Istanbul is noisier than usual. Amid the brouhaha of car horns and calls to prayer there is the new strain of electoral campaign vehicles blaring out their encouragements to vote wisely in the general election on June 12. I have come to recognize the different political theme tunes before their host vans come lumbering into view, bedecked with flags and emblazoned with their particular candidate’s unflatteringly enlarged face. Each are grating in their own, special way but the general idea is to mix about 30 seconds of impassioned propaganda with a few bars of over-amped music, like a nightmare ice cream van designed for the extremely hard of hearing.
As usual in the PR department, the AKP runs rings around their opposition. Even their campaign vehicles are more effective, opting for an instantly recognizable jingle rather than the blurred rap which the MHP (National Movement Party) has chosen, presumably to attract the hip youth of Istanbul who might otherwise pass them by. While most candidate photos are stark portrait shots, Prime Minister Erdoğan is shown waving genially and AKP brochures are full of pictures of “Tayyip”, as he is affectionately known, with a child in his arms, sitting by a sick bed or donning a hard hat to join his brethren in a place of toil. The camera loves him. So do most ordinary Turks, who see themselves in his past incarnations as bus driver and water bottle dispenser. He is the consummate orator, his message clear and emphatically delivered. He has plans. The opposition parties have none and oppose him on everything, without rhyme or reason, like overexcited schoolboys in a sixth form debate. Along with most of the West, they have problems with his barely concealed religious ideology but cannot articulate them, and that is the tragedy of the current situation.
Curious to get to the heart of the AKP’s success, I went on a field trip to my local municipal AKP centre. Here I was shown around by a forthright lady called Verkin Arioba, who is not only Catholic and a close friend of the Pope but also Armenian, an extraordinary combination for a parliamentary candidate. She is currently head of the department for the disabled but has her sights set on bigger things. For all the AKP’s faults, one of their selling points is their acceptance of minorities. It would be unthinkable for any of the more nationalist parties to accept an Armenian woman who is single-handedly masterminding the building of a bridge between Armenia and Turkey, an obviously symbolic gesture of huge importance. Given that there are an ever increasing number of minorities in Turkey at the moment, especially in Istanbul, Erdoğan’s attitude is a smart move.
An even smarter move is his courting of the poor. One of the most popular recent enterprises is the “credit shop” which allows impoverished families to use points on a card to get food and clothes in place of the dole. Bread is always free in these shops, as are certain products donated by companies keen to avoid the next tax bracket. Fancy stilettos which would cost about 100 TL (£40) on the high street can be obtained for a trifling 5 points, the equivalent of about a quid, and essentials like oil and rice cost next to nothing. This is a sure-fire vote winner with the extensive community of impoverished families struggling with up to 10 children, and, interestingly, a fairly new system which is up and running just in time for pre-election fever. Erdoğan is certainly looking after his flock and it will pay off: loaves for votes.