Secularism debate falls by the wayside as Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan beats off corruption accusations and promises to bring more prosperity to the country if re-elected.
Jobs and corruption, not Islamisation, are Turkey's election concerns
LULEBURGAZ // Forget the headscarf issue. In Turkey's current election campaign, everything revolves around jobs and corruption.
As Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the religiously conservative prime minister, and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the secularist opposition, battle for votes in the parliamentary elections on June 12, the heated ideological debate about the place of Islam in public life, which shaped Turkish politics for years and almost led to the ban of Mr Erdogan's ruling party is conspicuously absent.
Earlier this week, Mr Erdogan, 57, and Mr Kilicdaroglu, 62, almost ran into each other when they addressed thousands of supporters at separate rallies only several hundred metres and 45 minutes apart in this agricultural town 170 kilometres north-west of Istanbul.
Mr Erdogan, speaking from the top of his campaign bus, told a cheering crowd of supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP: "We have brought inflation down from 130 per cent to 4.3 per cent."
Rejecting accusations of corruption against his government, Mr Erdogan pointed to large infrastructure projects such as the construction of 13,000 kilometres of four-lane roads in recent years: "Would a corrupt government have been able to undertake investments like that?" he asked.
Mr Kilicdaroglu, speaking at the rally of his own Republican People's Party, or CHP, on another square nearby and shortly after Mr Erdogan left, said his party would make sure everyone got a job once it took office in Ankara.
"There will be no more unemployment," Mr Kilicdaroglu told the crowd. "Factories that have been closed down will be reopened."
Turkey's last parliamentary election campaign in 2007 was marked by a bitter conflict between secularists and the AKP, a party with roots in political Islam. Back then, in an election called by Mr Erdogan after a threat by the secularist military to stage a coup against his government, the AKP won a landslide, with 47 per cent of the vote. One year later, Turkey's top court came close to banning the AKP for trying to lift the headscarf ban at universities.
Since 2008, the political landscape has shifted dramatically. Judicial investigations into alleged coup plots in the ranks of the military and political reforms passed in a referendum have weakened the political influence of the generals and have loosened the grip of secularists on key positions in the judiciary.
At the same time, Mr Kilicdaroglu, who took over the CHP leadership last year, replaced his party's former emphasis on perceived threats to the secular order with more traditional leftist messages about jobs and social equality. Neither the CHP nor the judiciary protested when the headscarf ban at universities was quietly dropped last year.
In the new political situation, economic and other domestic issues take centre stage, observers say. Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for the Milliyet daily, said: "Many voters look at their bottom line. It's about taxes, rubbish collection, transport." Mr Erdogan's government can point to robust growth rates in the economy and growing affluence. Last month, the prime minister said Turks had bought 436,000 refrigerators in the first quarter of the year, almost 100,000 more than in the same period 2010.
In his speech in Luleburgaz, Mr Erdogan, who has said the upcoming election is the last one that he will contest as a member of parliament, defended his record and promised more prosperity. After coming to power in 2002, the AKP had spent eight years learning and perfecting the art of good governance, he said. "Now, the era of the master craftsman is about to begin." Polls say the AKP can expect around 45 per cent of the countrywide vote on June 12, with the CHP a distant second at around 25 per cent.
Emboldened by its strong lead in the polls, the AKP has set its sights on longer-term goals even before the vote next month. "Turkey is ready - the aim is 2023," read an AKP slogan on banners around the square in Luleburgaz. The date marks the 100th anniversary of the Turkish republic, and Mr Erdogan has announced several giant projects, among them new shipping canals in Istanbul and the Bosphorus.
But Luleburgaz, a city of 100,000 people, represents a rare challenge for Mr Erdogan. The CHP won more than 50 per cent of the votes here in local elections two years ago, and the AKP only 28 per cent.
With an official unemployment rate of almost 14 per cent, the job situation in the province of Kirklareli, to which Luleburgaz belongs, is worse than the average 11 per cent unemployment in Turkey as a whole. Supporters of both the AKP and the CHP in the city said jobs were the top priority for them.
"We want jobs for the young," said Nurtac Cay, 59, a housewife and CHP voter. "How are we supposed to pay our rent?" Ahmet Argin, a teacher and AKP supporter, agreed. "There is unemployment everywhere in the world, but yes, it's a weakness," he said.
The CHP says the Erdogan government has not only failed to provide enough jobs, it also has become corrupt. "Your children are unemployed, but their children live in palaces," Mr Kilicdaroglu told his audience, in a reference to the families of leading government politicians.
Judging from comments by ordinary people and even CHP supporters in Luleburgaz, Mr Kilicdaroglu faces an uphill challenge in trying to portray Mr Erdogan personally as corrupt. "Erdogan is clever and hard-working," said Demet Gulveren, 32, a CHP voter. "Kilicdaroglu appears a little weak compared to him."
For AKP supporters, Mr Erdogan is an undisputed hero. "This government has put Turkey on the world map," said Cihan Tosun, 30, a worker who attended the AKP rally in Luleburgaz. "Now people are listening to us."