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Story Publication logo March 28, 2014

Turkey's Erdogan Retains Working-Class Roots


Turkey Under Protest

When protests flooded Turkey, they revealed deep problems. Police brutality, authoritarianism, and a...


Istanbul, Turkey - Earlier this month, thousands of mourners gathered at Piyale Pasha mosque, in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Kasimpasa, for the funeral of Burak Can Karamanoglu, a 22-year-old who was killed when an anti-government protest turned violent.

Demonstrations that first erupted last May in Istanbul's Gezi park have grown in recent weeks, as Turkey prepares for local elections on March 30 and the government defends itself against allegations of corruption.

According to his family, Karamanoglu was a passerby caught in a gunfight between two groups of protesters. After his death, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan mourned publicly. His empathy for the young man revealed his lingering connection to Kasimpasa, a working-class neighbourhood on Istanbul's Golden Horn where the prime minister grew up.

Kasimpasa still has that pride of being rough, hardy, frank. Erdogan's reputation of being 'adam gibi adam' [a Turkish phrase meaning 'real man'] comes from that kind of cultural image.
Devoted following

On a recent afternoon in Kasimpasa, the winter sun filtered through a canopy of campaign flags. A massive billboard advertising Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) loomed over a central square, but was dwarfed by advertisements for Saadet, a rival conservative party. A large Saadet flag nearly grazed the tops of passing cars.

"Who put that flag there?" joked Yasar Ayhan, the 68-year-old owner of a local barbershop. He peeked his head out of the shop's glass door, his hands white with shaving cream. "It must be for a previous election."

Ayhan told Al Jazeera that residents in Kasimpasa "fully trust" Erdogan. "[The opposition] can't defeat him politically, with elections, so they are making up lies," he said, referring to allegations of corruption within the AKP that have dominated news headlines since mid-December.

In the background, the TV was tuned to a campaigning Erdogan, and on a coffee table, copies of the pro-government daily Sabah were creased with use. "Erdogan is the best leader this piece of earth has ever seen."

Erdogan's family home is up the hill from Piyale Pasha mosque, above what is now a buzzing highway. Plots of green farmland dot the urban neighbourhood, hinting at the speed of development. His humble beginnings are held up as evidence of his authenticity, and his success is a source of pride for the neighbourhood.

"On the ground floor [of Erdogan's home] there is a garden," said a local woman, who asked to remain anonymous. "The neighbours are very close." She smoothed her thick, graying hair over her shoulder and smiled up at a framed portrait of a much younger Erdogan hanging on the wall of her supervisor's office. "Our support for Erdogan comes from the heart," she said. "Everyone has a memory of him."

Erdogan's family was forced by poverty to move from Rize, a town on the Black Sea, to Istanbul. The story is one many Turks can relate to. Owing to both economic pressures and political unrest, particularly in the wake of the 1980 military coup, Istanbul's population expanded swiftly.

Ayhan, the barber, explained that his family also originally hailed from Rize, where they knew Erdogan's family.

"When I was a little kid, our grandparents would meet," he said. Because of that connection, the prime minister is an occasional client. Resting on a ledge above the wall of mirrors is a framed photo of the barber and Erdogan. "Because of all this opposition, he's lost all his hair," Ayhan joked. "I told him, 'Istanbul owes you hair.' He said, 'I gave my hair to Istanbul.'"

Diverging voices

This type of unwavering support for Erdogan among many Kasimpasa residents has spurred criticism from outsiders.

"I don't like the neighbourhood," said Ayse, a factory manager who would not give Al Jazeera her last name. "The people are so ignorant and simple-minded. They vote for the same people over and over again... They would sell themselves for two kilos of rice."

The support is also not absolute. Gentrification, spearheaded by Erdogan, has displaced the urban poor, fostering resentments. Until recently, Kasimpasa has been spared the mega-projects that have fundamentally transformed other Istanbul neighbourhoods. This week, though, Kadir Topbas, the AKP mayor of Istanbul, announced a plan to build a tunnel beneath the Golden Horn that would exit in central Kasimpasa.

The past 10 months have shown unprecedented challenges to Erdogan and the AKP. Anti-government protests are now a routine occurrence, and the corruption allegations have led to the resignation of party ministers.

Erdogan's response, which has largely been to blame a "parallel state", has alienated some voters and bolstered his opponents. Sitting near Recep Tayyip Erdogan football stadium in Kasimpasa, local resident Yildirim, 25, contested generalisations about the district.

"It's wrong to say that everyone in Kasimpasa supports Erdogan," said Yildirim, who would not give Al Jazeera his last name. "It's really complicated. My friends and me, we can't really say that we are in favour of the government."

He said he was dismayed by how the country's recent turmoil reinforced the older generation's loyalty to Erdogan. "The older community is managed by the media," Yildirim said. "They think the prime minister is being attacked, and that means something must be wrong."

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