We embarked on an election campaign tour this week, starting from Samsun in the north, dropping by Erzurum in the East, and ending up in Bingöl in the cross between the Southeast and Central Anatolia. It was clear that in all the cities we have visited along this tour the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has comfortable wide-margin leads over all other parties.
The main reason for the huge popularity of the AK Party in these cities is the unprecedented economic development and major infrastructure investments easing the lives of people, changing the faces of cities to make them more modern. The construction of highways connecting to cities in difficult terrains is major scoring points for the AK Party candidates for example.
The Black Sea Coastal highway, which had seen 12 governments when it was passed to the AK Party government in 2003, was completed in a short period of time to the amazement of residents living in the region. The new highways along the north-east or north-south corridors stretching from the major port city Trabzon to Antalya and from Trabzon to Erzurum were already in the construction phase.
The construction of the Diyarbakır-Bingöl-Erzurum highway is still going on and once completed it will turn the small city of Bingöl, whose population is declining steadily as its young people leave to find work elsewhere, into a major transportation hub. The laying of highways across Turkey was a hallmark for the AK Party government in the last decade. In 2001, there were only 6,100 kilometers of divided highways across the nation, while the AK Party government has increased this to 19,700 kilometers today.
The major transformation of the health care system in Turkey and expansion of hospitals and medical care facilities in the northern and eastern regions, as well as in the country, is another boost for the AK Party. Health Minister Recep Akdağ, who is running on the AK Party ticket in his hometown of Erzurum, is as popular as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in this city. I saw banners held up by Erzurum residents in the campaign rally, saying, “We can’t do without two Receps,” in a reference to the first name of both the health minister and prime minister.
The AK Party certainly deserves credit for turning the health care system in the country around and voters appreciate that. The universal health insurance coverage and easy access to medical care facilities were supplemented with an 80 percent discount on the price of prescription drugs in Turkey. The building of new hospitals saved people in the northern and eastern regions from making trips to neighboring cities or major metropolitan districts. The government increased the budget for health care from TL 2.9 billion in 2001 to TL 14 billion in 2011.
Another boost for the government was the successful construction projects undertaken by the Housing Development Administration of Turkey (TOKİ) to help transform decaying inner city neighborhoods or shanty districts in the middle of towns. TOKİ also helped lower and middle class people to own flats at affordable prices to be paid in installments. You can see TOKİ housing complexes in every city in the region.
The AK Party government has built 490,000 TOKİ houses so far and promised to double the number in its the next term should it remain in power following this election. The former head of TOKİ, Erdoğan Bayraktar, is running a very successful campaign in his hometown Trabzon and certain to win the seat without any difficulty.
Achievements in the educational field are another major score touted by AK Party candidates to convince people to vote for the party again on June 12 election. The government built schools for kindergarteners to 12th graders in the least developed regions. The country gained 160,000 new classrooms during the period AK Party government ruled the country. The government picked up the cost for all education-related expenses, from teachers’ salaries to school textbooks, out of national education budget. The AK Party government also established new state universities in cities in the north and in the east to help develop the human capital in these regions. The number of universities across the nation was increased from 72 in 2003 to 162 today. Every province now has at least one university.
The number of students enrolled in universities has contributed immensely to the local economy, creating a demand for housing, dining and entertainment facilities for students. But more importantly, the supply of knowledge, information, science and technology has increased the technical skill and capacity of cities where new universities were established. The budget share of education was increased from TL 6.5 billion to TL 34 billion in 2011, making education the largest area of state expenditures.
All other public investment schemes, be they in the form of waste management facilities, airport construction, dams, irrigation or water purification projects, earned points for the AK Party. The huge sums of money, TL 35 billion in 2011, that was allocated to public projects will come in handy on election day. The cities that had clean natural gas for heating was increased from nine in 2003 to 67 today, helping reduce the air pollution from coal-burning.
It looks like the economy is a major factor in voters’ decisions in this election cycle and the AK Party candidates are clearly ahead in that respect. Opposition candidates are making similar economic promises but the main problem is the lack of credibility on their part. People still remember the homegrown 2001 crisis when many banks went bankrupt and people lost their savings. The high inflation, huge budget deficit, staggering external debt and rising unemployment in the pre-AK Party government era are still fresh in the memories of the voters.
“At least we know the AK Party can deliver what it promises in this election. We have tested them for the last eight-and-a-half years. They really changed the outlook of the country. But I can’t say the same for the opposition parties. Even if they promise more than what AK Party does, I find it difficult to believe them. It may be just a trick to get my vote and they may forget all about it after the election,” one voter in port city Giresun was telling me during the campaign tour.