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Erdogan has won Turkey’s first presidential elections. But what is the future for Turkey with Erdogan as the nation’s leader, and what do these elections signify?

Anatomy of a ruling party

Trying to explain the AKP’s continued support in Turkey’s local and parliamentary politics might seem like a hopeless task, seeing as how the normal elements of democracy which are supposed to be a pre-requisite for genuine elections have long been absent or deficient. Namely, an independent media and judiciary, and autonomous regulating bodies. Media black-outs became nearly habitual during the Gezi protests, and corruption allegations were effectively suppressed, with the prosecutors pursuing the cases swiftly replaced along with thousands of police officers supposedly involved in telephone tapping.

Despite everything, AKP voters still have two ostensible reasons to support the government. One is the economic growth the AKP brought to Turkey between 2002 and 2013 (with GDP around 5%). And yet this growth was never really healthy or sustainable. One in five people in Turkey live below the poverty line (meaning their income is less than half of the country’s median), and this has not significantly changed since 2001. The income share of the lowest 20% even decreased from 5.6% in 2002 to 5.5% in 2012.

Besides, it is no secret that especially during the last 5 years, this economic growth was supported by international loans to the private sector. Loans to Turkey’s private sector have more than quadrupled since 2008, even though the country’s real GDP only increased by approximately a third (and a good portion of that GDP increase was driven by debt). Today, a growing credit bubble combined with a large national deficit is causing alarm in the new era of fiscal tapering.

One should also note that private holding companies as well as small businesses, just like the media and judiciary, now operate under close monitoring and sometimes with strict orders from the state. Businesses are expected to show their loyalties to the government and the prime minister. Political favour has become the pre-condition for doing business with governmental institutions. Furthermore, any act which might be considered ‘anti-government’has become a covert reason for huge penalties against the offending companies or holdings as in the Koc Holding case[1]or the Besiktas football club case[2].Not seeing any possibility of a change of government in the near future, most business owners therefore stick close to the AKP network.

Centre-periphery relations

On the other hand, the majority of people who support the AKP have a non-economic bond which might be stronger than this economic one. It might be called a feeling of cultural identification. What lies beneath this solid bond is a centre-periphery polarization which has characterised the whole of modern Turkey’s history, and even existed in the days of the Ottoman empire. This has been reflected in every election result since the start of the multi-party system in 1946. The recent local elections were no exception. In his seminal article ‘Center-Periphery Relations: A Key to Turkish Politics?’ (1973),  sociologist and political scientist Şerif Mardin characterised republicians as advocates of centralised power who came to form a bureaucratic class with almost no identification with the periphery, namely the peasants of Anatolia. The idea of mobilising the peasantry, thoroughly discussed and implemented in Russia and China, was never seriously considered by these elites, who inherited the mantle of ‘Young Turks’[3]from pre-republician times. As a result, a counter-elitist, counter-bureaucracy, rural mass remained open to a populist, anti-democratic, authoritarian direction.

Apparently flipping this relationship between centre/periphery and republican democracy/authoritarian populism, today the bureaucratic centre of the state is occupied by the AKP. However, the tradition of the 1950’s Democratic Party (DP) in opposing the ‘delegitimisation of İslam and traditional rural values’ has remained key to how the AKP established its solid base. The DP, the first significant anti-republican opposition party, and its leader Adnan Menderes, have long been considered a role model by Erdoğan. Having made a habit of referring to Menderes’execution by the military junta in 1961, HisErdoğan’s catchphrase – ‘to hit the road with a shroud in one hand’- has become almost synonymous with Menderes’political life. More recently when another religious cloth, the headscarf, marked the start of Erdoğan’s rise to power in the early 2000s, it also indicated a new era in which the question of how to approach Islam has been an important debate.  As a tangible implication of this, the lifting of the anti-scarf ban[4] emerged as an issue of major political significance and controversy. This certainly spurred the peripheries to identify with the AKP, feeling their identity threatened by the CHP (Republican Party) whose disavowal of the ban in 2010 was never seen as genuine.

Islam and anticapitalism

Today, the main opposition movements both in Kurdish politics and the Turkish left, are engaged in ongoing debates about the role of Islam, with a focus on either anti-capitalism or democracy. It was not long ago that PKK Leader Abdullah Öcalan called for a ‘Democratic İslam Congress’in Diyarbakır. Just two months ago, BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) together with the Democratic Society Congress, organized their first mass celebrations of the Holy Birth Week (marking the birth of the Prophet Muhammad).

At the same time, anti-capitalist muslims who have become visible in many mass protests have triggered debates in the academic circles, and during the Gezi movement established a new relationship with the Left.

These new movements also situate themselves differently within Islamic discourse itself. While certain representatives of the anti-capitalist muslims define Islam as a revolutionary, communist movement, the Kurdish leader Öcalan, reads Islam as a history of political struggle and makes a distinction between the Islam of the state and the Islam of the people (especially of oppressed peoples). Öcalan claims that the ruling-class Arabi and Salafi movements have damaged the Islamic culture of the people, which is symbolized by Ali, Selahaddin Eyyubi and Huseyni.

The legacy of ’68

The oppositions of ‘people versus official elites’or ‘center versus periphery’have provided a useful way for comparing the political movements in Turkey today with those of the past. Whereas the Kurdish political movement established bonds with the rural and urban masses via a cultural and political identity oppressed by the state, for the CHP, and likewise for all the socialist parties, a solid link with the periphery was harder to forge. It was during the period between two military coups of 1960 and 1971 that Turkey’s socialists built strong links with the rural masses, first with TİP (Workers Party of Turkey) getting into parliament with its symbol of Çark-Başak, (Çark – the wheel of a machine, Başak – an ear of grain). Their main slogan was ‘Land to the peasants, Jobs for all’, and it was a harbinger of a new global revolutionary era.

Founded in 1967 as an alternative trade union confederation under the leadership of some of the TİP members, the DİSK (Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey)mobilised the working class. In rural areas, parallel to these students and workers’ mobilisations, the discontent of poor peasants translated into massive protests. It’s worth noting that when the Gezi Park camp was brutally dispersed by the police, it was the commemoration day of 15th June 1970, the day when hundreds of thousands of workers had taken to the streets of Istanbul. In that year, for the first time in the history of Turkey, certain sections of the rural poor, specifically small export farmers –i.e. those less dependant on the state – took part in mobilisations alongside workers, the likes of which have never been witnessed since.

Certainly there are differences as much as similarities comparing this period half a decade ago and today’s political arena. The AKP has no other rightwing party to share its votes with. Nor is it flanked by an army that could depose it in a military coup. Also importantly, Erdoğan’s personal style of doing politics is much more authoritarian; he aims to shape the ideal citizen as well as the ideal comrade. And so, while he prepares himself for the presidency over the next week, his critical task is in fact to find a proper candidate to run as ‘a puppet prime minister’.

This will be the first time in Turkish history that the president will be chosen by public vote, rather than a parliamentary majority. Based on this, Erdoğan claims that there is no need for a constitutional change; the present constitution, created under the leadership of the 1980’s junta, already authorizes the president to use ‘force majeure’rights when ‘necessary’. Ironically, this comes at a time when a significant portionof the population is clamouring for greater democracy and decentralization of power.

The contradictions between people’s demands and high politics can lead to major ruptures in today’s world. All kinds of unlikely or unexpected events can expose this rupture. The Soma disaster, or the destruction of Gezi park, reveal the void that parliamentary democracy and neoliberal capitalism have failed to fill. Soma, a small town of 100,000 people where 43% of the population voted for the AKP candidate in the mayoral election just a month ago, lost 301 miners in the biggest industrial ‘accident’in Turkey’s history in May. Workplace control and audit mechanisms, as with the state itself, had been thoroughly corrupted, allowed to go to pieces by business owners who follow the interests of the government. It came as no surprise that the owner was an AKP delegatea member of the state protocol in the town, and the spose of General Manager who had also worked in the company was an AKP delegate.

The AKP walks hand in hand with employers in exploiting labour. And yet the party claim that they are on the side of the poor. That claim literallyfell to pieces in Soma when the Prime Minister’s visit to the town ended with police chasing and kicking people in order to stop them protesting.

Democracy: A tool for peace and freedom?

Today, after the anniversary of the Gezi resistance and the patchy record of the‘Peace Process’, there is still a huge demand for peace and freedom from the masses. Freedom, as defined by Rousseau, is a feeling most experienced when man acts in collaboration with his equals in search for the common good; and peace, not as an armistice arising out of deadlock, but a joy of living together without hatred. So when Erdoğan said that‘democracy is a tool not an aim’in his controversial party speech more than a decade ago, he was unintentionally correct in the sense that democracy might be considered  an instrument for peace and freedom. Today, he seems to have changed his position regarding the instrumentality of democracy. Now the elections are his main aim, which, according to his logic, we should interpret as ‘an instrument of an instrument’.

Now Turkey is approaching a crucial presidential election to be held this weekend amid increased uncertainities regarding the Kurdish issue. Can a permanent peace be settled or is it naive to expect Erdogan to play the role of peacemaker? This will be the subject of the 3rd and final part in the series.


[1] Divan Hotel, an hotel next to Gezi Park which belongs to Koc Holding, hosted the injured people for a first aid support in their lobby, after the police attack in Gezi Park especially on 15th June and 16th June nights. Erdogan, explicitely blamed Koc group, being pro-Gezi and one month after, a widespread tax audit is started against the group companies, resulting in a historically heighest tax penalty, which is now erased after Koc Group president ensured they did not intend any anti-government campaign.

[2] Carsı group which is the main Besiktas football club fan group in the centeral district of Istanbul, had involved in the protests actively and had attracted the sympaties of all groups being very dynamic, humourous, and cheering up.  Besiktas club president was forced to condemn the involvement of Carsı group in Gezi by Erdogan’s one of top advisor. In a recorded telephone tapping, a sportsman conveys Besiktas president Fikret Orman’s apologies to Prime Minister via his advisor. The construction of the stadium is delayed after the incident.

[3]The Young Turkswere a nationalist reform party in the early 20th century against the absolute monarchy of the Ottoman Empire and Sultan Abdulhamid. Officially known as the Committee of Union and (CUP; Turkish:İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti),with 1908 revolution they helped to establish the Second Constitutional, based on the ideas of the positivism, centralised government and Turkish nationalism.

[4] Until recently scarves were banned in civic spaces and official buildings in Turkey. By constitutional changes, headscarves that were tied loosely under the chin are allowed in the universities in 2008, and in the country’s state institutions – with the exception of the judiciary, military and police- in October 2013.

Volkan Aran

Volkan Aran is a freelance writer, engineer and political activist living in London. His writings have been published regularly by Cumhuriyet Pazar Dergi and Mesele in Turkey. Together with a group of journalists, writers and academicians, he recently set up the online magazine, baskisiz.org

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