(Reuters) – If Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is fighting the toughest battle of his political career as corruption allegations swirl and elections approach, Turkey’s conservative Anatolian heartlands appear to have his back.
Here, far from dividing his pious core supporters, the graft scandal and bitter power struggle with a U.S.-based cleric have served only to stir more devotion to a man they see as Turkey’s greatest modern leader, delivering hospitals and schools and breaking the grip of secular elites over the past decade.
The run-up to pivotal local elections on Sunday has been overshadowed by a corruption affair that has seen almost daily recordings published anonymously on social media claiming to show illicit dealings by Erdogan’s inner circle.
One senior official called the crisis “one of the biggest in Turkish history” and the government has responded by blocking Twitter and YouTube, drawing public anger and international condemnation.
But in Konya, a conservative city that gave Erdogan’s AK Party 70 percent of the vote in a 2011 general election, many see the scandal as the prime minister does: part of a “dirty plot” to unseat him by ruthless and immoral political enemies.
“Nothing but lies,” said 19-year-old Konya student Hatice Kubra, following the party line that U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally whose followers say they number in the millions, was responsible.
“Allah sees everything. Allah knows what Hoca (teacher) Fethullah is doing,” she said at an AK Party rally on Friday.
“A flock of swines that stormed our spiritual gardens,” read one banner, referring to Gulen and his followers.
Tens of thousands turned out for the rally, turning Konya into a sea of AK Party flags and colourful Muslim headscarves. Some wore masks of Erdogan’s face, while old men scaled trees for a sight of their hero, only to be bitterly disappointed when he cancelled after orders to rest his voice…