A feminine voice rings out from behind the mounds of strawberries and olives in an Istanbul bazaar: “Let’s get rid of Erdoğan!”
“Defend your rights in the second round on May 28,” Rojda Aksoy, a slender figure in faded baggy clothes, calls out.”Reis (the chief) will win!” barks back another woman who supports President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the “chief” who has ruled Turkey for two decades and fell just short of re-election in the first round of the vote on May 14.
The exchange was just one salvo in the battle for half of Turkey’s 64.1 million voters in its most consequential election of modern times.
With Erdoğan the hot favorite, the opposition is searching for votes to push secular leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu over the line in Sunday’s presidential runoff.
And if they are to do that they will have to win over women, particularly working class housewives — the bedrock of Erdoğan’s support.
‘Turkey is secular’
Erdoğan’s removal of restrictions on religion in the mostly Muslim but officially secular republic turned the Islamic-rooted leader into a hero among Turkey’s conservatives.
His support among housewives, who can now wear the veil where they want, reached 60 percent in the last election in 2018, according to an Ipsos survey — nearly eight points above his national vote.
But shopping with liras that lost value sharply in the past five years, these women are also sensitive to the price shocks of Turkey’s worst economic crisis since the 1990s.
This gives Aksoy an opening as she moves between stalls of secondhand clothes and artichoke hearts, looking for political converts.
“We remind them that even if (Erdoğan and his party) have been in power for more than 20 years, even if they have all the propaganda tools at their disposal, they still didn’t win outright,” Aksoy said.
Boosted by viral social media clips recorded from his kitchen, the leftist Kılıçdaroğlu picked up 44.9 percent of the vote on May 14, forcing Erdoğan into his first runoff.
At first, Kılıçdaroğlu failed to convince Çiğdem Ener, a 50-year-old whose first round vote went to Sinan Oğan, an ultra-nationalist who won 5.2 percent and endorsed Erdoğan this week.
“Turkey is secular,” Ener said, pointing out that Turkish woman won the right to vote nationally in 1934.
‘Last drop of blood’
“And look at the lamentable state Erdoğan dragged us into, bringing his Hüda-Par friends into a parliament,” Ener added.
Erdoğan struck a controversial alliance with the fringe Kurdish Islamic party in order to keep control of parliament.
Hüda-Par’s rejection of women’s rights and ties to groups implicated in extrajudicial killings infuriates Ener, who seems just as angry at today’s price of cheese.
Ener will now be voting for Kılıçdaroğlu.
Tijyen Alpanlı will be doing the same, driven in part by fear of the hardline Islamic figures Erdoğan brought into his coalition.
“Women are being murdered and almost none of the murderers are being punished,” the 60-year-old said.
But not all are swayed.
Raziye Kuşkaya, 50, said she and her daughter will support Erdoğan “to our last drop of blood.”
“We may not be able to buy everything we want, but that’s okay,” Kuşkaya said.
Lacking the resources Erdoğan’s ruling party, which has a stranglehold on the media, the opposition depends on social media to reach voters across the vast country, a strategy with particular drawbacks.
“We are aware that there are masses that we can’t reach, especially housewives,” İstanbul’s opposition mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu admitted last week.
‘Allowed to hope’
In contrast, Erdoğan has been sending legions of female supporters to knock on doors since the days of his successful run to become mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s.
Emine Erdoğan, the president’s wife, was one of the leaders of this vast grassroots network of political Islam.
Erdoğan believed his female activists “could go into women’s homes and convince them (to vote for him) because of their shared gender, values and class,” said Prunelle Ayme, a political scientist at CERI-Sciences Po in Paris.
Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party(AKP) claims more than five million members.
Outside campaign season, this army of activists pays courtesy visits for births, weddings or funerals, developing bonds and collecting intricate data on the makeup of various neighborhoods, Ayme said.
Working-class housewives are also the main beneficiaries of classes and social centers set up by the AKP, the analyst added.
Still, while Erdoğan’s coalition maintained its control of parliament, his AKP lost around 20 seats.
“So we’re allowed to hope,” Aksoy said.
© Agence France-Presse