In Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, rum­bles of dis­con­tent against Er­do­gan


In Istanbul’s cen­turies- old Grand Bazaar, the hum of com­merce is as noisy as ever. Ven­dors sell tea, cop­per­smiths craft their wares, mer­chants shout out to pass­ing tourists.

But be­neath this hub­bub, dis­cord is brew­ing against Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan and the rul­ing Jus­tice and Devel­op­ment Party (AKP) ahead of June 7 par­lia­men­tary elec­tions.

The Grand Bazaar, home to some 4,000 shops where over 20,000 peo­ple work, has long been seen as a bas­tion of sup­port for Er­do­gan and the Is­lamic-rooted AKP.

But as the econ­omy starts to show weak­ness af­ter years of im­pres­sive growth un­der Er­do­gan, who be­came pres­i­dent in 2014 af­ter more than a decade as pre­mier, there are grow­ing signs that this sup­port is be­gin­ning to wane.

“I used to vote for AKP but it’s time for a change now. They have been in power for too long. I think they are burnt out now,” said Huseyin Kaya, a sil­ver shop owner who has worked in the Bazaar for two decades.

“The econ­omy is not good. Busi­ness is bad. I have bought mer­chan­dise for tens of thou­sands of dol­lars and I have debts now that I can­not pay back,” he said.

Many of the shop­keep­ers and small- scale man­u­fac­tur­ers who have thrived un­der the AKP’s rule voted for po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity and re­warded Er­do­gan for the coun­try’s grow­ing pros­per­ity, even af­ter a cor­rup­tion scan­dal and anti-gov­ern­ment protests in 2013.

But the party is en­ter­ing an elec­tion un­der fire over Turkey’s eco­nomic per­for­mance for the first time since it came to power in 2002 due to stalling growth, stub­bornly high in­fla­tion and un­em­ploy­ment.

‘Spit­ting in our face’

The Bazaar was the scene of protests last month by shop­keep­ers who re­fused to va­cate their stalls in San­dal Bedesteni, a sec­tion of the 15th cen­tury shop­ping area, fol­low­ing a no­tice call­ing for the im­me­di­ate evic­tion of some 80 shops.

The shop­keep­ers locked them­selves in their shops, shout­ing anti-gov­ern­ment slo­gans, be­fore riot po­lice stormed the area, evict­ing all the shops in San­dal Bedesteni and briefly detaining some 20 shop­keep­ers.

The ten­ants say that Fatih Mu­nic­i­pal­ity — run by the AKP — had leased their shops for a higher rent to a sin­gle ten­ant “to cover the costs of the restora­tion” of the Grand Bazaar, which hosted a mo­tor­cy­cle chase scene in 2011 in the James Bond movie “Sky­fall” that caused dam­age to the struc­ture.

There are ru­mors that the shops could be con­verted into ho­tels as part of an am­bi­tious project by the mu­nic­i­pal­ity.

“The gov­ern­ment is just spit­ting on our face. I don’t be­lieve in any of them any­more. I’m not go­ing to vote for AKP be­cause we are in a grave sit­u­a­tion here,” said Mustafa Kahra­man, a cloth mer­chant.

“They’ve clearly demon­strated they are there to serve mainly the rich and pow­er­ful,” he said out­side a square where his shop was lo­cated, now de­serted.

Huseyin Kaya, a board mem­ber of Grand Bazaar As­so­ci­a­tion of Shop­keep­ers, agreed: “All the gov­ern­ment cares about is money. Is there any­thing they haven’t sold yet?”

“Peo­ple in our com­mu­nity used to vote for the AKP when they stood for some­thing. But they have held the reins too long and the cor­rup­tion and un­demo­cratic be­hav­ior is now shin­ing through,” he said.

‘No eco­nomic mir­a­cle’

Turk­ish econ­o­mist Mustafa Don­mez said “there is no eco­nomic mir­a­cle any­more” for the AKP’s core vot­ers, who un­til now sup­ported the party over “bread and but­ter is­sues.”

“The AKP has not much left to give them. The econ­omy is very frag­ile and the fu­ture rates of growth will no longer be enough to cre­ate jobs for their chil­dren,” he said.

“When the econ­omy is go­ing bad, they start to ques­tion whether the gov­ern­ment is re­ally cor­rupt, whether the of­fi­cials re­ally stuffed their pock­ets full and whether there is re­ally a lack of free­dom in the coun­try.”

Er­do­gan is hop­ing the AKP will win a two-thirds ma­jor­ity in the polls in or­der to change the con­sti­tu­tion and boost his of­fice’s pow­ers to that of a U.S.-style ex­ec­u­tive pres­i­dent.

The lat­est opin­ion polls, how­ever, sug­gest the AKP’s sup­port could fall sharply from the al­most 50 per­cent of the vote it gar­nered in 2011, with it pos­si­bly even los­ing its par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity.

But Selvi Gurey, who owns a sou­venir shop in the bazaar, says he will vote for the AKP be­cause he thinks a pres­i­den­tial sys­tem will bol­ster sta­bil­ity and eco­nomic growth.

“We owe a debt of grat­i­tude to Er­do­gan, who has worked so tire­lessly to make our life bet­ter. I think Turkey will be bet­ter off with a stronger pres­i­dent,” he said.

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