Cheap vegetables and cries of terror: the high stakes of Turkey’s local elections

Borzou Daragahi

Birgul Karsongun heaves a five-pound bag of onions from the cash register, and counts her savings. At 10 Turkish liras (£1.37), the produce at the food bank set up by the government just ahead of 31 March municipal elections costs half what she would pay at the supermarket.

That’s a relief. Times are tough for the 32-year-old mother of two. Inflation in Turkey has jumped to 20 per cent. She’s unemployed, and with her husband’s salary, the family just scrapes by.

The vegetable stands, funded by the government of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice Development Party (AKP), have proven enormously popular. Employees say between 3,000 and 4,000 customers come each day to buy fresh staples such as onions, green peppers, aubergines, spinach, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers and bags of dried chickpeas and lentils at one outlet on Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

Though many said they know the stands are an election-season gimmick that will only last a month or so beyond the vote, they still appreciated the temporary help.

“Of course I’m grateful,” says Ms Karsongun. “Of course I will vote for the AKP. Who else?”

What should be a humdrum local election for district mayors and municipal councils in Turkey has become fiercely contested, fought in the wake of the country’s economic crisis. On Sunday, though he is not running for office, Mr Erdogan spoke at an Istanbul rally that drew a purported 1.6 million supporters, vowing to increase tourism numbers to help the city's economy.

In addition to the typical mundane issues and personalities that drive local elections across Turkey, the vote next Sunday will also be seen in as a referendum on Mr Erdogan, who assumed the super-charged new post of president last year, and could further embolden or weaken him.

The municipal contest will end a decade-long marathon of near annual elections and referendums that has worn out voters and business leaders eager for stability and turned off by what feels like nonstop political campaigning, with posters and banners touting parties and politicians, especially Mr Erdogan, plastering walls and billboards.

Like elections last year, which Mr Erdogan salvaged only by partnering with the far-right National Movement Party (MHP), the president’s opponents smell blood.

Economic discontent is growing. Polls show the AKP party may very well lose control of the municipal government in the capital, Ankara, though its candidate retains an edge in Istanbul. A poll showed the economy is by far voters' biggest concern, with 63.6% saying their economic situation worsened over the last year. The poll, conducted by the Social Democracy Foundation, said 44 percent of AKP supporters were undecided.

“We can say this election will be one where supporters of the AKP have started intense doubting,” columnist Fatih Polat wrote Wednesday in the leftist newspaper Evrensel. “At least a few people are talking about ‘teaching them a lesson’. We will see how the last 10 days before the election will impact the vote, and how much this doubt will be reflected in ballot boxes on 31 March.”

As standard-bearer for the AKP’s candidates, Mr Erdogan’s no-holds-barred campaigning style has already gotten him into trouble internationally. His use of footage from the New Zealand terror attack on mosques, and excerpts from the alleged Australian perpetrator’s manifesto as props to rile up supporters in provocative campaign speeches evoking the medieval Christian crusades against Muslim lands, has prompted diplomatic blowback.

A shopper walks away after buying groceries at a government-run market (AP)
A shopper walks away after buying groceries at a government-run market (AP)

But in addition to galvanising his base with imagery from the crusades and using resources of state to curry voter favour with cheap cucumbers, Mr Erdogan and his allies have used equally tough measures against opponents.

As in other elections, state media channels tilt heavily towards government candidates. According to Birgun, public broadcaster TRT gave five times more air time to the AKP than opposition candidates during the first half of March.

Several pro-government newspapers alleged that the main liberal opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) list of candidates in Izmir included 27 “terrorists” linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

A spate of high-profile ribbon cuttings – including the extension of a rail line that spans both the Asian and European sides of Istanbul – reinforce the image of the AKP as a party that gets things done.

Of course I will vote for the AKP. Who else?

Birgul Karsongun, Istanbul voter

There are also reports of campaign irregularities. In the country’s southeast, authorities have detained dozens of members of pro-Kurdish parties in the country’s southeast, preventing the groups from making public appearances, according to Kurdish media.

Opposition newspapers have alleged civil servants are going “door-to-door” in government buildings to press municipal employees to vote for the AKP.

Analysts say the heavy-handed measures underscore the ruling party’s political vulnerabilities on the economy.

Mr Erdogan has blamed outside powers for the economic downturn which has the result of runaway borrowing spurred on by the government’s loose lending policies driving down the value of the lira. A diplomatic spat with the US last year has also heightened investor concerns about Turkey.

The government has also blamed unscrupulous speculators for high prices, has launched raids on food warehouses and imposed fines on distributors. Anecdotal accounts suggest flooding the market with cheap produce has forced down prices in supermarkets as well, but many grocers are enraged by the economic and political assault, and some have begun posting signs showing how little profit they’re actually making.

For ordinary voters struggling to get by, cheap vegetables are a pretty good approach. Ismail Yucel, a 32-year-old security guard, says it was his first time shopping at one of the vegetables stalls. “The prices at the market are just too high,” he says. “Economically, I’m in a tough situation.”

The opposition has also sought to use the economic troubles for political gain.

“Recent data indicates the severity of the economic crisis that the Turkish economy is going through,” Izmir CHP leader Selin Sayek Boke wrote on Wednesday in Birgun: “The situation requires urgent measures, which should be taken with different political and economic approaches.”