The Celik brothers have always struggled to earn a living with their vegetable stand in this impoverished town in southeastern Turkey. But in recent months, as residents have begun saving for the difficult times expected if war breaks out in nearby Iraq, business has been especially slow.
"We're just chasing flies," complained Abdul Kerim Celik, 36, as one person after another walked by his crates of onions without even a glance. "People are worried about a war, so to save money they're only buying bread. Vegetables are a luxury now."
Celik and his four brothers said they are strongly opposed to a war in Iraq. They believe it would devastate the economy of Siirt province, already one of Turkey's poorest. They also worry that it could spark a resumption of fighting between ethnic Kurdish separatists and the Turkish military that battered this region for much of the past two decades.
But despite their strong antiwar sentiments, the brothers said they will vote in a special election Sunday for the man who has led the campaign to let U.S. troops use Turkish territory in an Iraqi war, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party, he is scheduled to take over as prime minister next week if, as expected, the province's voters send him to parliament on Sunday.
"We disagree with him about war. We want him to be strong enough to say no to the United States," said Abdullah Celik, 28, another of the brothers. "But we support him because we think it will be good to have a prime minister from Siirt. We have been suffering economically, and we need his help."
The views of the Celik brothers capture the dilemma that Erdogan faces as he prepares to take the formal reins of power from Abdullah Gul -- who, because Erdogan until recently was legally barred from public office, became prime minister when their party swept into power in November elections. Parliament rejected a U.S. deployment in Turkey by three votes last weekend, and Erdogan said he is still trying to decide whether to ask for a second vote.
If he does, he risks angering millions of voters. Opinion polls show more than 90 percent of the Turkish public opposes a war in Iraq.
But if he doesn't, Turkey will lose billions of dollars in aid that the United States had offered to help offset the impact of a war. Without that money, Erdogan could find it difficult to keep his promises not only to his constituents in Siirt, but to supporters across the country.
Erdogan's relatively new Islamic-oriented party rose to power with a campaign that capitalized on the public's deep frustration with Turkey's ailing economy. Voters rejected older mainstream parties, blaming them for a crippling financial crisis in which the currency collapsed and unemployment skyrocketed.
Erdogan promised relief. But he quickly ran into problems with the International Monetary Fund, which helped keep the Turkish economy from collapsing with a $16 billion package of loans granted in exchange for tough reforms, including privatization, budget cuts and mass public-sector layoffs. Because the new government appeared to be backing away from the reforms in favor of populist spending measures, the IMF has delayed the next $1.6 billion installment of its loan package.
Questions about the Justice and Development Party's commitment to the IMF reforms weighed heavily on the talks over the aid package the United States negotiated with Turkey in exchange for allowing the use of Turkish territory for staging an incursion into Iraq from the north. Worried that the party might use the money to escape the IMF demands, U.S. officials have insisted on Turkish compliance with the terms of the IMF loans.
After rejecting the U.S. deployment, the Turkish government announced new spending cuts and tax hikes to reassure international markets. The IMF applauded the move, but Erdogan took a beating in the media, which portrayed the measures as an attempt to make ordinary people "pay for peace" and make up for the loss of the U.S. aid package.
Here in Siirt, located about 50 miles north of Turkey's border with Syria and Iraq, residents blame many of their woes on the IMF reforms. Farmers are struggling with cuts in subsidies and the burden of debts that once were routinely forgiven -- the kinds of economic practices on which international lenders lay much of the blame for Turkey's economic predicament. Businessmen complain about the closure of a local airport and a suspension of irrigation and hydroelectric projects. The state has laid off hundreds of workers, and unemployment is said to exceed 40 percent.
"The economy is a zero," said Gundul Tanik, chairman of a local agricultural association, rattling off the names of friends who are losing their farms.
A war threatens to make it even worse. Residents recall what happened the last time the United States went to war in Iraq, in 1991. Other parts of Turkey were hit by a fall in tourism, but this region suffered from a sharp drop in trade with Iraq, which was then Turkey's leading trade partner.
The war also drove a flood of refugees into Turkey and inflamed the fighting between Turkish security forces and Kurdish separatists, who began using northern Iraq as a base of operations. Many residents fear another war could spark a resumption of fighting, especially if Turkish troops enter Iraq's Kurdish-populated northern region.
The violence discouraged investment and spurred the evacuation of 300 rural villages in Siirt, forcing tens of thousands of Kurds into the slums of the provincial capital. Despite a cease-fire in 1999, they have not been permitted to return home. Few have steady work.
"The violence paralyzed the economy of Siirt," said Ferit Epozdemir, the deputy mayor of the provincial capital. "Because of the IMF, the government has tried to balance its budget on the backs of citizens. But we can't pay. There are too many people and no jobs."
In this economic abyss, the chance to elect Erdogan as Siirt's own member of parliament shines like a bright prize. Historically, Turkish prime ministers have directed government largess at the districts they represent, and people here expect Erdogan will do the same for this province, where a court ruling invalidating the results of November's election provided an opportunity for him to seek a parliamentary seat.
Erdogan's campaign has promised three new highways, reopening of the airport and special efforts to draw private investment to the province. Residents also are hoping for farm subsidies and tax breaks.
"We are going to vote for Erdogan because we believe he will bring us benefits," said Cumhuc Kiliccioglu, owner of a local newspaper.
But Erdogan may find it difficult to deliver without winning approval for the U.S. troop deployment. Not only would he lose the U.S. offer of $6 billion in grants, which could be leveraged into as much as $24 billion in loans, but there is also the possibility of a break with the IMF, in which the United States is the largest shareholder and has been a strong proponent of support for Turkey.
On the other hand, some residents said they would not forgive Erdogan if he agreed to war. "No matter what," said Abdullah Celik, the vegetable peddler, "we would be angry then."