ISTANBUL: 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.
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 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 also 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 added 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 behaviour is now shining through,” he said.
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,” he added.
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.