‘They’ve screwed the economy’: Faith in Erdogan dwindles as Turkish voters look for change

Former strongholds looking for alternatives to Erdogan not necessarily translating into support for opposition

Selman Deveci, a chef working his shift at a cafe in the Turkish city of Konya, voices what an increasing number of voters are whispering in the region that had been a stronghold for president Recep Tayyip Erdogan: “I want change.”

“They’ve screwed the economy,” Deveci says of the rampant inflation and plummeting lira that had taken a heavy toll on people’s finances. The erosion of basic rights and freedoms in Turkey and a system of government that concentrates power in the president’s hands have also turned Deveci away from Erdogan.

And yet Deveci can find few reasons to instead vote for the six-party opposition coalition forged with the aim of unseating the long-time leader in next month’s elections. “I don’t have faith in them,” he says.

Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are fighting one of the toughest campaigns in their two decades in power. National polls put him neck-and-neck with Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the 74-year-old leader of the Republican People’s Party who will represent the united opposition in the presidential vote on May 14th.


Deveci’s views show why the election hangs in the balance, despite the disillusionment of many in Turkey at the inflation crisis under Erdogan’s watch that has been compounded by anger at his government’s botched response to the devastating earthquake in February.

Erdogan (69), has long been able to count on the support of religiously conservative regions in the country’s Anatolian heartland, such as Konya. Three out of four voters across the wider province backed him in the most recent presidential election in 2018.

The difference this time is that Turkey’s “massive economic crisis” has fed the circumstances in which “the AKP’s base is dwindling”, says Berk Esen, a professor at Sabanci university. But this did not necessarily translate into votes for the opposition, with Kılıçdaroğlu – a quietly spoken political veteran from the minority Alevi sect – struggling to convince voters that he is the one to deliver durable change.

Pious voter bloc

“In places such as Konya, where you have a very conservative pious voter bloc, most AKP voters have decided not to desert the ship,” Prof Esen says. “In part, this is because the opposition has not created an appealing, credible alternative.”

The sense of disillusionment is apparent in Konya, a province of 2.3 million people that is nicknamed Turkey’s granary because of its history in farming and the production of agricultural machines.

One student, sitting in a coffee shop in the centre of the city, says her family used to support the president, but changed their mind. “I don’t like Erdogan any more,” she says.

Even simple pleasures, such as buying books, has become difficult because of high prices, she explains. Like many in Konya, she does not want to give her name due to concerns about retribution by the government.

A local pharmacist, who also asks not to be named, offers a similar sentiment: “The economy’s getting worse every day...change is needed,” he says, adding that the weak lira, which was trading at record-lows against the US dollar, meant he was often unable to find medication for patients.

Yet he also has little hope that even a new government would make much difference. “Not Erdogan, not Kılıçdaroğlu, none of them,” he says.

The sense of economic despair is reflected in the broader economic data. In the early years that Erdogan was in power, residents of Konya became much more prosperous. Economic output per person leapt from $4,250 in 2004, the year after Erdogan was first elected prime minister, to $9,690 in 2013, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute. But since then, per capita gross domestic product has slid back to $7,340, reflecting a trend that has taken hold nationally.

The slump follows the arc of Erdogan as a politician. When he was elected 20 years ago, Erdoğan was seen as a moderate, business-friendly Islamist who could chart a fresh course for Turkey. And yet while his government, especially in its early years, pushed through important reforms, it steadily eroded civil liberties.

In 2013, the government violently snuffed out protests, while an attempted coup three years later gave Erdogan fresh fuel to push through a referendum that enacted the presidential system that gave him sweeping powers.

Mustafa Kavuş, the AKP mayor of one of Konya’s districts, acknowledged that many voters were struggling, but that it was “not just the AKP” that they were angry at. “The difficulties are soon going to be over, prosperity is close,” he vowed.

Positive effects

For some in Konya, an economy defined by sharply higher prices – the annual inflation rate remained above 50 per cent in March – has had some positive effects.

The manager of one machinery company outside the city says business is booming, with the inflation helping to convince his customers to make big investments now, rather than risk higher prices in future.

Despite being an observant Muslim who was fasting for the Ramadan holy month, the factory manager says he worries about religion creeping deeper into business and government. “Secularism is very important,” he says. “The press and media are [also] not free,” he adds, a situation that has deteriorated for “15 years straight”.

For others, it is the president’s strong religious ideology that continues to earn him their support.

Suleyman Gardas, a pensioner enjoying the sun in a square in Konya, is particularly grateful to Erdogan for making the lives of devout Muslims easier, pushing back against discrimination of observant Muslims in public institutions.

“[Before] my daughter was not able to wear a headscarf,” Gardas says. “Now we even have police officers with black turbans.”

Kılıçdaroğlu, by contrast, “doesn’t respect Islam”, according to Gardas, using a widely publicised gaffe two weeks ago in which the opposition leader stepped on a prayer rug in shoes to underscore his argument.

“Erdogan is the best,” Gardas insists. “Even if mistakes happen.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023