TUNCELI, Turkey (Reuters) - Capitalism is too firmly entrenched in Turkey to be uprooted overnight, according to the country’s sole communist mayor, but small steps to create local jobs and promote cooperative farming can help nudge it along “the path to socialism”.
Fatih Macoglu, from the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP), took over as mayor of the central district of Tunceli this month after victory in March 31 local elections, which saw President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Islamist-rooted AK Party lose control of the capital Ankara and Turkey’s business hub, Istanbul.
In a country where politics have often been dominated by right-wing nationalist or Islamist parties and where the TKP won just 0.16 percent of the vote in the March polls, Macoglu’s victory has been a cause for celebration among Turkish leftists.
But then the eastern town of Tunceli, home to minorities such as the Kurds, Zazas and Alevis, has long been known for its leftist, secularist views and for bucking national trends.
The Turkish government removed Tunceli’s last elected mayor for suspected links to the outlawed militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and appointed a trustee who built walls around the town hall for security reasons.
The first thing Macoglu did after his election was to remove the walls, but he also knows he has to adapt his ideals to the tough economic and security conditions of provincial Turkey.
“When we went to people before elections, they had two problems. First, they did not want walls, bureaucracy between the people and the municipality. Second was the issue of unemployment,” he told Reuters at an interview in his office.
“As part of this world where capitalism, imperialism, fascism rule, this country is unable to work without them,” he said, striking a pragmatic tone that has earned him respect beyond far-leftist circles and also beyond Tunceli.
“Of course, we are not establishing communism. We want to clear the path to socialism that has been polluted by capitalism.”
Macoglu came to prominence five years ago when he was elected to run Tunceli’s Ovacik district. He paid off most of the municipality’s sizeable debt, provided free public transportation and opened up government land for agriculture.
Macoglu’s work in Ovacik has changed ordinary Turks’ views of communism, said Serife Ozdemir, 64, a retired teacher from nearby Malatya, one of many admirers from around Turkey to visit Tunceli to offer their congratulations to its new mayor.
“In the past, if two people fought, instead of swearing, one would yell, ‘communist, communist,’ and the other would feel offended,” she said.
Tunceli has always been a “socialist society”, said Serkan Sariates, 44, a bookstore owner who wears a beret with a red star, “because people here believe in fairness and equality”.
Pledging greater transparency, Macoglu has put up posters outside the town hall detailing municipal expenditure and income.
He aims to curb high unemployment - which he puts as high as 35 percent - by promoting tourism, cooperative farms and the construction of eco-friendly homes for rent. He also wants to slash the municipality’s heavy debt load within two years, repeating his success in Ovacik.
But not everyone in Tunceli is convinced he can succeed.
“The conditions are not suitable here,” said Firaz Tekol, a 24-year-old sociology student. “He’s going to have a hard time tackling all these problems.”
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Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Gareth Jones