Turks unruffled about lira and the EU

KAYSERI, Turkey – Like many in this prosperous, conservative city, businessman Adem Ozcan Gundogdu is sure Turkey will weather the turbulence rocking its economy, resolve the tension between secularists and Islamists and stay the course to European Union membership. «This is not the old Turkey. We saw many crises in the past, but I am more optimistic now. People are wiser, more tolerant,» said Gundogdu, general manager of cable producer Hes. His optimism is widely shared in Kayseri, about 350 km southeast of the capital Ankara in central Anatolia. The industrial powerhouse of nearly a million people is famed in Turkey for its traditions of self-help and thrift and also for a conservative, religious outlook that has made it a bastion of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party. «I am not myself an AKP supporter but you have to give them credit. They lopped six zeroes off the lira and cut inflation to single digits. Nobody thought that possible,» said Gundogdu, whose company exports cables to 95 countries. The mood of confidence contrasts sharply with the sense of anxiety in Ankara generated by a 20-percent fall in the lira in recent weeks, big rises in interest rates, growing political tension and fears of a looming clash with the EU over Cyprus. Kayseri’s AKP mayor, Mehmet Ozhaseki, said that even the lira’s fall had given a boost to his city’s many exporters because it made Turkish products more competitive overseas. »Some people are happy with the depreciation,» he said. »Of course we watch the market volatility closely, but people do not believe there will be a real crisis.» Kayseri is home to many big manufacturers, such as furniture makers Bellona and Istikbal and clothing firm Mavi Jeans. Ozhaseki said unemployment in Kayseri, at about 6 percent, was half the national average and noted as many as 200 new factories were under construction in the city. Support for the AKP is holding firm and it remains well ahead of its rivals, Kayseri’s mayor quoted local opinion surveys as showing. Nationwide, too, the center-right AKP, with Islamist roots, is tipped to win the next general election, due by November 2007. Ozhaseki said some issues that caused heated debate among the political elite and the media in Ankara and Istanbul had little resonance in the provinces. «My wife, for example, is a lawyer and wears a headscarf. My daughter, who is a pharmacist, does not. We have no problems with this. It is normal,» he said. The AKP has tried to ease Turkey’s strict ban on the Muslim headscarf in public offices and universities but has faced fierce resistance from secularists who dominate the country’s military, academic and judicial establishment. In Kayseri’s Ottoman-era bazaar, tradesmen expressed strong backing for the AKP’s mix of Muslim piety and pro-market economic policies and were critical of what they see as an unrepresentative, secularist elite in Ankara.