ISTANBUL // Handing out goodies to voters before election day is a time-honoured tradition in politics, but critics say recent efforts by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan have reached a new dimension with the distribution of thousands of washing machines in a poor eastern Anatolian province where the prime minister wants to win big in next month's local elections.
White goods with a combined value of 4.8 million lira (Dh10.8m) are being distributed free of charge to 3,300 families in need, the office of Mustafa Yaman, governor of the province of Tunceli, said in a statement last week. Pictures in Turkish newspapers showed people carrying new washing machines and mattresses on their backs. Tunceli ranks among the poorest provinces in Turkey. The yearly per capita income is about US$4,000 (Dh14,700) according to purchase power parity, compared with nearly $10,000 nationwide, official statistics say.
"In accordance with the welfare state principles of our government, a project for those of our fellow citizens who find it hard to meet their daily needs is aiming to meet the need for goods like refrigerators, washing machines, television sets, carpets and sofas," the governor's office said. The aid is being delivered by a foundation linked to the provincial administration. Computers, electrical ovens and vacuum cleaners were also among the goods that were handed out, the statement said. A total of 3,020 goods were listed.
Turkey's election watchdog, the High Election Council, or YSK, threatened legal action last weekend against moves that are seen as efforts to influence voter behaviour before the elections on March 29. But newspapers reported yesterday that the distribution of white goods in Tunceli continued despite the YSK warning. Some washing machines ended up in villages that are not even connected to the water grid, reports said. The state prosecution in Tunceli said yesterday it had opened an investigation because of possible election fraud.
The Turkish opposition also says authorities are not acting out of a sudden and selfless impulse to help the poor. "The law says that kind of activity is electoral bribe," Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a leading member of the Republican People's Party, or CHP, Turkey's main secular opposition party, told the Milliyet daily. Turkey is no stranger to politicians' generosity before polling day. Mr Erdogan's governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has distributed coal in poorer quarters of Istanbul and other cities in recent years. Local politicians regularly issued amnesties for illegally built houses on Istanbul's fringes before elections in the past, a habit that is one reason for the urban sprawl around the Turkish metropolis.
The opposition itself has been known to come up with unusual plans to curry favour with Turkish voters, many of whom are considered to be conservative. Deniz Baykal, CHP leader, last week surprised friend and foe by supporting a plan by the CHP mayoral candidate in Izmit in north-western Turkey for the introduction of Quran courses in every neighbourhood. As the CHP often accuses Mr Erdogan's AKP of Islamist tendencies and has in the past criticised the spread of Quran courses as a sign of a progressing Islamisation of Turkey, Mr Baykal's initiative caught many in his own party by surprise. One CHP parliamentary deputy, Fatih Atay, accused Mr Baykal of "undermining" the party with poorly thought-out moves.
But the AKP's alleged action in Tunceli is unprecedented in Turkey's electoral history. Analysts said Mr Erdogan has identified Tunceli as one of the most important regions for his AKP in the March elections, when tens of thousands of mayors and council members in villages, towns and cities all over the country will be elected for a new five-year term. Tunceli is the only Turkish province where the AKP failed to earn a parliamentary deputy elected at the polls in 2007, when it scored almost 47 per cent of the vote nationwide.
Pollsters said the AKP can expect between 45 per cent and 50 per cent of the countrywide vote on March 29. But Mr Erdogan insists on an AKP win in Tunceli as well, commentators have said. Tunceli is the home province of Kamer Genc, an independent deputy in Ankara's parliament who has irked the AKP frequently. Observers also said Mr Erdogan wants to teach Mr Kilicdaroglu a lesson, because Mr Kilicdaroglu - who comes from the Nazimiye district in Tunceli - is the CHP's candidate for mayor in Istanbul, the biggest prize in the elections.