ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — The crowd outside Istanbul’s main airport initially numbered about 100. But as news came that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plane was approaching from Tunisia on his return from a four-day North Africa tour, his supporters came in droves.
Traffic came to a standstill and people crammed into any available space. It was a loud and boisterous show of backing by more than 10,000 followers of Erdogan, who for perhaps the first time in a decade of power appeared vulnerable after a week of protests challenging his rule.
To his pious and conservative base, the three-term prime minister deserves respect for raising Turkey’s international profile, improving their standard of living, cleaning up hospitals and providing better services. They adore him for curbing the powers of Turkey’s secular military and for standing up to Israel when they felt Palestinians were oppressed.
Here’s what some of his supporters from Ankara’s Sincan neighborhood, which is a major ruling party stronghold, have to say:
THE CAR WASH EMPLOYEE
Ramazan Usur, 52, is the only breadwinner in his family. He has three children — something he knows Erdogan would approve of.
Usur said it’s thanks to Erdogan that his family is able to live “in luxury” despite earning a minimum wage.
The prime minister, Usur said, is the only leader “for our country and the party.”
“He is a great man, he is the greatest master, he is our emperor,” Usur said.
“He works day and night for his country. What else do they want from him?,” he asked of the protesters.
THE GROCERY SHOP MANAGER
Sait Demirel, 38, is married and has three children.
“The protests aren’t about the environment anymore,” he said, as he supervised his employees offloading watermelons from the back of a truck. “We are hearing that the protesters are hurling rocks and stones at police.”
Demirel supports Erdogan, but doesn’t agree with all of his policies.
“I don’t drink liquor, but if someone wants to drink it then no one should try to prevent that,” Demirel said, referring to a law that would restrict the sale and promotion of alcoholic drinks.
“I think Erdogan, sometimes, can be overly reactive,” he said.
THE CAR MECHANIC
Father of one, 27-year-old Yasin Bagci, works for minimum wage as a car mechanic and takes care of his family. He said they “suffered” economically under previous governments.
“Erdogan’s government solved most of these problems,” Bagci said. “We still have problems that should be solved but there is no other person who can govern this country as well as Erdogan.”
Bagci said Erdogan has “all that it takes to be a leader. He stands behind his words. He is a straight talker.”
The protests were innocent in the beginning, he believed.
“It was about protecting trees but turned into something else later on,” he said. “If our leaders had listened to these people in the beginning the incident wouldn’t have grown so much. Both sides should have listened to each other.”
THE KEBAB SHOP CHEF
Serkan Tosun, 31, has a wife and child and makes a living from his small kebab restaurant.
Tosun agreed with Erdogan that there are “provocateurs among the protesters.”
“Those people who don’t know what they are doing there shouldn’t try to create a rift between us and our prime minister. They are being used by some forces,” Tosun said.
Tosun didn’t mind that the prime minister can sometimes be abrasive. “He only reproaches people when they deserve to be. He doesn’t reproach his people, he reproaches his opponents who have nothing to do except mill around.”
Tosun said life is much easier under Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. He gets bank loans much faster and his family gets good health care.
“In the past, you had to wait 15 days to see a doctor, now you can go and see any doctor,” he said.
The alcohol ban was introduced by Erdogan for the good of his own citizens, Tosun said.
Had the prime minister landed in Ankara instead of Istanbul, he would have been among the group that rushed to the airport to greet Erdogan.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser contributed to this story.