Questions and bitter truths in a hazy post-election landscape
As the dust began to settle in the early hours of the morning after Sunday’s Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections, supporters of the victorious incumbent government were ecstatic, while the opposition remained in a state of shock.
It has not sunk in yet, but what those who stand against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) experienced that night was a deep trauma.
I have often discussed the difference between journalists and politicians. A politician prepares his plan of action, lists his promises to the electorate, trades on voters’ dreams, and accentuates their own positives while disparaging their rivals. They split the world into two images, one pitch black, the other rosy pink.
The role of journalists is quite different: their job is to create as realistic an image of the facts as they can capture and, whether they like that image or not, share it with the public.
So, I have always offered the same advice to my journalist friends who write not in a style befitting their occupation, but in that of a politician: go into politics. I have seen all too many times how those who see journalism as political pioneering can sully the profession and voluntarily sow confusion.
There is little love for those among us who work hard to understand and explain the facts. It is not that there is a desire to dampen people’s joy, but being realistic and being pessimistic are one and the same. So, those who hold a mirror to reality are unloved. Yet theirs is the most sacred of jobs.
But let us move on to a brief analysis of the scene from Monday through a series of questions.
- What do the results show?
Firstly, Erdoğan’s success at reading the political landscape and relations between state and citizenry, and his prowess at locking on to his target has been confrimed once more. An analysis of the elections would do well to start with these points.
As Ahval’s editorial before the election pointed out, Erdoğan had reached the final act in a play that has carried him, step by step, towards one-man rule, a process some say started with his victory in the 2011 general elections, others with the Gezi Park protests of 2013.
He had staked everything on the race, and to many it seemed impossible that he could cross the finishing line. Those who did not see his political acumen belittled Erdoğan, interpreting his dull performances during the electoral campaign as signs of collapse.
However, the “People’s Alliance” Erdoğan established with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the timing of the elections deserved much more serious thought than they were given.
Even agitation voiced from within the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) by deputies Selin Sayek Böke and İlhan Cihaner on the abnormal electoral conditions, even the AKP-friendly reforms of the Supreme Electoral Council and the (enforced) sale of Turkey's last non-partisan mainstream media company, Doğan Media Group, were not correctly interpreted.
In the end, it was Erdoğan yet again who masterfully guided the course of events.
- After allegations of cheating, were the results legitimate?
The results seem impossible to dispute, given the lack of transparency. This is demonstrated by the fact that the opposition’s leading presidential candidate, Muharrem İnce, quickly accepted the results after proving himself to be a dangerous opponent to Erdoğan in the election run-up. Specialists on the elections have told me the maximum impact cheating could have on the result was a one to two percent difference.
- What of the great disappointment in the main opposition party?
This is an important question.
The cultural expansionism of religious conservatives witnessed by secularist, Western-facing Turks, crony corruption, and the practices befitting a police state under ongoing emergency rule, have turned Turkey into a pressure cooker. All of this has bred weariness, which was carried to the streets with the aid of İnce’s charisma.
But this was not widely reflected in Turkey’s mostly government-controlled television channels, for there is no longer any fair and pluralistic debate in the country. At this point, the opposition’s extreme excitement around the elections stemmed disproportionately from intense traffic from their own circles on social media sites.
The lion’s share of the responsibility for their disappointment lies with those daydreaming “opinion leaders” who saw themselves not as sober-headed journalists, but as opposition politicians devoted to agitating the masses.
They made no effort to understand the other side of things, to delve into questions of why the silent conservative majority was really as subdued as it appeared, and why, and of what was going with the MHP.
As a result, it seems their expectations from the masses were transformed into a belief that Erdoğan’s defeat was a foregone conclusion. This rash action was not journalism, and in the end it provoked distress and rage among voters.
- Did opinion polls play a role in this disappointment?
What is clear is that this time polling in Turkey had a distinctly “alla Turca” flavour. We witnessed research with murky methodology conducted by companies with organic or official business ties to political parties, which presented their findings, without transparency, as independent.
Some of these polling companies’ directors appeared on television in the weeks leading up to the elections to pontificate like party representatives and make baseless predictions.
The few honest companies warned that voters on both sides concealed their true intentions from pollsters, and this showed when the votes were tallied.
- What did the left-wing opinion leaders not understand?
For one thing, they did not see that the average Turkish voter, far from being the pure and simple Anatolian of the stereotype, always acts out of self-interest, calculating what support and benefits can be gained from the state.
Secondly, the fact that Erdoğan has continuously strengthened the deeply rooted patriarchal tradition in Turkish political culture.
Erdoğan’s persistent and tenacious use of a Sunni Islamic nationalist discourse brought a great part of this societal segment towards invitations to fascism and approval of the one-man system.
The economic downturn has only been in play for months, so its real impact will only truly be felt by citizens in the middle of 2019, and the crisis did not influence the June 24 elections as many imagined it would.
They did not understand these realities, and chose instead to mislead and be misled by the tired political templates of yesteryear. And the chance that things will continue in this way is all too high, because the same arrogance is also a feature of the Islamist and nationalist parts of society.
- How to read the elections’ high (87 percent) voter turnout?
The opposition indeed managed to mobilise for the ballot, but the real question was whether the AKP-MHP alliance would be able to do the same for the silent portion of their voters. On June 24, that is what they did, just as they had in the last general election in November 2015. It was clear.
Is it true that with Erdoğan’s victory the regime has now fully changed?
Definitely. Say what you like, that is how it is. Erdoğan has reached his objective. In actual fact, his aims had already been achieved, but the results of this election formalised it. Turkey is now a Central Asian republic devoid of state equilibrium, controls and separation of powers, with a judiciary that is biased and tied to the government, its media is in fetters, its parliament non-functional, its opposition crippled.
- What of the demands to lift the state of emergency?
The regime ushered in with the elections is no different to emergency rule; demands one way or the other will make no difference. Can the president pass executive decrees as and when he likes? He can. Has he secured a majority in parliament? He has. In these circumstances, there is very little difference whether the state of emergency is lifted or not. We are left with a system of legitimised arbitrary government.
- If the opposition has been paralysed, how did the HDP pass the 10 percent electoral threshold and reach parliament?
What we are seeing is a Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) that has been isolated precisely because it offers the most consistent opposition. Anyone who thinks that the pro-Kurdish party will be able to effectively oppose the government and get results when around two thirds of the votes went to nationalist parties that embrace anti-Kurdish fascism is living in a dream world. The only action it will be permitted to perform in a parliament that has become a kind of “appreciation bureau” for the presidency is a few minutes of criticism and complaint at the rostrum.
- To what extent can the CHP and HDP grow closer?
Since the old-style statist CHP deputies rushed to snatch up the party’s seat in parliament in these “ambush” snap elections, we will believe such an alliance is forming when we see it. In other words, anyone who supposes a new wind is blowing in Ankara politics is kidding themselves.
- Did Turkey slide considerably towards the right on June 24?
Without a doubt. This has been a long, continual process, starting with the Gezi Park protests of 2013, then continuing with the corruption investigations into AKP ministers in December that year which marked the beginning of open conflict between the ruling party and the Gülen movement. Then, in 2014, Erdoğan became the first publicly elected president.
The AKP’s poor performance and loss of a parliamentary majority in elections in June 2015 brought the Kurdish peace process crashing to a halt, followed by the party’s change of direction towards a brand of nationalism closer to the MHP’s in the snap elections of November that year.
The bloody failed July 2016 coup led to the April 16 constitutional referendum, held like Sunday’s elections under a state of emergency, in which Turks narrowly voted for the shift to an executive presidency.
And at the end of that process, Erdoğan’s designs brought together, under a “super-presidency,” the two main arteries of Turkish nationalism – the Islamist nationalist “National Outlook” of the AKP’s tradition, and the MHP’s ultranationalist “Idealism.”
It is this combination that now dominates state institutions. This is the persistent form of the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis,” a blend of nationalism and Sunni Muslim religious conservatism encouraged by the right-wing junta that carried out the 1980 coup, after which it bolstered religion in state institutions as a counterweight to the left.
Since the CHP leans too far towards the West, there is no place for that party in this structure. However, this is known to be a state-centric party which can only generate a level of opposition deemed as acceptable, and which still extols a parliament that has been rendered dysfunctional.
In fact, this is the ideal outcome for Erdoğan and his cadre. Absolute authority now rests in the presidential palace, while his party and its allies still enjoy a majority in parliament.
More significant is the HDP’s entry into parliament. This means that its energy has been dissipated through 67 seats in parliament, and a potential and real “threat to government” has been removed.
Kurdish representation is undoubtedly important, but there is a great difference between functional and token representation. We will soon learn whether the HDP is aware of this difference.
- The reality is very bleak, so what should the opposition do?
Having presented my image of the situation, our role as journalists ends here. Others may paint a different picture, and I have full respect for them. But from here on, it is the turn of the opposition to obtain power through democratic means. We are journalists, they are the politicians.
Personally, the two areas I will watch most closely are whether Turkish women will set up a dedicated women’s political party, and whether the CHP is able to rejuvenate itself with fresh blood.
One thing appears clear after all these observations: until the CHP remains modernises and rids itself of the old strains of politics that is holding it hostage, the opposition in Turkey will be unable to unshackle itself and democratise, and no reasonable political balance will be achieved.