- Published on Tuesday, 14 June 2011 20:00
- Category: Letters from Turkey
His Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a whopping 50 percent of the country’s vote and an overwhelming 326 parliamentary seats. Still, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, AKP’s leader and Tukey’s bombastic prime minister, forsake his usual swagger for an apologetic tone during his victory speech on Sunday night.
“Today is not a day of reckoning,” he said to a cheering crowd of several thousand at AKP headquarters in Turkey’s capital Ankara, “Today is a day of reconciliation.” Perhaps they were words prompted by the admitted loss of four seats. Nonetheless, they were, along with his appeals for consensus building with those that oppose him, uncharacteristic words for Erdogan, who has prided himself for being and representing the “outsider.”
Yet with a third and what is his largest victory yet, Erdogan and the AKP have become a Turkish institution. It is an institution with lots of money and influence. That was apparent by the number of billboards and signs boasting Erdogan’s image that lined the several mile highway between Istanbul’s Ataturk airport and the city’s main square, Taksim.
It is an image that most Turks I talk to do not like, yet seem to begrudgingly accept. “People say that they don’t like him, but then he wins by so much,” said Esra Tekin, a foreign trade specialist in the central Anatolian town Eskisehir. “They (the Turkish public) don’t like to admit it but they want him.”
With Turkey’s astronomical economic growth over the past several years, it is easy to see why. Erdogan has helped catapult his country into the G-20 and make it one of the region’s most stable and largest growing economies. It is precisely for this reason that Turks put their hat in with Erdogan. “I don’t like him,” one 50-something man told me but didn’t give his name, “but I don’t like a bad Turkish economy even more.”
A bad Turkish economy that used to be riddled with inflation, debt and currency fluctuation is something that stands out in everyone’s mind here, especially in this once sleepy central Anatolian backwater Eskisehir. Eskisehir used to be home to Turkey’s public sugar refinery. Following the massive reforms in the 1980s when the government, led by former World Bank economist Turgut Ozal, privatized public industries, the plant was shut down. Thousands in the city lost jobs. By the end of the 1980s Eskisehir resembled modern-day Detroit. That changed once Yilmaz Buyukersen was elected mayor.
An economist, sculptor and former rector of Anadolu University, Buyukersen anchored Eskisehir’s economy in academics. He expanded Anadolu’s campus and forged partnerships with foreign schools. He set up a second university on the other side of town that specializes in medicine. Buyukersen then reached out to the World Bank and IMF to help him build an electric tram throughout the town, reducing the number of cars on the town’s roads and creating a source of revenue for his city. The results have been astronomical.
Eskisehir now ranks as one of Turkey’s fastest growing cities. Young people crowd the city’s many malls, cafés and bars. Foreign hotel chains such as Ibis have opened their doors here. They accommodate the many international businessmen that fly in directly from Brussels do business in construction and trade. “Everyone wants to live in Eskisehir,” Serap Zorlu, a young woman who moved to the city after living a lifetime in Munich. “It’s cosmopolitan. There’s lots to do and lots of opportunity.”
It is opportunity created not so much by Erdogan but by Buyukersen, who is interestingly not an AKP member but that of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). CHP, the party of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, has struggled over the past decade to win any kind of representation in Turkey’s parliament. With Buyukersen at the helm, however, the party has become extremely popular. Some have even speculated that Buyukersen could be the one person to take down Erdogan. Not on Sunday, however. CHP only managed to win 25 percent of the overall vote in Turkey with 135 parliamentary seats, two (out of five) in Eskisehir.
“We love Buyukersen,” said Ayhan Uyanik, an office worker and Eskisehir native, “But Tayyip Bey is unbeatable.” While Eskisehir is doing well, Uyanik went onto say, Turkey’s economy supersedes. “That is what people think about,” when going into the voting booth. “Turks are afraid of going back to the past.”
While Sunday’s elections may have been won with the past in mind, Erdogan and his AKP have little choice but to look to the future. Ahead of them are major challenges such as preventing the economy from being effected by the European and global financial crisis, the re-writing of the 1982 constitution that is out of step with European norms and an intractable Kurdish problem that promises to worsen. “If they can’t solve those things Erdogan will surely be out,” said one of my relatives who wishes to remain anonymous, “and someone like Buyukersen will take his place. This is, after all, Turkey.”
By Elmira Bayrasli, Aslan Media Contributor
*Photo Credit: Alain Bachellier
Elmira Bayrasli writes and works on Development issues. She is Communications Director at the Peace Dividend Trust.
You can follow her on Twitter @EndeavoringE