• May 6, 2007

Turkey’s ruling party courts poor voters Conflict revived on religion’s role

A few minutes’ drive from the Bosporus , beyond the majestic skyline that evokes Istanbul’s imperial past, the roads narrow, lined by low buildings of concrete and cinder block. Corrugated iron replaces the red-tile roofs. The neighborhood is Ümraniye , a telling locale in Turkey’s struggle over power and identity.

Ümraniye is known as a gecekondu , literally “built in the night,” recalling an Ottoman law that said no one could tear down a house begun at night and finished by dawn.

Like the other poor, shoddily built settlements that swathe Istanbul and Ankara, Ümraniye is part of the constituency courted by the party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan , whose populist, religiously resonant politics appeal to the millions of migrants who have flocked to cities prospering in Turkey’s economic boom.

As Turkey approaches general elections July 22, among its most decisive in years, those voters will be pivotal to the success of the ruling Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP , or the AK Party.

Religion is part of that appeal, but conversations in Turkey indicate that the allure is shaded in gray. Since the party took power in 2002, many residents say, it has managed to cultivate a reputation that steers between the extremes of religion and nationalism, project an image of relative effectiveness, and style itself as an underdog vying with the establishment.

The role of religion in the country’s politics was the source of conflict again yesterday, in the western city of Manisa , where tens of thousands of secularist Turks rallied for the third big antigovernment protest in a month.

One of the most secular of Muslim nations, Turkey is wrestling with a social transformation brought to the fore by this month’s crisis over the ruling party’s choice for president and the coming elections.

Analysts say the secular, Westernized elite that claims the legacy of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is facing the rise of a more religious, conservative, and often rural class seeking a place in Turkey’s hierarchy, its voice often articulated by the ruling party. Critics say the AK Party has yet to play its hand: Fully enshrined in power, it will promote political Islam and chip away at secular freedoms. Others view the party’s ascent as inevitable.

“It’s a vehicle for modernization of the unmodernized,” said Dogu Ergil, a political science professor at Ankara University.

Or in the words of Rahime Dizen, relaxing near trees on a grassy hill in Ümraniye with her friends, gingerly sewing a border for a brown head scarf embossed with a floral pattern: “We were sitting in mud before.”

Her friend Durdaneh Onge, 58, smiled. She raised the hand of her 4-year-old granddaughter, Ebrar.

“I want them to lead the country, and I want this girl to be president,” she said, laughing with the others. “Of course! Why not? Everyone comes from a village. They were not all born as prime ministers and presidents.”

The women listed improvements in the neighborhood, run by the party. They no longer wait in lines for bread and gas. The roads are better, and so is the water.

Across the Muslim world, Islamic activists have forged an organic relationship with their constituencies through social welfare programs, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But by some accounts, the foot soldiers of the ruling party have honed the grass-roots work to an art, methodically distributing coal and wood in the winter and providing secondhand clothing to the have-nots.

The party sponsors the traditional circumcision of young boys, making possible coming-of-age celebrations for those who cannot afford them.

“It’s nothing more than an investment for the election,” said Kenan Ucar, 54, a truck driver who voted for a secular party in the last election. “They knock on one door and not the rest.”

But his complaint raised protests at a cafe in Ümraniye.

Hasan Sucu, a 27-year-old who just completed 15 months of military service, said he and his army colleagues used to give a share of their pay to the poorest soldier in the unit. At one point, they learned, the AK Party bought the soldier’s family a house, took his mother to the hospital for treatment for rickets, and found a job for his brother.

“When I heard this story, I decided to vote for them in the next election,” he said.