Ten new computers sit purring on desktops on the top floor of the Kayseri office of Turkey’s governing party, ready for election night next month. The ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) is confident of a sweeping victory in this prosperous, conservative city, and its grassroots machine is moving into top gear for the big night.
The July 22 election, called early after the military derailed the presidential ambitions of Abdullah Gul may be the most important in Turkey since the military coup of 1980. It will define the AKP’s role in Turkish politics for years to come if it repeats its success of 2002.
The AKP won 54 per cent of the vote in Kayseri in 2002 and all eight MPs representing the city and surrounding province are from the party.
They include Mr Gul, foreign minister in the outgoing government, who is at the centre of the constitutional crisis that precipitated this high-summer election.
Mr Gul’s past links to Turkey’s Islamist movement sparked a stand-off between the secular opposition, including the military, and the government. The election was called for next month, four months earlier than planned, to try to resolve the crisis.
In Kayseri, probably the most pro-AKP city in all of Turkey, party officials are upbeat about next month’s outcome and are confident they will be able to add another eight seats this time.
Private polling suggests the AKP will win up to 68 per cent of the vote, which would be a landslide victory.
Such an outcome is not guaranteed, of course. But its likelihood illustrates the scale of the task facing Turkey’s demoralised, divided, and poorly led opposition parties, of both right and left, in this unexpected election.
The AKP has its roots in a long tradition of political Islam in officially secular Turkey. The clash – or marriage, as many Turks see it – between this tradition and Turkey’s image of itself as a modern European state is one of the most important issues in the election. It is graphically on display in Kayseri, an industrial centre of 750,000 people, 300km south-east of Ankara.
Kayseri is a religious city although its chief characteristic is not fundamentalism, as secularists often complain. Instead, it is a blend of wealth, modernity and provincial conservatism. The city was recently described as a bastion of “Islamic Calvinism”.
Conservatism, often accompanied by hardline nationalism, is not new to Kayseri. But the wealth is a recent phenomenon dating from the opening up of Turkey’s economy in the 1980s by the government of Turgut Ozal.
He encouraged entrepreneurs and the private sector, and cities in central Anatolia such as Kayseri emerged as important industrial and manufacturing hubs. “While other Anatolian cities are walking, we are running,” says Hasan Ali Kilci, president of the Kayseri chamber of commerce.
Nejat Dogan, an academic at Kayseri’s Erciyes University, says the city has always voted on conservative and even religious lines. It supported Mr Ozal’s centre-right, secular conservatives in the 1980s. In the 1990s it backed the Welfare party, the AKP’s forerunner, which was shut down by the state in the late 1990s.
This pattern reflects the city’s demographic make-up – it has relatively few poor migrants from eastern Turkey – and the social and religious instincts of its inhabitants.
“In Kayseri, the richer people are, the more conservative and religious they are,” says Prof Dogan.
Kayseri, known as Caesarea in Roman times, defies the stereotype of the modern Turkish city as a concrete jungle. Its streets are wide, safe, and clean, and a 17km light rail system will be completed next year. Its consciously family-friendly atmosphere is reinforced by the apparent absence of any obvious signs of nightlife. Most socialising is done at home, which is how residents like it.
To a visitor, the city feels private, even slightly smug, in its relative prosperity. But this self-satisfaction also explains the appeal here of the AKP.
The party espouses a more conservative and traditional way of life for Turks, while extolling the market economy. It is a vision of Turkey widely held in Anatolia, and Kayseri is its centre as well as its most ostentatious beneficiary.
As Murat Cahid Cingi, a businessman who is standing for the AKP in the city, says: “The people of Kayseri are conservative, but they are very contemporary, and they are very comfortable like that.”
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