GAZIANTEP, Turkey (Reuters) - A high-flying City of London economist and a woman are Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s top bets in this fast-growing city to present a modern, liberal face for his Islam-rooted AK Party to voters and the world.
Erdogan has put Merrill Lynch economist Mehmet Simsek in first place on his party’s list in this southeastern industrial powerhouse and Fatma Sahin in second, virtually guaranteeing them seats in Turkey’s new parliament after a July 22 poll.
They are part of Erdogan’s push to attract young people, women and urban professionals wary of the party’s Islamist past, its pious Muslim leadership and their headscarf-wearing wives. His choice of Gaziantep is no coincidence.
Famed for its pistachio nuts and one of the world’s largest museums of Roman mosaics, Gaziantep, located north of the Syrian border, has long been hailed as one of Turkey’s “Anatolian tiger” cities for its economic prowess.
A rare economic success story in the mostly impoverished and restive southeast, it is a leading producer of textiles, carpets and foodstuffs and exported over $2 billion in goods last year.
No one here doubts the importance of what happens in Gaziantep for the rest of Turkey.
“We are a model for the rest of the country, and they are watching us,” said Nejat Kocer, head of the city’s Chamber of Industry.
Erdogan had to call the July election months early to end a dangerous political crisis over Turkey’s direction that has pitted his party against powerful secular forces.
“Gaziantep is a place where modernity and tradition converge. It is also a place that can show how Turkey can weather globalization and prosper,” Simsek told Reuters.
“Entrepreneurship here is among the highest in Turkey.”
But unlike more centrally located “Anatolian tigers” such as Konya, which has a strongly Islamist flavor, Gaziantep is more liberal and secular in outlook, and not automatically loyal to the AK Party -- hence the choice of candidates.
“This city watches the economy. Even if a man is religious and prays five times a day here, he will not vote for the AK Party if his factory is not doing well,” said Timur Schindel, owner of a beautifully restored guesthouse, “Anatolian Houses”.
In Gaziantep’s swish new shopping malls and dusty bazaars, people’s complaints echo those heard in less prosperous parts of Turkey -- high unemployment, the rising cost of living, official corruption and Kurdish separatist violence in the southeast.
“My son is 25 and can’t find a job,” said pensioner Mehmet Yalcin, 67, sipping tea in the shadow of a Byzantine-era fort.
“When he applies for one, they ask if he is a member of the AK Party. It helps to belong to a religious sect here to get work,” he said, in a dig at the party’s Islamist roots.
Opposition parties believe this discontent can help them win in Gaziantep. In the last election in 2002, the AK Party won seven of the city’s 10 seats.
But Simsek, who is spoken of as a likely minister in a new Erdogan government, said only the AK Party understands the modern global economy and how to generate sustainable jobs.
His is a Turkish rags-to-riches story. One of nine children born into a poor Kurdish family in eastern Batman province, he only learned to speak Turkish at 6. He later won a place at Ankara University and, by talent and sheer hard work, ended up landing a senior position at Merrill Lynch.
Simsek, 40, tells his voters that Turkish manufacturing needs to be more productive and competitive to survive in a world increasingly dominated by low-cost giants China and India.
He argues that services, not manufacturing, will provide the jobs of the future. Gaziantep, and indeed Turkey, needs to lure more tourists, foreign students, even foreign hospital patients.
Local business seems broadly receptive to his message.
Abdulkadir Konukoglu, head of Sanko, a locally based, family owned textiles-to-machinery business empire, said his firms were focusing more on quality and tapping the higher range of global markets. Sanko targets total exports of $300 million in 2007.
Hotelier Schindel agreed services were the way ahead.
“Five years ago, the attitude here was ‘we are an industrial city, why do we need hotels and tourism?’ Now they are restoring the old fort. We are to get five new hotels, more shopping malls,” said Schindel, who is half Turkish, half American.
Officials at Gaziantep’s Chamber of Industry said the city’s population had jumped to 1.3 million from 800,000 in just four years, swollen by migration from the much poorer provinces to the east, further aggravating the unemployment problem here.
“Many of the migrants have little in the way of education or skills. Some of our factories have jobs unfilled for lack of qualified people,” said Kocer.
Business also complains of the government’s incentives scheme, which provides generous subsidies to poorer regions but penalizes successful cities like Gaziantep. Simsek, who opposes all subsidies, says the AK Party should review the program.