Popularity contest in elections

Last week I toured around some provinces in the Black Sea and eastern and central Anatolian regions to take the pulse of the electorate for the upcoming parliamentary elections on June 12. It was clear from the field that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) will easily pick up most of the seats from these regions, while the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and independents endorsed by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) will share the rest.

The charismatic and popular Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan factor is the main reason people vote for the AK Party. It was obvious that there are some problems with respect to candidates running on the AK Party ticket in different provinces. Some of them are not known very well locally, some have negative image problems and a few do not reflect the demographic, religious or ethnic sensitivities in the region from which they have been nominated.

The popularity of Erdoğan and his party, however, diffuses most of the negative reactions stemming from the composition of the AK Party candidate lists. It renders the negative campaigning from other parties ineffective. Sami Tandoğdu, a CHP deputy candidate whom I met in Ünye, a city in the port province of Ordu on the Black Sea, openly admits that Erdoğan is a phenomenon in the region. “I do not dare criticize Erdoğan at all here. Those who vote for us don’t get angry when we criticize the government, but they don’t want us to criticize Erdoğan himself. And so that’s how I do it,” he says.

Erdoğan is especially popular among women voters in Anatolia. Different polls put AK Party support among women from 65 to 85 percent depending on province. If you look at rallies organized by the AK Party in various provinces, the front rows are always filled with women supporters who cheer passionately for Erdoğan for the duration of his speeches. The women’s branch of the AK Party especially uses housewives as core activists for “get out and vote for the AK Party” campaigns on election day as well as for canvassing neighborhoods to convince undecided voters.

From the conversations I had with men and women on the street, the prime minister was seen as a man who stood up against gangs and criminal networks and the army interfering in politics. He was credited with curbing their power in influencing politics. His tough stand on the international scene on issues such as Gaza won him points as well. “He is a standup guy, and I have great respect for him,” one woman said, while standing on the terrace of a building watching a huge crowd gathered for the prime minister’s election speech at Cumhuriyet Square in Kayseri on Sunday. “He has delivered what he promised, whereas other politicians had kept lying to us during election periods,” she added.

Dwarfed by Erdoğan’s popularity, opposition parties, especially the CHP and BDP, carefully selected candidates who are popular locally. The names in the candidate list of the CHP or the independents endorsed by the BDP outweigh the popularity of parties they represent. It seems the CHP and BDP are trying to appeal to a larger audience by selecting candidates who may bring additional votes on election day.

Halık Koç and İhsan Kalkavan are popular names, for example, in the port city of Samsun in the north of Turkey. Koç, who has an impressive record as a deputy in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), is running on the CHP ticket. He is very popular in Samsun. Koç is also a successful medical practitioner and practiced for years before becoming a deputy from the CHP. When I visited Koç at his CHP district office in Çarşamba, his hometown near Samsun city, he was not only campaigning but also seeing patients pro bono, listening to their complaints and offering treatment options.

Likewise in the eastern province of Bingöl, the BDP-endorsed independent candidate İdris Baluken, who is of Zaza origin, as are most residents of the province. Baluken served as a medical doctor in predominantly Kurdish Diyarbakir for many years. In consideration of religious sensitivities and the Zaza ethnic identity, separate from Kurds, the BDP hopes to pick up one seat out of three available in Bingöl province. In the last election in 2007, the BDP-endorsed independent candidate won only 14 percent of the vote, which was not enough to steal a seat from the AK Party. The BDP does not want to make that same mistake again.

The BDP also made alliances with popular names in Diyarbakır by endorsing the candidacy of Şerafettin Elçi, a Kurdish politician who leads the pro-Kurdish Participatory Democracy Party (KADEP) and Altan Tan, who is known as an Islamist and conservative Kurdish intellectual, to appeal to a wider Kurdish electorate.

It looks increasingly like this election is turning into a popularity contest.

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