Is Turkey's AKP losing lustre in conservative Istanbul district?

Istanbul’s Esenler district is a traditional a stronghold of Turkey’s ruling Islamist party, but economic recession and the acrimonious campaign could lead to an upset in the working-class area in March 31 local elections.

Esenler, nestled several kilometres inland, beyond the city’s iconic tourist sites on its European side, is home to 312,000 voters among its half a million residents. It hosts a sizeable Kurdish population, a large community that migrated to Istanbul from the Black Sea region, and a large number of Syrian refugees. It also has a significant population of Alevis, a minority Muslim sect.

In the last local elections of 2014, the district voted 67 percent in favour of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate for mayor of Istanbul, a city of some 16 million that has been run by Islamist parties since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan emerged as its mayor in 1994.

While most polls are thought to be unreliable, a loose coalition of opposition parties has coalesced around one candidate for the job of Istanbul mayor, hoping to dent the prestige of the AKP, which has dominated political life in Turkey since it came to power nationally in 2002.

The AKP’s power base has always been among socially conservative parts of Anatolia away from the coastal tourist hubs and working-class urban districts such as Esenler, populated by relatively recent migrants from the rural hinterland.

The AKP has responded to the challenge from the alliance of the main opposition secularist party with disgruntled nationalists and Islamists by forming its own coalition with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), once a vocal critic of the ruling party.

But getting into bed with the ruling AKP could cost the MHP some votes.

“How is it that those who were at each other’s throats up until recently are all of a sudden so close?” asked Müslüm Yıldız, a 37-year-old, a taxi-driver who identifies himself as a staunch nationalist. He reckoned about half of the MHP’s vote would go to the centre-right Good Party, led by dissident nationalist who split from the MHP.

While the Good Party backs the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the race for Istanbul mayor, in Esenler the CHP has not fielded a candidate and supports the Good Party’s Mustafa Yılmaz to be mayor of the district.

Yılmaz has pledged to tackle the area’s drug problem and, since the district’s predominantly conservative demographic prefers to keep women out of the workforce, he said he would create opportunities for women to work from home and provide financial aid for people living close to the poverty line.

A large percentage of voters in Esenler are young, but many said they would vote according to their family’s voting history, rather than on the issues at hand

Eighteen-year-old Gamze, originally from the southeastern province of Siirt, said she would vote for the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Esenler, but would support the CHP in the city elections, where the HDP is not putting up a candidate for mayor to boost the chances of an AKP defeat.

Gamze, a first-time voter, is a textile worker who has to work to help her family. “I’ll vote the same as my parents in these elections. It’s going to be the first time I’m voting,” she said.

Yeşil, 21, from the eastern province of Muş, said her family had difficulty finding a flat to rent because they were Kurds. “We don’t have homes for Kurds,” real estate agents told her family, she said, adding that a voice inside her told her not to bother voting, as the AKP would only win again.

Older voters in Esenler are also frustrated.

“If this man thinks that he can nab votes through threats and calling people terrorists, then he is wrong,” said Hikmet, a retired labourer, referring to the AKP’s increasingly vitriolic campaign to paint its opponents as being in league with the enemies of the state. “There should be viewer discretion warnings when Erdoğan appears on television for the sake of small children,” he said.

The ruling party’s emphasis on Sunni Islam and religious identity also offends Alevi Muslims, who make up about 20 percent of the country’s population and have traditionally voted for the CHP.

“We are an Alevi family. I always tell my children to never differentiate between people. But today, there are lines being drawn between Turks, Kurds, Alevis and Sunnis. This has to stop,” said Hüsniye, long-time Esenler resident and mother of 11.

But for many, perhaps most, the draw of the AKP and its charismatic leader is still strong and family loyalties persist through the generations.

Ayşegül, 37, said she would vote for the AKP.

“They’re calling the HDP terrorists, but I don’t know who are the terrorists and who aren’t. My mother and father are insistent on the AKP and I have to do as they say,” she said.