4%.
An ultra-nationalist candidate, Sinan Ogan, gained an unexpected 5.2%, pushing the contest to a second round next Sunday. He has now supported President Erdogan.
Why have most voters stuck with him despite the economic crisis and the government’s slow response to the disastrous twin earthquakes in February that killed at least 50,000 people?
“I think he is the (ultimate) Teflon politician,” says Professor Soli Ozel, who teaches international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. “He also has the common touch. You can’t deny it. He exudes power. That’s one thing Kilicdaroglu doesn’t have.”
Backed by a six-party opposition alliance, Mr Kilicdaroglu always radiated hope and promised freedom and democracy.
But after his first lap disappointment, he turned sharply to the right. Now there is less of the caring grandfather and more of the nationalistic hardliner. “It’s a race to the bottom,” said a Turkish journalist.
“I am announcing here that I will send all refugees home once I am elected president, period,” Kilicdaroglu said at a recent election rally.
That includes more than three million Syrians who have fled the war in their own country. It is a message that is well received in Turkey.
Whoever becomes Turkey’s next president, nationalism is already a winner here. Voters have elected the most nationalistic and conservative parliament ever, in which Erdogan’s ruling coalition of the AK Party (Justice and Development) has retained control.
For some young voters, it feels like the die has already been cast here. Sitting on a red couch under a rainbow flag, Zeynep, 21, and Mert, 23, serve piping hot Turkish tea and worry about the future.
Both are studying psychology at Bogazici University, a respected chair with a history of now-suppressed student protests. Their friendship started at the university’s LGBTQ+ club, which has since closed. Gay pride parades are banned from 2015.
During the election campaign, the president focused on the community. “There are no LGBT people coming from this country,” he told a packed gathering in the city of Izmir. “We don’t attack our family structure. Stand up like a man, that’s how our families are.”
The community is now at growing risk, according to Mert, who has shoulder-length dark hair and earrings.
“Erdogan himself has started to portray us as a target in every speech, every event he organizes,” he said. “Day after day, the state makes an enemy of us.”
A new Turkish century
“What the government says has an impact on people. You can see it in your loved ones, even in your family. If this continues, what then? In the end, we always live alert, always tense, always in fear.” he said.
Zeynep – who has dark eyes and expressive hands – still hopes for a new era, but knows it may not come. “I’m 21 years old and they’ve been here for 20 years,” she said.
“I want change and if I don’t see that, I get sad and scared. They will attack us more, they will take away our rights more. They will ban many more things, I think. But we will still do something, we will still fight.”
Voters will go to the polls on Sunday for the first presidential runoff in their history as their country finds itself at a turning point.
It has been almost 100 years since Turkey was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as a secular republic.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan promises a new “Turkish century” if he is re-elected.
His supporters say he will bring more development and a stronger Turkey. His critics say it will be less Ataturk, more Islamization and a dark future.