Turkey's PM moves to cast wider shadow

By Nathalie Savaricas

He's not a candidate but Turkey's PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan dominates in today's local elections. Photo / AP
He's not a candidate but Turkey's PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan dominates in today's local elections. Photo / AP

Sitting on a podium, Mustafa Sarigul, the opposition mayoral candidate for Istanbul, talked to a female audience in the Republican People's Party's city headquarters. "Erdogan chose to shut down Twitter, but then God has chosen to shut him up," he said.

The reference to the country's Prime Minister losing his voice before today's local elections gets a laugh.

The stakes in these municipal elections have been raised to a referendum on the ruling AKP party's leadership as it faces accusations of large-scale corruption and heavy-handed repression during last year's huge anti-government protests.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent bans on Twitter and YouTube compounded matters to the point where, for Sarigul, a win in Istanbul may lead to the country's premiership.

While the Republican People's Party, Turkey's main opposition, has traditionally appealed to more liberal and Western-leaning voters, demographics are changing.

Ilkur Kahraman, 40, was among Turkish women in the audience wearing a scarf. "Sarigul loves everybody and makes no distinction on whether you're wearing a scarf or not," she said. "He brings us together against the dictator that is Erdogan."

She used to vote for Erdogan because he represented her democratic and Muslim values. But today, like many Turks, Kahraman fears her country is being polarised by his bellicose rhetoric.

The Prime Minister has been locked in a toxic power feud with a moderate US-based Islamic cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who until recently supported him. The cleric is believed to have a strong footing in the country's institutions, mainly the judiciary and police, through his large network of followers and schools.

Not naming his rival directly, Erdogan accuses a "parallel state" of triggering a widening probe into graft that began with the arrests of the children of three of his ministers on December 17 and has been followed by a series of anonymously leaked recordings embroiling the PM in bribes and exposing his authoritarian streak. The successive leaks prompted the Government's shutdown of Twitter and YouTube which may have had some effect, but caused international outrage and, in some quarters, ridicule.

Sarigul accused the ruling AKP party of using illicit tricks to harm his campaign, saying the social media clampdown cut off their major medium to influence voters. By contrast, with less than half of Turkey's population using the internet and Erdogan's core voters coming from more traditional backgrounds, the shutdown won't equally affect his AKP party. The Prime Minister has also tightened his Administration's grip over central institutions and is said to have purged the judiciary.

The shutdown came shortly after the posting of a video on YouTube in which senior officials were allegedly heard discussing military intervention in Syria as "an opportunity" to deflect voters' attention from local issues. The Government called the revelations a "heinous treason".

In the working-class district of Kasimpasa where Erdogan was born, Servet Gemuz, 26, a devout Muslim and AKP supporter, ignored the bribery accusations. "I look at what Erdogan has done for the country and he has offered us a lot," he said.

Since Erdogan's party took power in 2002, Turkey has become one of the world's emerging economic giants. But the political feud and his authoritarian tendency could scare off investments.

Whatever the result of today's elections, many fear the antagonism between Erdogan and Gulen could tear apart a country where the pious and liberals had coexisted.

- Independent

Views on Erdogan

The Prime Minister made a lot of things possible that weren't possible before. He made it possible for girls with headscarves to go to university. His party achieved so much. They build many roads and bridges, make life better for all of us.
- Gursun, 19, student

When I came to Istanbul in 1996, the streets were full of rubbish and there were water cuts, electricity cuts. It's a world of difference now. There are many traitors around. There is no corruption. That's just the jealousy of his political enemies.
- Cavit, 43, barber

Erdogan behaves more and more like a dictator. He wants to decide everything on his own ... He is not everyone's Prime Minister any more. He has split the country into camps, pitted rich against poor, Muslims against non-Muslims.
- Zafer, 48, shopkeeper

- Observer

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