Bayburt, Turkey (AFP) – Old Fiat cars and yellow tulips dot the Turkish city of Bayburt, the heartland of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ultra-loyal conservative base, which is poised to extend his two-decade rule until 2028.
In the first round of Turkey’s presidential election on May 14, Beybert’s voters gave Erdogan a comfortable hand.
80 percent of voters there voted for Erdogan, the highest vote share in a single province, giving him 49.5 percent of the national vote and strong favorites in Sunday’s runoff vote.
“To know Baibert’s heart is to know Turkey,” Orhan Ates, a new member of parliament for Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AKP party, said in a parallel parliamentary vote.
“Are you ready to re-elect our president?” He knowingly asked the passers-by.
Ates, a 47-year-old optometrist, makes impromptu appointments with patients on the street and hands out prescriptions on scraps of paper to a man wearing old shoes.
“I started as a shoe salesman, became a professor of medicine. People see in me the same way we see ourselves in Erdogan,” Ates, whose family comes from neighboring Rize province, told AFP.
“He talks to everyone, not just the elites,” Erdogan said.
We are a big family here and Erdogan is a part of it. It is as strong as our castle,” said provincial AKP official Hasi Ali Polat, referring to the centuries-old stronghold on the city.
Residents who spoke to AFP said they had remained loyal to Erdogan, resisting attacks by foreign forces, as Baibert had fought against Russian invaders in the 19th century.
“We are nationalists and conservatives and we love Erdogan,” the 26-year-old university graduate enthused as he spoke at his father’s shop.
“What people want is a strong leader,” he said openly, saying he liked a “new face” but condemned secular opposition leader Kemal Kilidaroglu as “weak.”
Muhammed Emre Temur works in the construction industry – a sector he has enjoyed unprecedentedly under Erdogan – and refuses to see Turkey’s widespread economic crisis as a reason to leave the presidency.
“Erdogan built his own ships, his own weapons, his own planes,” said the 19-year-old, who earns 10,000 liras ($500) a month.
“They won’t vote for Kush because of the price of onions,” he added, using a persuasive term to refer to Erdogan’s secular rival, Kilidaroglu.
Favor in return?
Beybert, located between the Black Sea and the Palandöken mountains, is Turkey’s least economically productive province and its least populous, with only 84,200 inhabitants.
But it was a stop on the ancient Silk Road that carried trade between Asia and Europe, an era of prosperity that many locals long to recover.
Bayan pointed to Erdogan’s unabashedly Islamic-based policies, subsidies to farmers and construction of dams to aid agriculture.
“There is a whole system and nobody wants to lose it,” he told AFP.
“It would be nice if he (Erdoğan) built us a bike in return, built us a factory, gave us jobs,” said Yusuf Yolku, in his 50s, who works in insurance.
Bulent Hacihasanoglu said at the clothing workshop that some people in small villages were too afraid to choose a different way “for fear of being put on the forbidden list”.
Hacihasanoglu still openly supports Kilicdaroglu and his promise to “return to parliamentary rule”, which ended Erdogan’s 2017 constitutional referendum that allowed the president to take power.
But Yolku insisted that Bayburt’s people had always been loyal, saying there had been “no incident” in the province during the 1980 military coup and the massive anti-government protests that rocked Turkey in 2013.