For the thousands of Turks who gathered outside Istanbul’s city hall on Tuesday evening, one man loomed large. At the end of the street, a giant image of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, stared down on the crowds.
Summoned by a text message from the government, the crowds had gathered for what officials have called “Democracy Watch” – a public rejection of last week’s attempted coup, and a show of support for the Turkish political system. Many were there for one politician in particular. “We love our president so much,” said Ersin Korkmaz, a 29-year-old civil servant who was draped in a Turkish flag and accompanied by his two young daughters. “He’s our best leader since Mehmed the Conqueror,” Korkmaz added, referring to an Ottoman sultan who captured Constantinople in 1453.
Erdoğan’s enduring popularity perplexes some western observers, who know him mainly for his increasingly authoritarian actions. In recent days, western leaders have expressed alarm at the purge instigated following the coup attempt. Since Saturday around 35,000 officers, soldiers, policemen, judges, prosecutors, teachers and university deans have been detained, fired or suspended as Erdoğan attempts to isolate anyone his government perceives to be a threat. But outside city hall the crowds saw him mainly as a saviour. “Some people call him a dictator but those of us who saw the previous leaders know he isn’t,” said Adem Çankaya, a 42-year-old chauffeur. “And that’s why they vote for him. Till our last breath, we are here for Erdoğan.”
The president’s backers often cite three main reasons for his popularity and that of his party, the AKP. The first is social: Erdoğan is perceived to be a man of the people, a representative of the lower and lower-middle classes, who felt ignored by his predecessors. “The thing is, before Erdoğan the presidents didn’t value people,” said a man who called himself Ismail, waving an AKP flag. “But Erdoğan cares about them. That’s the main thing. We see him as one of us.”
According to Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, Turkey analyst at the European Council for Foreign Relations, “the entire AKP narrative is about the periphery taking control of the country from the elites who had been abusing state power, and [his supporters] see in Erdoğan the impersonation of that narrative. In the past all the state institutions were felt to be anti-people. But now these institutions are their institutions.”
Then there’s the religious aspect. Erdoğan’s Islamist AKP represents the religiously conservative sections of Turkish society, who had felt sidelined since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, secularised the Turkish state in the 1920s. “Before Erdoğan, people were corrupted and deviant,” said Korkmaz, the flag-draped civil servant. “Thank god we are restoring things for a new generation.”
Finally, there’s the economics. Under Erdoğan, people have become better off. Since gaining power in 2003, his government has made significant improvements to state infrastructure, building a long list of bridges, roads, and metro lines and beefing up the healthcare system. Çankaya, the chauffeur, credited Erdoğan with the change in treatment his poorly mother received at state hospitals. Racked with kidney disease, Çankaya’s mother did not receive proper treatment prior to Erdoğan’s election, but after his reforms, Çankaya said, she was given three dialysis sessions a week free of charge.
“We can see significant economic change from the time that Erdoğan became president,” he said as a brass band began to play at the rally. “Healthcare, transportation, care of the elderly, and especially inflation. People feel more valued.”
Erdoğan’s supporters are able to swallow his authoritarianism partly because they feel it is justified, argues Soner Çağaptay, the author of The Rise of Turkey. Using what Çağaptay calls an “authoritarian underdog strategy”, Erdoğan portrays his crackdowns on the opposition as legitimate responses to threats to remove him from power. “Every time there is opposition to Erdoğan, it’s cast as a conspiracy to overthrow him,” says Çağaptay. “And so it becomes justified in the eyes of his followers.”
At the rally, one Erdoğan supporter appeared to personify this perception. Shrugging off Erdoğan’s crackdown on the media, Ismail said: “The journalists they’re talking about, they’re traitors. In the name of journalism, they’re doing all sorts of other things. There is one kind of journalist who helps his country, and there are other journalists who are traitors.”
In recent years, Erdoğan and his allies have been dogged by corruption allegations. But once again his supporters have been prepared to turn a blind eye because of the wider benefits his government has brought them. “What the AKP base felt was that they may have taken money but they’re improving my life,” says Aydıntaşbaş. “There is a cultural element that is very hard for outsiders to grasp. He represents Sunni Turkey, and an identity that had been sidelined from power for many years.”
Could Erdoğan lose popularity in the short term? Many find it hard to imagine, unless the economy suddenly tanks or Turkey’s listless main opposition party finds better leadership. Çağaptay says divisions will now only widen between the half of the country that votes for the AKP and the half that doesn’t. While a wide coalition of Turks opposed the recent coup attempt, the ongoing purge will cause Turkey to polarise even further, he says. “Those who liked Erdoğan and who didn’t will descend into those who adore him and those who hate him.”
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