On the Campaign Trail with AKParti Candidate Mr. Yüksel YENI in northwestern Anatolia.
By Abdennour Toumi
Bursa, Turkey — On Saturday I got aboard the AKParti “conquer caravan” for two days on the campaign trail with Mr. Yüksel YENI touring the province of Bursa in the Marmara region of northwestern Anatolia. Bursa is the fourth most populous city in Turkey and one of the most industrialized metropolitan centers in the country.
Although each competing party has a different campaign operation, the caravan campaign serves as the individual candidate’s headquarters and outreach, so Mr. Yüksel YENI and his team are traveling in a mini-bus touring the province separately from the party leadership’s campaign strategy.
I did manage to gain some insight into AKParti ‘s candidate campaign and how Team Yüksel is feeling now in the final stretch to the election.
I joined Mr. Yüksel’s team, a group of different ages and genders, who manned a loud speaker and assailed the ears of passersby with AKParti chants praising the 13 years of policy and program achievements. Twisting like a wrestler through the busy business streets the team reached out to greet pedestrians and shop owners of cafés, restaurants, shoe makers and tailors.
We continued through the district, shaking hands, exchanging hugs and chatting about the AKParti and to some extent about the party’s spiritual leader, because the “E” word is present in every handshake — this implies also a hard arm twist, evidenced by the snobbism of the virtual CHP or MHP sympathizers and voters toward the AKP candidate.
Here in Bursa the HDP holds little hope of any seat in the Assembly.
Bursa province will send 18 elected members to Parliament in Ankara, and all parties are contending for those seats. In the current Assembly AKP holds 11 seats, but in this election the party is hoping to send 15, the rest to be shared by the CHP and MHP. The proportional model is applied, hence the electorate does not vote necessarily for the person, but on the party’s list.
The light-blue Mercedes mini-bus was quite comfortable and decorated with the party’s slogan and the candidate’s photo. Two extremely helpful aides from AKP provincial HQ were on hand to keep the candidate informed of the day’s agenda. At Dho’hr (mid-day) prayer time, Mr. Yüksel and his team went to a nearby Mosque to perform their religious duty (Salat), thus politics meets religion in Turkey’s republican secularist system!
Mr. Yüksel finished his prayer, then lingered in the Mosque courtyard to shake hands and chat briefly with the gathering. Later he sat with a group of community members discussing the on-ging political and economical situation. The candidate was interpellate regarding small business and private-sector questions and addressed people’s concerns over high taxes and the lack of government aid in the area.
The candidate continued his bout of “wrestling” in an effort to reach as many voters as possible, who don’t seem confused or undecided. On the next stop, he entered a Bazaar where shoppers came to browse and bargain for the deal of the day. He used this opportunity to introduce himself and even dared to pay for a trinket for a little girl and some sportswear for a teenager who seemed quite touched by his gesture.
In America this might seem quite strange, even questionable, but here it is a simple accepted gesture, like buying ice cream or candy. He continued to plow through the neighborhoods and parks shaking hands and even responding to a special need for a man confined to an old wheelchair. Mr. Yüksel made a call to the local Social Service to get the man an appointment and eventually change his wheelchair.
The mini-bus continued to tour until 10:00 that night, then everyone went to dinner, and the team and Mr. Yüksel talked over the day’s vents until 1:00 am.
Sunday morning the day began after a delicious breakfast with the AKParti cadres and candidates at a magnificent historical site near the Gazi Osman Pasha citadel. Then around 10:30 the candidate and his team traveled to Dere Koy (River Town), a beautiful mountain village, popular with cyclists and climbers, overlooking olive orchards, fig trees and vineyards. One can imagine for a moment, it’s Cycle Oregon Tour in Hood River!
Mr. Yüksel and his team arrived in time to meet the Mukhtar (community chief) and were on hand to attend a village cultural event celebrating an oratory commemorating the birth of the Prophet Mohammed and a festival recalling the golden days of the Ottoman Empire. A local band performed wearing Ottoman-style costumes and playing Zorna music before the local officials and a crowd gathered to watch. A free lunch was later provided by the local community.
The candidate remained there for quite some time, listening to members of the community discussing issues of local concern. For example, there were requests to repair a small bridge, improvements to the primary school, paving for neighboring roads, and a locker room and sports equipment for the local soccer team.
He took notes and then contacted the Mayor of Dere Koy to discuss the issues raised. I noted one of the community members remarked that “ten years ago we are asking for more services like electricity and running water in our homes, but today, look, we are asking even for sports equipment and a locker room for the soccer team.”
The Mukhtar arranged for the candidate and his team to visit an old ruined church dated to the Greek occupation of the area until 1924. Mr. Yüksel promised to advocate for restoration of the church and to have it added to the National Heritage register of the town and province.
It’s worth mentioning that neither the band that played nor the participants, who chanted seemed to be acquired and secure electorates for the candidate. Indeed, the town stands midway as a battle ground in the campaign, because the CHP candidate was also there meeting with community leaders and inhabitants.
The journey ended at the coast where Mr. Yüksel took a long walk along the water front of Mudanya, a splendid seaside resort. Locals and visitors were curious to hear him, so his team set up a booth where he addressed the voters urging them to register if not to vote, and his team members handed out partisan gifts, baseball caps and party pins.
A woman from Egypt, visiting there, stood chatting with one of the team members. I jumped at the chance and asked her in Arabic, “what do you think about this political campaign? “She told me, “I wish I could witness this kind of political civility in my country and the entire Arab World.”
Standing near the campaign booth I overheard a name mentioned that roused my curiosity and sparked a feeling of déjà-vu.
The person, a Frenchman named Philippe, seemed to be well known to the candidate’s team. I approached him and asked if he was a journalist, he smiled at me and said, “No, I am here to support my friend Yüksel.” I introduced myself and we continued our conversation in French. It seems Philippe is a Turkish citizen and AKParti member; he was, in fact, Yüksel’s challenger in the party primary. I was quite surprised to hear this.
He introduced me to his Turkish wife who looks like any western woman one might see at a farmer’s market or bookstore in America or France. I asked Philippe, why AKP? He replied, “Because of the vision that this party has and how it has changed Turkey.” He continued, “we are getting a false picture of the AKP in France, because the media is often biased toward a party. President Erdoğan’s ideology may sound religious, but that is far from the case. I have been in more than 30 countries, and I have not seen this kind of change by a political party in such a short time.”
Not once during the weekend did any of Mr. Yüksel’s team cross the line to speak with the voters directly. It was an incredibly disciplined and well-organized tour with every need met. One might wonder what was the point of the candidate’s campaign at all!
Voters could just as easily ignore the AKParti candidate invading their own busy lives, but it show that AKP is not taking anything for granted. So Mr. Yüksel seemed to “get it” from his last campaign stop at a regional wrestling competition held in Bursa, where he saw that “wrestlers need to grow deep before they shine before a crowd.”