‘They’ve screwed the economy’: heartland voters grow tired of Erdoğan

Selman Deveci, a chef working his shift at a café in the Turkish city of Konya, voiced what an increasing number of voters were whispering in the region that had been a stronghold for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: “I want change.”

“They’ve screwed the economy,” Deveci said of the rampant inflation and plummeting lira that had taken a heavy toll on people’s finances. The erosion of basic rights and freedoms in Turkey and a system of government that concentrates power in the president’s hands have also turned him away from Erdoğan.

And yet Deveci can find few reasons to instead vote for the six-party opposition coalition forged with the aim of unseating the longtime leader in next month’s elections. “I don’t have faith in them,” he said.

Erdoğan and his Justice and Development party (AKP) are fighting one of the toughest campaigns in their two decades in power. National polls put him neck and neck with Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the 74-year-old leader of the Republican People’s party who will represent the united opposition in the presidential vote on May 14.

Yet Deveci’s views show why the election hangs in the balance, despite the disillusionment of many in Turkey at the inflation crisis under Erdoğan’s watch that has been compounded by anger at his government’s botched response to the devastating earthquake in February.

Erdoğan, 69, has long been able to count on the support of religiously conservative regions in the country’s Anatolian heartland, such as Konya. Three out of four voters across the wider province backed him in the most recent presidential election in 2018.

The difference this time is that Turkey’s “massive economic crisis” has fed the circumstances in which “the AKP’s base is dwindling”, said Berk Esen, a professor at Sabanci university. But this did not necessarily translate into votes for the opposition, with Kılıçdaroğlu — a quietly spoken political veteran from the minority Alevi sect — struggling to convince voters that he is the one to deliver durable change.

“In places such as Konya, where you have a very conservative pious voter bloc, most AKP voters have decided not to desert the ship,” Esen said. “In part, this is because the opposition has not created an appealing, credible alternative.”

The sense of disillusionment is apparent in Konya, a province of 2.3mn people that is nicknamed Turkey’s granary because of its history in farming and the production of agricultural machines.

Bar chart of Vote share (%) showing Erdoğan won Konya by a landslide in the 2018 presidential election

One student, sitting in a coffee shop in the centre of the city, said her family used to support the president, but changed their mind. “I don’t like Erdoğan anymore,” she said. Even simple pleasures, such as buying books, had become difficult because of high prices, she added. Like many in Konya who spoke to the Financial Times, she did not want to give her name due to concerns about retribution by the government.

A local pharmacist, who also asked not to be named, offered a similar sentiment: “The economy’s getting worse every day . . . change is needed,” he said, adding that the weak lira, which was trading at record lows against the US dollar, meant he was often unable to find medication for patients.

Yet he also had little hope that even a new government would make much difference. “Not Erdoğan, not Kılıçdaroğlu, none of them,” he said.

Konya skyline at dusk
Many people in Konya are struggling with surging inflation © Adam Samson/FT

The sense of economic despair is reflected in the broader economic data. In the early years that Erdoğan was in power, residents of Konya became much more prosperous. Economic output per person leapt from $4,250 in 2004, the year after Erdoğan was first elected prime minister, to $9,690 in 2013, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute. But since then, per capita gross domestic product has slid back to $7,340, reflecting a trend that has taken hold nationally.

The slump follows the arc of Erdoğan as a politician. When he was elected 20 years ago, Erdoğan was seen as a moderate, business-friendly Islamist who could chart a fresh course for Turkey. And yet while his government, especially in its early years, pushed through important reforms, it steadily eroded civil liberties.

It violently snuffed out protests in 2013, while an attempted coup three years later gave Erdoğan fresh fuel to push through a referendum that enacted the presidential system that gave him sweeping powers.

Mustafa Kavuş, the AKP mayor of one of Konya’s districts, acknowledged that many voters were struggling, but that it was “not just the AKP” that they were angry at. “The difficulties are soon going to be over, prosperity is close,” he vowed. 

Mustafa Kavuş, AKP mayor of one of Konya’s districts
Mustafa Kavuş, AKP mayor of one of Konya’s districts © Adam Samson/FT

For some in Konya, an economy defined by sharply higher prices — the annual inflation rate remained above 50 per cent in March — had some positive effects.

The manager of one machinery company outside the city said business was booming, with the inflation helping to convince his customers to make big investments now, rather than risk higher prices in future.

Yet despite being an observant Muslim who was fasting for the Ramadan holy month, the factory manager said he worried about religion creeping deeper into business and government. “Secularism is very important,” he said. “The press and media are [also] not free,” he said, a situation that had deteriorated for “15 years straight”.

Line chart of Per capita GDP ($) showing Konya residents were far more prosperous a decade ago

For others, it is the president’s strong religious ideology that continues to earn him their support.

Suleyman Gardas, a pensioner enjoying the sun in a square in Konya, was particularly grateful to Erdoğan for making the lives of devout Muslims easier, pushing back against discrimination against observant Muslims in public institutions.

“[Before] my daughter was not able to wear a headscarf,” he said. “Now we even have police officers with black turbans.”

Kılıçdaroğlu, by contrast, “doesn’t respect Islam”, according to Gardas, using a widely publicised gaffe two weeks ago in which the opposition leader stepped on a prayer rug in shoes to underscore his argument.

“Erdoğan is the best,” he insisted. “Even if mistakes happen.”

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