How can Turkey’s opposition win Istanbul?
Turkey has managed to fit five elections into the past four years. On June 23, 2019, residents of the country’s largest city will go to the polls for a sixth time. A generation that all-too-often has said it is tired of bearing witness to history will once more take the witness stand and vote on the future of Turkey’s democracy.
Still, there is some truth in the conventional view that this vote will be different from those that came before. The June 2015 elections ended the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002. Still the powers that be, allied with the nationalist opposition and a trigger-happy Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), managed to nullify that vote and recover its lost parliamentary seats five months later.
The constitutional referendum of 2017 paved the way for a presidential-style executive regime, and with the June 2018 vote, the parliament virtually abolished itself.
Turkey’s March 31 local elections ended AKP hegemony over major municipalities, including the country’s economic power house Istanbul, at least temporarily. The opposition’s victory in the Istanbul mayoral race rekindled belief in democracy among Turkish citizens, breathing new life into the silent majorities who had grown tired of government repression.
Prompted by an almost existential fear of losing control, the hegemon once more interfered in the political process and decided that the Istanbul elections should be re-run. This was tantamount to jettisoning its rhetoric of “the national will” and crossing the red lines President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had drawn himself. He did not care; the price to pay was too great.
There is no point in a dwelling too much on how we got here. Now is the time for action.
So let us reiterate the question Lenin posed in 1902: What is to be done?
Before delving into our action plan, a few reminders:
- Turkey is an autocracy, a one-man regime. We should stop acting as if there is even a semblance of democracy and give up describing the current situation with flashy political science terms like “competitive authoritarianism.” Whatever epithet one might use to describe a regime that disregards the rule of law and overturns election results, one should avoid the word “democracy”.
- A majority of voters still support this autocracy. Sure, the election process is not fair, and results are tampered with. Particularly in regions with a high percentage of Kurdish voters, all sorts of election fraud occurs in order to secure victory for the AKP. Still, over 50 percent of voters across Turkey, meaning around 23 million people, support the AKP’s nationalist coalition. Overall, the AKP took 44 percent of the vote, 14 percent ahead of the second highest share.
- The hegemonic political culture, ideology, and sociological structures work to the advantage of the regime. By this I am not referring to the classic right-left divide, or the oft-quoted dictum that “70 percent of the Turkish electorate is on the political right.” It is known that a large majority of voters hold conservative nationalist values, and prefer stability and safety to freedom, equality, and social justice. Add to this the pervasive aversion to minorities, the advantages of being in power for 17 years, and the ample possibilities for indoctrination, and it is clear how difficult the road ahead will be for those who want democracy.
- Global political momentum also favours the ruling coalition. Established western democracies have been taken over by far-right movements, amid a nationalist, anti-immigrant, isolationist style of politics. Countries that openly reject liberal democracy, such as Hungary and Poland, are members of the European Union (EU). The United States is led by a demagogue who believes in the supremacy of a white Anglo-Saxon, Protestant majority. A party that was established a few weeks ago in Britain is topping the polls ahead of the forthcoming European Parliament elections. In short, we live in an era of populists, nationalists, and autocrats.
Keeping all this in mind, here is what Turkey’s opposition should do:
- Boycotting the elections is not an option. Unless all parties take part in the boycott, no good can come from refusing to vote. The calls for boycotting to avoid conferring legitimacy on the government are an exercise in futility. The government is not democratically legitimate anyway. By overturning the elections, it clearly proved that it does not care for democracy. No matter what the results may be, everyone should go to the polls.
- Since the local elections have been transformed into a personal referendum, those who are dissatisfied with the trajectory of the country and want democracy need to think strategically and agree on a single candidate. This candidate should of course be the CHP’s Ekrem Imamoğlu, who defeated the AKP on March 31 thanks to a clever, all-inclusive campaign.
- Ideological polarisation must be set aside to thwart AKP efforts to divide the opposition, which needs to move beyond the past and look toward the future.
- It is clear the AKP will do everything in its power to win, and will resort to any form of fraud. All political parties and civilian opposition groups must fiercely guard the ballot box. Even if it may be impossible to prevent fraud, they should do whatever is necessary to expose fraud if it occurs.
- In spite of all these precautions, the regime can (and probably will) proclaim victory. It could ignore the objections, repress protests through violence, and even try to incarcerate Imamoğlu. At this point, it is worth remembering that the ruling party has already lost Istanbul. Any election results that government-run media organisations may announce on June 23rd will not change this fact.
- If the goal is democratisation, March 31 should be seen as a milestone, independent of the June 23 result. The overturning of the elections is proof that the regime is aware of this as well. Clinging to Istanbul to preserve the status quo and ensure personal survival will only delay the inevitable.
- Finally, Turkey’s democratisation should not be understood as an institutional issue. Institutions are shaped by the dominant political culture. Leaders that “kill” democracy are a product of the people they represent. The opposition itself does not have a bright democratic track record. Nevertheless, it has no choice but to fight.
In the preface of “What Is to be Done?” Lenin states that his initial plan was to write a continuation of an earlier article titled “Where to Begin?” He even apologised to his readers for his delay in writing the sequel. Perhaps the question that should be asked of those who oppose the AKP regime is not “what is to be done?” but rather “where to begin?” The seven points I outline above are an attempt to answer this question.
NOTE: I am aware that the tone of this piece differs from my other writings. This is because the times we live in require such a tone. As noted above, what is needed now is not analysis, but action. It is with this in mind that the above piece is written.
© Ahval English
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.