The first party congress in a stadium in Turkish history

The first party congress in a stadium in Turkish history

For the last two months, nobody would have wanted to switch places with the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) Istanbul branch head, Aziz Babuşçu. He had 45 days and a stadium that filled up from one derby match to the next. It was not an ordinary stadium. It was a stadium where Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was jeered at its opening, forcing him to leave a little while later. There had been trauma.

But that’s not the case anymore. I’m writing this at the stadium. A little ahead stands Aziz Babuşçu. He must be the happiest among the 50,000. He has kept his promise; he has put his organization to work and has succeeded in filling up a stadium for Turkish history’s biggest-ever party congress. He has proved that the AK Party is an organizational genius. The proof was there even seven days ago. For the first time, a rehearsal of the congress was done. Some 4,000 AK party members were scattered throughout the stadium as May 27 was rehearsed.

When you talk to party members, you understand why this is so. Hakan Koç first shouts from the stands and then approaches me. He says he enjoys reading columns in Radikal. “Why did you come then,” I joke. He answers, “We are such a party.” He is a member of the Pendik district organization. He is the head of the AK Party in the Ramazanoğlu neighborhood. He produces bathtubs, employing 30 people. They came as 3,000 people from Pendik with 83 buses, and he himself brought 45 people from his neighborhood. “Not much” he says. “If my district head had asked, I would have brought 120. If they say, ‘We need 200,000 people,’ we would again fill this place up.” I asked him how that was possible: “Our strongest feature is our local organizations. We have unity and brotherhood. One message arrives and everyone mobilizes for anybody else. We started preparing one month ago. The number [of participants] from Pendik was 1,700 at first. We asked for 3,000 people and we got it. We even took our friends from the CHP [Republican People’s Party] and brought them here.”

There are others who are not as optimistic as Mr. Koç. Sıddık Yılmaz, one of the founders of the Esenyurt district organization and a former administrator, was watching the congress with us from the VIP section. He criticized the party: “Of course they can fill up the stadium, so what? The municipalities, everybody worked for us. We put them on buses and brought them here. What else can the citizen do? But it won’t continue like that. We will lose. Because the AK Party emerged as the party of the people. Now, it has become Ankara’s party, or the party of the state.”

I asked him, “You say it is no longer the party of the people, but people are here. How come?” He said, “Do you think those participating here came of their own will? The stadium has a capacity of 52,000 people. A quarter of it is empty anyway; the space behind the stage is covered with curtains. Give it to [Şişli Mayor Mustafa] Sarıgül; he can fill up two stadiums with his Şişli district alone. But, look around, is there a Kurd here? Is there a person representing ‘the people?’ In the VIP section where you are sitting, is there a poor guy without teeth like me?” (He shows his toothless mouth.) I asked him why he came: “I was curious. I came to see how it was going to happen, how we were going to proceed. And, in the end, isn’t it a congress? It should be us doing the talking actually. But it’s not possible in a stadium like this.”

One of the founders of the party, Rukiye Karadoğan from Esenyurt, also had a seat in the VIP section. She complained that the congress was held in a stadium and that there was only one list. She also said that this was because of our “political culture.” “It would be so much better if two lists were competing. Then, we would be talking politics. When it’s done like this, politics are not discussed,” she said.

The arrangement of the venue is not for talks but to stage a show. It is very difficult for a delegate to approach the platform. It is so far away that when Aziz Babuşçu went to the podium, running, to deliver his speech, he could only reach his destination after 20 seconds. However, this should not go unnoticed: This is a congress that is managed like a perfectly running clock. If you leave aside the fact that it resembles the 1930s, then this congress is the pride of the AK Party. There were many references to the CHP congress also. One of the placards summed it up: “For some, the hall was too big, for the AK Party, the Arena was too small.”

The congress featured a provincial party organization that is almost sure to take Istanbul again. The importance of Istanbul for Erdoğan is already known. Erdoğan, who recited Necip Fazıl Kısakürek’s “Dear Istanbul” poem by heart, attacked the CHP again and said, “Those who were not able to fill a hall for their Istanbul Province Congress will be jealous of us, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”
He did not read the rest of the poem, especially the part in which the poet says, “[Istanbul’s] women are sharp as a knife, warm as fresh blood. Istanbul, Istanbul…” No one was very surprised that he did not after his recent proclamation on abortion.

Koray Çalışkan is a columnist for daily Radikal in which this piece appeared on May 28. It was translated into English by the Daily News staff.