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2 Turks Have Different Views Of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Rule


President Trump hosts Turkey's president today. Recep Tayyip Erdogan once inspired hope in the West that Turkey could become a democratic model for the Muslim world. Many now believe he is building an authoritarian system. He was elected in part with the support of the have-nots in Turkey's system, but he has punished others. NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul met two Turks with very different stories of Erdogan's rule.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: In Western capitals, it's a common notion that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is leading turkey down the road to authoritarian rule. But inside a deeply divided Turkey, many people don't recognize that description of what's going on. I met one of those Turks in a barber shop in Kasimpasa, the working class part of Istanbul where Erdogan grew up. His hair freshly trimmed, 46-year-old Mostafa Yilmaz takes us on a tour of his neighborhood.


KENYON: He drives through the narrow winding streets pointing out landmarks. As we turn a corner, he has to stomp on the brakes as a startled boy drops his soccer ball in front of the car.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Turkish).

MOSTAFA YILMAZ: (Speaking Turkish).

KENYON: Yilmaz wants to show me something he says outsiders - and some wealthier Turks, for that matter - don't get about Turkey. In the old days before Erdogan's rise to power, he says you wouldn't find kids playing on paved streets here, just mountains of uncollected garbage clogging dirt roads. He slows and points to a grim-looking apartment.

YILMAZ: (Through interpreter) That's where we used to live. Just two rooms for me, my wife and three young children. They were hard times. My family's business nearly went bankrupt.

KENYON: Yilmaz says the neighborhood used to stink so badly they had to put cologne on their pillow cases to sleep at night. Now, with one of their own in charge, the place is still relatively poor, but it's clean. The garbage gets picked up. The streets are paved. The stink of pollution is gone. First as Istanbul's mayor and then as prime minister, Erdogan built up enormous goodwill in neighborhoods like this. Better roads, housing, access to health care and government jobs came to Turks who thought the government didn't even know they existed.

Yilmaz works in the municipal transportation department now. And his son, who suffers after-effects from years of teenage drug abuse, is getting the care he needs. Yilmaz stops to point to his new, much nicer apartment - top floor with a terrace.

YILMAZ: (Speaking Turkish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Turkish).

YILMAZ: (Through interpreter) See that one? Now we've got three bedrooms, air conditioning. It's a real luxury place.

KENYON: Yilmaz says under his leader, meaning Erdogan, his life has only gotten better. Of course I love him, he says. But what about the journalists languishing in jail, the waves of terror attacks, the ongoing state of emergency? Yilmaz shrugs. He says the problems are due to Western and regional powers that are jealous of Turkey's success. It's a line Erdogan himself has used.

But we met another Turk living just a few miles from Mostafa Yilmaz. Nazire Gursel sees a very different Turkey, one that angers and frightens her.



KENYON: This sound is from video posted online last fall when riot police used water cannons to break up a pro-free press demonstration in front of the Cumhuriyet newspaper. Then police raided Gursel's apartment and took away her husband Kadri, a well-known columnist at the paper. She says she knew journalists were being targeted, but the knock on the door was still devastating.

NAZIRE GURSEL: On that day, I was not surprised. I was shocked, totally I was shocked. As you know, he was arrested for political reasons, only for political reasons.

KENYON: Gursel keeps saying that to her young son, even though she knows he doesn't really understand what being arrested for political reasons means. She says it's vital to keep the children from being caught up in the atmosphere of fear. She recalls how a relative of another jailed journalist explained to a 3-year-old why her grandfather didn't come to visit anymore.

GURSEL: She said, grandpa went to NASA on a secret mission. They will save our galaxy (laughter).

KENYON: She says it's almost unreal to remember how positive everything seemed just 10 years ago when Erdogan's government was pushing through democratic reforms and putting Turkey on track to join the European Union. But the optimism didn't last. Critics say Erdogan turned his attention to amassing power and eliminating potential checks on his authority. Military leaders were convicted in mass trials later shown to have used fabricated evidence.

A corruption probe against the government was shut down, the prosecutors fired. Since a failed coup last summer, more than 100,000 people have been sacked or arrested by emergency decree. What went wrong? British diplomat Peter Westmacott was ambassador to Turkey for part of Erdogan's tenure. He says one problem was European leaders who made it clear Turkey wasn't really welcome in the EU despite its role as a crucial NATO ally.

PETER WESTMACOTT: They thought he was either too poor or too Muslim or both.

KENYON: But Erdogan's critics say his own desire for power and quickness to anger are a big part of the problem. They say he's what's known as a majoritarian. He embraces elections as a path to power, but he has no patience with democratic safeguards like allowing dissenters to speak their mind without fear. Westmacott says he'd like to believe there's still time for Erdogan to pull back from this escalating crackdown before it's too late.

WESTMACOTT: And I would like to see them having the courage to admit that press freedom is a strength in a democratic society, not something to be frightened of.

KENYON: As her husband waits month after month for a court hearing, Nazire Gursel says as far as she's concerned, Turkey is not on the road to authoritarian rule - it's arrived.

GURSEL: Nobody can say that Turkey is democratic and free country anymore, particularly after last July. Then everything has collapsed in Turkey, according to me.

KENYON: July brought the failed coup and the state of emergency that continues to this day. Gursel's voice for the first time gives a hint of how uncertain her life has become.

GURSEL: I can't recognize my country. Maybe I feel foreign, yes.

KENYON: These days, Turks like Nazire Gursel, with her family torn apart, and Mostafa Yilmaz, his family on the rise, are eyeing each other across the political divide and wondering where their country will head next. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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