In one week in Turkey I’ve heard two distinctly opposing opinions about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – those who love him so much they chant his name in restaurants, and those who think he’s destroying their precious country.
I arrived in İstanbul after what I was told was a particularly violent night, when Turks protesting the planned demolition of the city’s Gezi Park clashed with police for 12 hours.
Within hours I was having Turkish coffee with the owner of several restaurants off Taksim Square, the scene of nearly month-long protests. Hakan, 28, was clearly on the government’s side.
He said the first two days of protests, which began on May 27, were about protecting the park, but after that people with a beef about anything – tax rates, education, whatever – joined the mob and trashed the area.
Hakan said at this time of year, a peak tourist season, he would normally seat 80 people a day. For the past three weeks he said he was lucky to get 20 people a day in his restaurant. (I was offered coffee in exchange for sitting outside to entice more people in.)
He gave me a figure I’d seen boasted by Erdoğan’s AK Party (Justice and Development Party) – that the government has been responsible for the planting of three million trees. To Hakan, there were plenty of trees in İstanbul.
But finding green space in İstanbul is not easy. The city’s population has grown from about 10 million in 2000 to almost 14 million. Concrete is abundant but shade is less so.
Standing next to the vast, grey Taksim Square, Gezi Park offers a cool oasis in the mega-city and it’s easy to see why residents would want to protect it.
But the protests became about more than a park when police used water cannon and tear gas to try to disperse protestors nearly four weeks ago.
The government’s attitude towards its constituents became the issue, and many Turks have happily shared their opinions about their Prime Minister with me.
I met Fuat when I was standing at Taksim Square watching the then-silent and motionless protesters – a man had walked into the square and stood motionless facing a giant portrait of the founder of the nation, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and others followed suit.
”This government is really rubbish. It’s a police state. Where else in the world do you see this? This government is no good,” Fuat said.
He said Erdoğan was using religion to stir people up and win support ahead of next year’s election. While Fuat is Muslim, like the Prime Minister, he said their religions were not the same.
Fuat tells me his favourite Turkish leader is Atatürk. The love for Atatürk, who established Turkey as a secular, democratic republic in 1923, is widespread and genuine. And there is concern Edoğan’s government is moving the country away from these central tenets.
On Friday night a real estate agent from Ankara, the country’s capital, invited me for a beer off İstanbul’s famous and funky İstiklal Avenue.
The streets were full of diners and drinkers, and suddenly a chant went up that most people around me joined, except my companion, Nihat.
He told me they were chanting in support of Erdoğan. When people clapped, whistled and chanted for their Prime Minister again an hour later, 27-year-old Nihat looked down at the table and shook his head.
I asked if he would join in. He looked at me and shook his head. ”No, I don’t like him.”
The following night I was at the square when protests kicked off again, this time in solidarity with those who had been killed in the past three weeks. As I left the city on a night bus the police were again using water cannon against the protestors, many of who appeared to be middle-aged.
Nihat’s muted opposition to the government was not matched by the 53-year-old man at reception at my next hostel.
After telling him I had arrived from Istanbul, he launched into a tirade.
He proudly told me Turkey wasn’t like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and their neighbours. Turks were not forced into religion, he said. He fears Erdoğan is blurring the country’s secular lines.
Or, as he put it: ”This government is fucked.”