I observed all Erdoğan’s earlier rallies at Yenikapı. The first thing worth stressing is that, including even the rally held at Yenikapı on 7 August 2016 following the 15 July 2016 coup attempt, this rally was the rally at which most frequent resort was made to the notions of “survival, victory, enemy, flag, prophet, battle, victory, division.”
Just as with all the AKP’s previous Yenikapı rallies, I came by metro to Yenikapı an hour before the start to observe the rally, not from the press stand, but from among the normal rally attendees. What was striking about the flow heading towards the rally was its relative calm with no preponderance of slogans. Everyone had a Turkish flag, the shared symbol of the rally. Secondly, they were wearing bands reading, “Our hero Recep Tayyip Erdoğan” and “Our Commander-in-Chief Recep Tayyip Erdoğan” on their heads.
The grounds remained conspicuously empty until half an hour before the start of the rally. In the endeavour to raise the spirits of the crowd in the grounds, the inflow towards the rally from Üsküdar and Eyüp quays was displayed on large screens on the stage housing the rostrum, but with the grounds not yet having filled at the starting time of 2 pm, an explanation along the lines, “This time there have been delays in arrivals” came from the rostrum. Granted, a good amount of the empty space had filled by the time the People’s Alliance’s İstanbul candidate Binali Yıldırım started to speak at 3.02. President Erdoğan announced at 1.6 million the figure he had been given for attendance at the grounds. However, there were times when the AKP could have overfilled these grounds on its own.
Incidentally, let us note an important truth that also made itself felt in previous elections. It is misleading to draw a parallel between such rally attendances and poll results.
For example, I penned the following about the AKP rally held at Yenikapı on 25 October 2015 prior to the 1 November 2015 elections: “However, the sentiment today among the AKP base is different from those old days of single-party rule. For example, I recall a young party-affiliated woman telling me, “Brother, history is being written, isn’t it?” as Erdoğan was speaking as prime minister in the Yenikapı rally grounds prior to the 30 March 2014 local elections. Things now are greatly changed. Is lost single-party rule within grasp once more? I saw the thrill and concerns over this on the faces of the party faithful I spoke to. (…) The sparseness of the attendance at the grounds compared to earlier rallies was stark. I also asked the AKP people attending the rally about this and this is what they said, too.”
However, in the 1 November elections, the AKP broke decisively through the 40.9% it received on 7 June 2015 to take 49.5%. Turkey was taken into those elections under serious polarization and a “security syndrome” engendered by the ruling party.
So, among other factors, rally attendance is not the most important, but, from among those factors, it offers meaningful pointers towards the election result.
Let us return to the grounds. Even before the succession of speeches starting with Yıldırım, there was an attempt to warm up the crowd with talk from the stage of the “flag,” “people,” “nation,” “battle” and “survival” and songs like “I’ll die my Turkey.”
Further observing the wolf gestures, moustaches, beards and other symbols, we can say that the AKP and MHP base was present to varying degrees. As to the visible hierarchy in the grounds, this, in order, was as follows: “Erdoğan, Bahçeli, Yıldırım.”
İstanbul candidate Yıldırım’s photograph found inclusion only in a four-photograph banner draped before the stage. A point worth stressing is that praise in various doses for Erdoğan in all the speeches, including Bahçeli’s, was one of the defining features of the rally.
Apart from his lavish praise for Erdoğan, having laid the stress on service and talk of the CHP meaning trash, potholes and lack of water, Yıldırım’s speech took the form of a promise to turn the transport problem heading the list of the city’s major problems into a pleasure.
One of the speeches that left their mark on the rally came from MHP General Chair Bahçeli. Postulating that Turkey was surrounded by “evils,” Bahçeli described İstanbul as the “final refuge.” Once more describing the “Nation Alliance” as the “Contemptible Alliance,” it would be no exaggeration to say that Bahçeli’s speech that he rounded off with the words “battle” and “victory” filled people with the sensation of being encircled and inside a ring of fire. The conclusion to emerge from Bahçeli’s speech in which he profusely insulted the opposition could be summed up as: “If the Nation Alliance takes İstanbul, Turkey might lose its final refuge and the country will head towards partition.”
The hour was nearing four when President Erdoğan started his speech and the crowd had started to drift away from the grounds to avoid overcrowding on public transport.
Erdoğan’s words, “The People’s Alliance is not just the alliance of two parties, but that of all Turkey. Everyone who has their sights on Turkey is attacking the People’s Alliance,” came as accentuated support for the day’s martial atmosphere.
It is hard to say how what has been depicted will affect the election results but there is a stark truth. What we saw, rather than an election rally, was the “Battle of the Yenikapı Square”.
(Translated by Tim Drayton)