The Turkish elections, as seen from a campaign van


A campaign van from Turkey's July 2007 legislative elections.


Hocine Zaourar

ISTANBUL, Turkey — “Do you have such customs in your country?” a campaign volunteer asked as a booming beat came looming closer. Not really, I had to admit, though every place has its own election traditions.

In Istanbul, one of the most conspicuous clues that a vote is at hand are the campaign vans — hundreds of them — plying the city streets, hazard lights flashing and hugging right, decked out in party colors, plastered with images of shiny, hopeful candidates, and rigged with rooftop sound systems so overdriven that for weeks on end, anthems and propaganda float in and out of earshot, past windows and down the street, as if somebody is drunk at the dials of a big political radio in the sky.

With high-stakes municipal elections in Turkey just days away, the campaigns are in home-stretch high gear.

As the van stopped outside a local campaign office, I pulled myself up into the front seat and met Mahmut, the driver, who’d agreed to let me ride along at the request of the campaign workers I’d met.

“I’m going to have a tough time concentrating on driving if you’re going to be using that,” Mahmut said, wary of my recording gear. He was a small man behind a big wheel, polite and conscientious, with receding spiky hair, and wearing a brown suit. As he turned onto Baghdad Avenue — home to revving engines and chic shops — I learned Mahmut was 55, a father of four, and retired from a job as an automobile painter in a municipal garage. He now hires out his 2006 Renault Master van, usually to tour groups. But this month, he’s driving for the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s main opposition.

Mustafa Sarigul (C), the Republican Peoples Partys (CHP) candidate for the Istanbul city hall, and Aylin Kotil (R), Beyoglu district candidate, attend a campaign rally in Istanbul. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

Some pedestrians waved at Mahmut’s loud, slow-rolling campaign ad. Others smiled, but most simply watched. Turkish elections are fierce. Twenty-six parties are fielding candidates. Voter turnout averages 85 percent. Fleets of campaign vans like Mahmut’s drive all day for a month — and here gasoline costs over $8 a gallon. Banners cover buildings and some streets corners get shade under canopies of crisscrossing party streamers.

The lead-up to Sunday’s vote has been unusually intense. Campaign offices and staff have been attacked, and two people killed. It will be the first poll since the Gezi Park protests began last spring and since prosecutors revealed an investigation of alleged corruption among people close to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Tapped phone conversations, allegedly featuring the prime minister and purported to be evidence of his corruption, are regularly posted on YouTube — anonymously. Incredible rumors swirl about what skeletons will be revealed in this last week of the campaign. Erdogan says it’s all a conspiracy led by Fethullah Gulen, a US-based religious leader, and Gulen’s alleged followers in the police forces and courts. In response, Erdogan’s government has fired or transferred huge numbers of policemen and prosecutors, and blocked Twitter and YouTube.

Erdogan says critics should protest him at the ballot box, helping elevate Sunday’s election — in which he is not running — to a referendum on him.

However, it can’t all be about Erdogan.

“We don’t have an election, we have elections in the plural,” Ersin Kalaycıoglu, a Sabancı University political scientist studying Turkish electoral politics, explained at his office at the Istanbul Policy Center.

In the most local contests (for "muhtar," or the neighborhood headman or headwoman) personality and family ties trump party politics. And in votes for village mayors, grassroots party politics still contend with sectarian ties and kinship, Kalaycıoglu explained.

It’s in Turkey’s thirty big urban centers, where people tend to vote according to party, ideology, cultural identity, and economic satisfaction, that Erdogan’s national support will be measured, Kalaycıoglu said.

The key race for mayor of Istanbul is clear-cut.

“In Istanbul, this is not going to be a local election at all. It’s a plebiscite on the prime minister and [his] party,” Kalaycıoglu said. The economy, corruption allegations, protests, and the state of urban Istanbul will all matter. The vote here will test the AKP’s viability, setting the stage for presidential elections in August and general elections before summer 2015.

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An aerial view of Istanbul(David Cannon/Getty Images)

“Do you know this neighborhood?” Mahmut asked, circling a roundabout. Further along, he pointed out his home down a side street.

Fikirtepe is one of Istanbul’s oldest "gecekondu," or shantytowns. Anatolian migrants first built these neighborhoods, without permission or proper materials, back in the middle of the 20th century. Mahmut’s father moved the family here from Corum, in northern Turkey, in the 1960s.

“This whole area is going to be demolished,” Mahmut said, as we skirted huge lots already levelled to fields of rubble. Built-up over three generations, "gecekondu" across Istanbul are being redeveloped. Mahmut will get the equivalent of nearly $500 a month for up to 36 months for rent elsewhere during reconstruction. The government says such efforts strengthen the city against future earthquakes. Mahmut thought it unnecessary. Critics say rebuilding the "gecekondu" raises property values and rents, pricing residents out of their rebuilt homes, and creating vacancies for the better-heeled.

Construction is controversial here. The Gezi Park protests started over a development project. Many recent corruption allegations involve construction. A third bridge over the Bosphorus Strait and a new airport are being built, though neither project was included in Istanbul’s 2009 Master Plan — they were instead implemented by the prime minister.

But the government is betting that construction wins votes. The AKP’s key campaign slogan in Istanbul boldly declares: "We have a lot more work to do!" The slogan often appears with pictures of Istanbul AKP mayor Kadir Topbas in a hard hat.

A picture showing Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) and Istanbul mayor Kadir Topbas (L) and the minarets of a mosque is pictured in Istanbul on March 21, 2014. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

Along Fikirtepe’s main street, one enthusiastic thumbs-down for Mahmut’s CHP van stood out among the sober stares. Mid-afternoon, Mahmut ate lunch at his local café — a spare, low room decorated with a large Turkish flag and a few clocks and calendars. Men crowded circular tables playing "okey" (a type of rummy), slapping tiles onto the blue tablecloths.

“Some people here vote for the government, some not,” Mahmut said. Is there ever political conflict among the men here? I asked over tea. “Impossible. We’ve all known each other for forty years.”

Later, as Mahmut idled curbside, an approaching AKP campaign van slowed, its driver spotting Mahmut’s CHP van. Mahmut hopped out, crossed the road, and the two drivers — old friends — embraced. A passerby shouted out a joke. The AKP driver laughed as he pulled away, yelling back: “We’re just drivers!”

It’s a remarkable attitude to witness in a city that two weeks ago was ablaze with anti-Erdogan protests, and where there are considerable worries about vote rigging this weekend, according to Kalaycıoglu.

From Mahmut’s rooftop speakers rang the opening chords of “Eyvallah” by Turkish rock band Duman, released last year just as the Gezi Park protests were building. “To your tear gas, to your billy clubs and sticks, to your well-struck kicks: So be it … I still say I’m free, I still say I’m a human …”

The song would find a place on any album of Gezi Park protest anthems. Arguably, of the four parties in the Turkish parliament, the CHP was closest in “spirit” to the Gezi Park protests — CHP politicians and party members, young and old, participated. But it is ironic, and perhaps even an indictment of Turkish politics, that the young, diverse, and novel mantle of Gezi has been taken on by Turkey’s oldest party, which critics call ossified. (Other smaller parties — many with serious differences — have also sought to identify themselves with the protests.)

Stopped at an intersection, Mahmut looked up under a flutter of overhead campaign streamers, strung between balustrades, drain pipes, and light posts. “Maybe if they got together, they might have a better chance, but on their own, never,” he said. Indeed, Istanbul’s close race will come down to which way the vote splits.

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A Turkish boy walks under electoral flags in a street of Istanbul, ten days ahead of Turkish local elections. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

Of all the tunes blaring from Mahmut's van, only one got him tapping the steering wheel: Selda Bagcan’s “Yuh! Yuh!” from 1977.

“This used to be sung at all the protests in the old days,” Mahmut told me as he sang along to the infectious groove. “Boo to the robbers feeling full after their get-away; to those pitiless, sinners-of-the flesh, Boo!”

By election day, Mahmut will have worked 28 consecutive, nine-hour days chauffeuring a soundtrack around Istanbul.

After he parked his van and locked its doors for the night, its speakers finally silenced, he exhaled. “My head is stuffed,” he said.

As one chapter comes to a close with Sunday’s vote, and another — likely just as intense — begins Monday, many people in Turkey will no doubt share Mahmut’s feelings.