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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

In the Turkish Heartland

From Bloomberg:

Erdogan Floods Turkish Heartland With Development Aid

July 19 (Bloomberg) -- In the Turkish town of Afsar, a new pipeline brings water from a nearby mountain. Farmer Suleyman Er says it has transformed his life.

The seven-kilometer (4.3-mile) pipe, finished two months ago, symbolizes the way Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is putting development at the center of his strategy to keep power in July 22 elections.

While Erdogan's rivals court secular, more affluent, urban Turks by stressing suspicions about his Islamic background, the prime minister is pinning his hopes on the conservative, religious voters in Turkey's rural areas and shanty towns. Many of these voters say they've never had it so good.

``Water means life, and thanks to the prime minister, ours is getting better,'' Er, 60, said in an interview at a coffee house in Afsar, which nestles on the arid plains of Turkey's Anatolian heartland, 550 kilometers southeast of Istanbul. ``Arguments over Islam and ideology just won't get us anywhere.''

Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, which is rooted in a movement outlawed in 1998 for mixing religion with politics, called early elections after the army, which regards itself as the guardian of the modern, secular Turkish state, objected to his Islamist-leaning candidate for president. Erdogan, 53, says that while Justice is conservative and Muslim, it bases its policies on democracy and economic development rather than ideology.

A Road and a School

Afsar, a town of 5,000 farmers and laborers who typically earn less than half the national yearly average wage of $5,500, has received about 2.7 million liras ($2 million) over the past two years to build the water pipeline, a 20-kilometer road to a nearby highway and the town's first-ever high school.

The aid to Afsar is part of a wider government strategy to modernize the Anatolian heartland, where Erdogan's secular rivals have traditionally held sway. The government has spent $3.5 billion on the program in the past three years.

``Villages are now using washing machines for the very first time because of these projects,'' Nihat Ergun, the deputy chief of Justice responsible for local government, said in a telephone interview. ``We are giving people a better standard of living in places where water systems and roads have never existed.''

Turkey's economy expanded for 21 straight quarters, the longest period of uninterrupted growth in the nation's history, allowing the government to increase spending on such projects. Income per person has more than doubled since Justice took power in November 2002, while unemployment has remained at about 10 percent even as 1 million teenagers have joined the workforce each year.

A Lead in the Polls

A Genar poll carried out July 9-17 gave Justice 40 percent support, more than the 34 percent it won in 2002 and enough to secure between 297 and 310 of the 550 seats in parliament. The Republican People's Party, Justice's nearest rival, had about 21 percent. A Konda poll conducted July 14-15 found 48 percent support for Justice and 19.5 percent for the Republicans.

``Turkish voters seem to think that no other party can deal with issues such as unemployment, agricultural dislocation and inequality between the haves and have-nots,'' Mark Parris, U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 1997 to 2000, said in an interview in Washington.

Erdogan's efforts aren't limited to the countryside: His party is also targeting less affluent city-dwellers. In the capital of Ankara, the Justice-controlled municipality provides more than 500,000 of the city's 4 million inhabitants with 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of food and household supplies each a year at a cost of 200 million liras. Most of the city's budget comes from national-government transfers to local administrations, which more than doubled last year to 6 billion liras.


The Republicans accuse Erdogan of using the free handouts to buy support for an Islamist agenda. Over the past five years, Justice, under pressure from the Republicans and President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, backtracked from plans to outlaw adultery and to move bars from city centers.

``Don't sell your votes for free wheat and rice,'' Republican leader Deniz Baykal told voters at a rally in the southern city of Igdir on July 17. ``Turkey is at an important crossroads.'' Erdogan, a graduate of a school that trains Islamic clergy, pledges allegiance to Turkey's secular principles.

Justice is focusing on Ankara's poorest neighborhood, Mamak, where three-quarters of the 600,000 inhabitants live in illegal squatter settlements. Such dwellings have ballooned in the past two decades as millions of people moved to cities from the countryside to seek better standards of living.

Apartment Blocks

Since Justice came to power, Mamak has been the focus of a 300 million-lira project to tear down the illegal houses and replace them with modern apartment blocks with daycare facilities and children's playgrounds.

``Some people in Ankara are surviving purely because of the aid we provide,'' Avni Kavlak, an aide to Mayor Melih Gokcek, said in a telephone interview. ``Otherwise, there would be a social explosion.''

Selva Gur, 37, wears the Islamic headscarf banned in government buildings, hand-sews cotton and silk garments at home to help put her two children through school. She is one of hundreds of Mamak residents who queue up each morning for free bread delivered by Gokcek's trucks.

``Justice is giving priority to economic development so my family's vote is with them,'' Gur said. ``Living standards are most important, not ideology.''

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