Erdogan’s legacy hinges on Sunday’s Turkey elections

The working-class, socially conservative neighborhood of Kasimpasa, in Istanbul, helped shape the man who would become Turkey’s most powerful figure in decades.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan once sold bread on these streets. It made him tough and kept him close to the common person’s values of religion and pride.

And it nurtured his dream to make Turkey great again.

The people here remember him, some with brotherly pride.

Yasar Ayhan, and his father before him, were Erdogan’s barbers.

“We are from the same village as the respected president, whom I love very much,” Ayhan says.

‘We couldn’t imagine’

The Turkish leader doesn’t visit as often as he used to, but he has never lost touch with his roots, something that Ayhan, who sees Erdogan as a big brother, marvels at.

“Really, we couldn’t in those days imagine that he would one day become president,” Ayhan remembers. “Our minds were not open to that. We were guessing that he would become a mayor, prime minister, but not president.

“His charisma, position, behavior and success was showing some promise. But we couldn’t imagine this,” he says.

Tensions are high ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Turkey, where the legacy of President Erdogan is at stake.

He has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, promoting himself as a leader of the Islamic world, ushering Turkey back into a role akin to what it had as the seat of the Ottoman Empire.

Opponents, however, accuse him of amassing power and wealth, and pushing the country toward a dictatorship.

‘Street fighter’

Fadi Hakura, an associate fellow at London’s Chatham House, says, “Erdogan traditionally has been a street fighter. His style of politics is robust, muscular, cutthroat, confrontational, and combative.

“That’s the politics that Erdogan understands, feels and practices,” Hakura says.

In his tenure, Erdogan has launched massive infrastructure projects, such as new metro lines and a new suspension bridge spanning the Bosphorus strait. The economy boomed on his watch, with growth rates near 9 percent.

But as that growth slowed, his support shrank, and critics say Erdogan – once pragmatic – became less tolerant of criticism. Then, a crackdown on the media — the most recent being Wednesday, when Turkish policestormed the offices of an opposition media company linked to a U.S.-based cleric and foe of Erdogan.

Despite that, in Erdogan’s old neighborhood, a stadium is named after him and the image of the tough, semi-professional footballer that he once was, remains.

In Sunday’s election, the party Erdogan founded seeks to regain the majority it lost in parliament last June. They may also tell whether Erdogan emerges as the powerful figure he has dreamed of becoming.