Ruling Party Charms a Turkish City With New Take on Secular Heritage

Ahmet Hamdi Gul, father of Turkey's foreign minister, says the country's religiously rooted ruling party has done well by his city, Kayseri. (By Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 12, 2007

KAYSERI, Turkey -- Six decades of work has arched his back, age has slowed his speech. But Ahmet Hamdi Gul was quick to praise the people running this city in the heart of Anatolia, awash in a transformation from backwater to bustling entrepot, from stronghold of Turkey's ultranationalists to redoubt of the religiously rooted party that rules the country.

"They've done well for the city," the 81-year-old Gul said simply, during a visit to a factory where he worked until last year.

The words were not unusual, but the speaker was. He is the father of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, whose nomination as Turkey's president, eventually derailed, touched off a political crisis last month. The father's modesty says something about Gul's grass-roots appeal in Kayseri. And his words say something about the ruling Justice and Development Party's draw here -- as modernizers, populists and devout guardians of the poor.

Long the most secular and modern of Muslim nations, Turkey is in the throes of a social and political transformation that began nearly 60 years ago and crested with the Justice and Development Party's surprising ascent to power in elections in 2002. It is sometimes cast as a simple contest between the secular orthodoxy of Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and the ruling party's origins in the country's Islamic movement of the 1990s. But the party's success in Kayseri shows how it has leveraged the rise of a new elite to create a broad, subtle, sometimes visceral appeal.

The Justice and Development Party has no equivalent in the Muslim world. Despite its roots, its leaders -- Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and others -- disavow the label Islamic. In a region imbued with skepticism of the West, it has embraced the goal of membership in the European Union by undertaking far-reaching, liberal reforms. Its politics are decidedly capitalist, pushing ahead Turkey's integration into the world economy. Its religious demands are articulated not in the context of Islam, but in the language of human rights.

Kayseri, a city of 700,000, is a laboratory for those policies. Here on the dry, wind-buffeted Anatolian steppe, the party has won the loyalty of the conservative but brash entrepreneurial class challenging Turkey's old money. But it has also cemented the support of those left on the sidelines by that globalization -- the thousands of poor people given food each day at soup kitchens it has helped organize. Across the city, the party has measured success less by resolving the debate over the wearing of head scarves in public than by making Kayseri a model of responsive administration.

The result: The party and its predecessors have run the mayor's office since 1994. In the last election, it won seven of the city's eight seats in parliament; its goal this summer is the last seat. The influence of its long-standing rival, the Nationalist Action Party, has shriveled as supporters defect, some complaining that the party lacks a program beyond a vision of stern nationalism.

"Kayseri will be the Istanbul of the future," boasted Sedat Colak, a 20-year-old Justice and Development supporter headed for military service, as he sat in a leafy park by a brick path winding to a newly built cafe shadowed by medieval Ottoman monuments.

Before Gul's entry into politics, Kayseri was perhaps best known for its pastirma, a spicy cured beef. Its politics were no less pungent. A generation ago, it was renowned as a stronghold of the Gray Wolves, a right-wing paramilitary organization with a name taken from Turkish mythology. Then and now, the city has also celebrated its commercial prowess, underlined by the saying that families will send their smart sons into business, their dim-witted ones to school.

Civic Effectiveness

These days, the city hews to its mercantile reputation, if not its nationalist past.

"A president like Gul brings good to the country," reads a banner hanging from the balcony of the local chapter of the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen's Association.

The association, effectively a chamber of commerce, caters to the entrepreneurial class that emerged in the traditional, religiously conservative towns of Anatolia in the 1980s, vying for influence with the more traditional elite, in cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, that often grew to prominence with state patronage. It doesn't hide its religious sensibilities, handing out Islamic literature along with information on its 28 branches and 2,700 members across the country. But its members speak an aggressively self-assured language of emerging markets, exports, high technology standards and integration with the global economy.

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