Tomorrow sees the people of Turkey going to the polls to vote in local elections.
There’s been a lot in the media over the past couple of weeks about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his attempt to ban certain social media sites – hashtags including #TurkeyBansTwitter and #TurkeyBansYouTube have frequently trended worldwide.
The supposed reasons, arguments and counter-arguments are well-documented and, as both a journalist and someone making their home here, I’ve found events fascinating. But away from the bigger political stage, even more interesting is the attitude towards the elections from normal residents.
In the UK, nobody except the committed political animals seem to care that much, even when it’s a General Election. We’ll grumble about whoever is in charge, but the percentage of us who actually get off our backsides to go down to the polling stations and vote with our feet is woefully low.
In my corner of Turkey, it couldn’t be more different. Policies, parties, what’s best for this village or that town – having been here for nearly a month, I’ve seen almost daily arguments and there’s no question that anyone I’ve met will not vote tomorrow.
The “battle buses” are out all day, every day. They’re non-stop, touring the smallest villages, each blaring their own particular theme tune interspersed with rhetoric. In Fethiye town centre, the parties’ offices hold all-day open house for people to drop in, enjoy çay, gossip with friends or speak to party representatives about issues or concerns. What’s more, they’re always bustling, noisy and full of people enjoying both the social and political facets. There’s an almost carnival atmosphere as everyone is happy to linger and chew the fat.
A couple of weeks ago I was told we were going out for Sunday breakfast. Rather than the relaxed village breakfast somewhere picturesque that I imagined, it turned out to be a political event at a nearby hotel. What amazed me was the sheer number and diversity of people present – from the oldest grandmothers to the smallest children, there were hundreds of people, all enjoying a free open-buffet feed with no commitment required.
Occasionally, someone would get on stage and make a short, two-minute speech, but that was it in terms of propaganda. The mayor-elect for that party and his senior supporters were also on hand, mingling freely and talking to anyone who fancied a chat. Obviously the hope is that as many people as possible will “sign” for you in return for enjoying your hospitality – but in an area where many are poor, you can’t help but wonder how many go to all such events and make the most of such largesse while they can, regardless of who they really intend to vote for.
As a layman and someone with as yet a very limited understanding of Turkish politics, the enthusiasm and fervency is both startling and refreshing. I wouldn’t pretend to know exactly what party has which policies – and they are also quite confusing visually, as almost all – Erdoğan’s Justice & Development Party (AKP) being the most notable exception – use the red and white of the Turkish flag as their colours. At least in the UK you generally know that it’s blue for Conservative, red for Labour, yellow for the Liberal Democrats. (And obviously I wouldn’t vote for a party purely on who has the best music, but in terms of battle-bus anthems, the dancer in me says the CHP – Republican People’s Party – is streets ahead.)
Where I’m living, the people don’t care that the Prime Minister has banned Twitter. They’re a bit crosser about YouTube, as many use it to play music, but I’ve explained to those who need help how they can get round that. They don’t even care that he ignored the laws that say the Turkish flag can’t be used for electioneering, or that he tried to “ban the ban” when told to stop.
What they care about is who will genuinely do the best they can for their community. Who really has their welfare at heart, in their opinion. In a small village, every vote really does count – which is why, tomorrow, everyone will turn out. Fingers crossed it’s the right result for my new home.