Update: Tayyip Erdogan won the election Sunday as predicted.
ORDU, Turkey — Try talking politics in Turkey’s northeastern Black Sea region and the conversation inevitably steers back to hazelnuts.
Producing three-quarters of the world’s supply of the rich, buttery nuts that are a key ingredient in chocolate spreads like Nutella, Turkey’s nearly $1.7-billion industry is a lifeline for many towns, villages and cities along the rocky Black Sea coast.
So when a frost killed most of the crop on plantations 600 feet above sea level early this year, it was a potential disaster for the thousands of small landowners — but a golden opportunity for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
On the eve of local elections last spring, landowners received word that they’d be compensated by the government for their losses, though the amounts weren’t disclosed.
The implication was that support for the ruling party would be key for getting reimbursed.
“People are told that if AKP loses, they will lose their subsidies and services,” said Erdogan Erisen, owner and publisher of a local newspaper, Ordu Hayat. “There has been no real economic improvement; we’re still tied to one cash crop.”
It’s not just the farmers who rely on the subsidy system. In the city of Samsun to the west, merchants say they continue to support AKP because its direct support to farmers is the source of much of the disposable income people spend in town.
“The subsidies that the government pays to the villagers ultimately find their way here,” said 25-year-old textile merchant Kadir, standing in front of his family shop that sells undergarments and socks. “So you have to vote for whomever you believe is the best for the country.”
“All of the social programs, even though they are provided by the local government, it’s presented to people as if it’s coming from the party,” agreed Coskun Ozbucah, a longtime writer at Ordu Hayat. “So people fear that if the party goes, so will the assistance to the poor.”
This strategy appears to be working. Despite relatively stagnant prices and a falling Turkish lira which makes commodities like fuel and fertilizer more expensive, AKP garnered about 54 percent of the vote in both Ordu and Samsun provinces earlier this year.
That’s because over the past decade the ruling Islamic-rooted party has created a patronage system in which farmers subjected to falling prices have been propped up by direct subsidies managed by local government.
Market forces — in practice a handful of overseas buyers — dictate prices, with producers having little say in how much their crop will fetch, says Servet Sahin, chairman of the Chamber of Industry and Industrialists branch in Ordu. Since the collapse of a hazelnut cooperative that set prices eight years ago, farmers are vulnerable to volatile market changes and brokers.
“What we really need is some sort of regulator because right now we’re really at the mercy of the buyers,” Sahin said. “Eight million people are dependent on this crop.”
Women collect hazelnuts in Turkish northern city of Ordu. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)
Party officials dispute that patronage or subsidies for the low hazelnut prices are buying loyalty votes.
“On the surface it appears that people vote with their wallets and that’s true up to a point,” said Huseyin Akyol, AKP’s chairman in Ordu province.
But the party’s leader Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, born in the nearby Black Sea city of Rize, also has a special appeal to voters, he says.
“There’s an emotional attachment to Erdogan by the people for Ordu. He’s from the Black Sea and being a native son there’s even more affection for him.”
Erdogan is looking for a title change: from prime minister to president. Turkish citizens go to the polls Sunday to directly elect their president for the first time in the republic’s history. That’s following a 2010 referendum pushed by AKP which they said would make the office more democratic.
But critics of the prime minister say it’s a cynical move to extend his rule, since term limits prevent him from remaining prime minister, the most powerful position in the country. The presidency has traditionally been more a ceremonial role than executive office in Turkey. But the pro-government daily Sabah newspaper quoted Erdogan as saying back in April that Turkey’s next president will be “a sweating, running president who gives orders, not a ceremonial president,” a clear indication that he’s intent on remaining the nation’s top executive, despite what the constitution says.
His gambit may work. Erdogan is tipped to easily surpass the 50 percent threshold to win in the first round of voting.
His challengers: 70-year-old Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu — a soft-spoken former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — and 41-year-old Selahattin Demirtas, a Kurdish parliamentarian backed by leftists, environmentalists and many from the Kurdish-majority southeast.
Trailing heavily in polls, both are seen as distant prospects over Erdogan, who has mobilized the machinery of the party — and the state — to mount a blistering campaign that’s blanketed airwaves, walls, streets and billboards with giant photos of himself proclaiming him the savior of the “National Will.”
But it’s the delivery of social services and subsidies to the rural poor that’s helped boost his standing. creating a rock solid political base that appears to be largely immune to allegations of corruption and deteriorating human rights, especially in the wake of last year’s brutal crackdown by police against protesters in Gezi Park and in cities across Turkey.
A Gallup poll released Aug. 8 found Erdogan’s support the highest among the poorest fifth of society — 66 percent — compared to 48 percent among the richest segment, with his standings the lowest among the more educated urban population.
“Approval ratings are especially high among the country's poorer residents, who report steady improvements in their standard of living under Erdogan's leadership,” the pollsters reported.
So what happens in districts that don’t elect AKP?
The nearby city of Giresun — with a population of more than 120,000 — is a stronghold for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), a secular party that’s in recent years tried to position itself as a center-left alternative to the religiously conservative AKP.
The city’s elected CHP mayor says development projects are blocked by the provincial governor — appointed by the ministry of the interior — as payback for a region that doesn’t support the ruling party.
He claims European Union-funded projects have been held up because the government won’t release the required matching funds.
“The people of Giresun who have always voted for CHP are always punished for voting that way but they deserve equal treatment as AKP supporters,” said Kerim Aksu, who was elected in 2009.
Hasan Aydin, the AKP’s party boss in Giresun, says development continues to proceed.
“If you look at Giresun you have a highway along the sea. It used to be a two-lane road and now it’s a highway,” Aydin said. “We have a university; we’ve paved village roads.”
In the nearby province of Ordu, the AKP’s party chairman says all constituencies are treated equally, though he didn’t deny that provinces did benefit for lending AKP electoral support during March’s local elections.
“Real investment doesn’t come from the government, it comes from the private sector,” said Huseyin Akyol, the AKP’s party boss in Ordu for the past 3-and-a-half years. “Ordu deserves to be rewarded for its success on March 30.”
So does that mean AKP constituencies are rewarded with infrastructure investment?
“No, the central government treats all cities equally. But they do have priorities and Ordu deserves to be rewarded.”
Aksu — who says he entered politics as a socialist — argues that even when the AKP rewards its constituents, its neoliberal economic policies aren’t actually helping the poor rise up but continue to feed the status quo, and to enrich developers with close ties to the government.
“They talk about how wonderful the economy is doing but if you look at the distribution of wealth it’s really bad and getting worse,” said Aksu.
This statement is backed by official figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which found that Turkey has the third highest rates of income inequality and poverty among the 34-nation bloc. It also found that wealth disparities between the rich and poor have been growing steadily since 2008.
Election observers and opposition politicians alike agree that Sunday's election is not being conducted on a level playing field.
“It was never fair play from day one,” opposition candidate Ihsanoglu — the joint candidate of the two largest opposition parties — told reporters during a campaign stop in the city of Samsun.
Mehmet Atalay, chairman of the Samsun branch of the CHP, says the prime minister should have stepped down before launching his campaign.
“Instead, he is using all the resources,” Atalay said, “from the ministries and the related government offices, people, money, vehicles — everything.”
Neither Ihsanoglu nor Atalay are exactly neutral, but election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) made similar observations in last month’s interim report.
“Campaign activities of the Prime Minister are large-scale events, often combined with official government events,” the OSCE wrote on July 31. “While other candidates actively campaign, the public visibility of their campaigns is limited.”
Erdogan continues to hold large rallies up to the eve of Sunday polls, while challenger Ihsanoglu runs a low-key campaign glad-handing shopkeepers and ordinary people in towns across Turkey. Demirtas campaigns mainly in Istanbul and in the southeast, with its ethnic Kurdish majority.
At a Thursday campaign rally attended by thousands of flag-waving AKP supporters, Erdogan attacked Ihsanoglu for failing to have a vision for large-scale development projects and services.
“Some of the other candidates say ‘We won't be involved in (building) roads, with energy,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara on Thursday. “I ask them to take a look at the constitution ... They should look at the president's responsibilities.”
“It’s not the job for a president to build roads and infrastructure and declare them his projects,” Ihsanoglu told reporters the following day in Samsun. “That’s what you have in a dictatorship where it’s all run by one man.”
Logistical support for this report was provided by Platform for Independent Journalism (P24), an Istanbul-based non-partisan association whose stated mission is to assist in independent reporting in Turkey.