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Turkey's Erdogan Depends On Working Class Support To Counter Critics

Istanbul: Report From Erdogan's Stronghold
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WATCH: RFE/RL reports from the neighborhood of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

ISTANBUL -- On a side street about 2 kilometers from the cacophonic demonstrations on Istanbul's Taksim Square, the clacking of "yuzbir" chips competes only with the whir of traffic.

Men here, leisurely sipping tea as they play a Turkish game resembling dominoes, say that despite the protests a few winding roads away there has been no change in Kasimpasa.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan grew up in that working-class neighborhood of Istanbul, and locals say their standard of living has vastly improved under Erdogan's decade-long tenure as prime minister.

It is people in neighborhoods like this -- where popular opinion is forged by religion, naval tradition, and the local soccer team -- that Erdogan has counted on to dominate in past elections.

And he is relying on such people to provide a bulwark against growing discontent among the potpourri of groups who feel their interests are being ignored by the prime minister and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

According to Barcin Yinanc, opinion editor at the Istanbul-based "Hurriyet Daily News," this division among voters works to Erdogan's advantage.

"That's precisely what makes him so arrogant," she says. "I don't know whether [the protests] will have a consequence in the next elections, because obviously I am personally convinced that he has a very strong constituency. Whereas the other 50 percent that has not voted for the AKP -- obviously they are divided."

A series of recent proposals that largely secular demonstrators say have crossed the line by merging Islam with state affairs is met mostly with ambivalence in Kasimpasa.

Nonetheless, even these steadfast supporters of Erdogan criticized his handling of the ongoing political crisis.

Bewilderment At Reaction

Bilo, a Yuzbir player who declines to provide his last name, suggests Erdogan was too quick to make changes to Turkey's secular political tradition. "When you are talking about religions, this is right, we are Muslim," he says. "But everybody [has] their own opinion."

Another man at the table, Badam, 26, who is also unwilling to provide his last name, says he supports Erdogan wholeheartedly. But Badam concedes that the government should do a better job showing understanding for the "young generation."

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A few blocks away, in a small square where children played pickup soccer and adults lounged on a park bench under the setting sun, strong support for Erdogan was also tempered by bewilderment over his reaction to the demonstrators.

In warning that "terrorist elements" were among those gathered in Taksim Square, 60-year-old house painter Ibrahim Bodur seems to be paraphrasing a line used by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc earlier this week.

But Bodur also directs criticism toward Erdogan, the neighborhood's native son and most famous resident. "I don't support when you call someone a hooligan," he says. "That's not the right way."

Before heading on a four-day trip to North Africa, Erdogan dismissed those participating in demonstrations as "looters" and "bums" -- a marked contrast to the conciliatory gestures offered by Arinc and Turkish President Abdullah Gul.

Condemnation Of Protests

Despite the light criticism, condemnation of the protests and what they represent appears to vastly outweigh concerns over Erdogan's flat-footed response.
Istanbul resident Remzi Kibar
Istanbul resident Remzi Kibar

Remzi Kibar, a feisty mother of five whose patterned head scarf wraps snugly around her head, places the blame squarely on the protesters.

"I'm angry at them for breaking windows and vandalizing things and I'm just overall angry," she says. "If you have something to say, you can sit down and talk it out."

Although the demonstrators have remained largely peaceful, some have broken windows of businesses seen to be associated with the government, and the area around Taksim Square is now covered in spray-painted antigovernment graffiti.

When reminded that a common complaint of anti-Erdogan activists is that the prime minster refuses to consider their concerns, the 60-year-old Kibar responds matter-of-factly. "The prime minister's busy and he's on a trip," she says. "And besides, his deputy already apologized."

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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer. 

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