Tim Lowell
Apr 23 2018

'The candidate of hope and change': Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

One of the few critical voices on Turkish television still tolerated is Fox News’s Fatih Portakal, and his show’s prestige and viewership has ballooned in recent years in response.

And yet, Portakal gave a surprise presidential endorsement on Friday’s show – to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself.

“Maybe this will surprise you,” he said, “but this government must stay. They have broken everything from the economy to social life, but this government must stay. They must solve these problems under Erdoğan’s leadership.”

If the government changed, the new government would immediately have to deal with a financial crash and the wreckage of a society at odds with itself, Portakal said.

“If you produced the car crash, you solve it, gentlemen. Hard days await us after this election.”

But the inevitable veering off the road in a last-ditch attempt to escape the upcoming car crash – and the many other hair-raising manoeuvres that Turkey has been subjected to in recent years – are precisely why many voters still, after more than 15 years in power, see Erdoğan and his party as the only source of hope and change.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) inherited power in Turkey from a smug, corrupt military-secularist-conservative establishment, and it spent its first seven years in office averting attempts to shut it down or render it inoperative.

The other main parties in the upcoming election appealing to the Sunni Turkish majority of the population are either the remnants of parties left over from the 1990s or, in the case of the Good Party, the creation of a former interior minister and a series of other pre-AKP politicians.

In every election the AKP has been involved in so far, the rhetoric of a “new Turkey” has precisely been so successful because the alternatives reminded voters of the old establishment in the difficult post-coup years, characterised by political assassinations, foreign policy mishaps, and economic difficulties.

The AKP systematically fought the media moguls, the generals, the secular big businessmen, and a hostile judiciary, and each time it was both victorious and achieved a huge power shift to its own acolytes.

The Fethullah Gülen movement, an Islamist group that had long been urging its followers to get a higher education and make their careers in the state, was one of the main beneficiaries of the dethroning of the old establishment.

Later, when it became clear that the movement and the party had both become so powerful as to represent existential threats to one another, a struggle erupted that led to the closing down of movement-linked businesses and foundations and mass purges of suspected Gülenists from the gendarmerie and police.

A coup attempt in July 2016 involving disgruntled Gülenist officers aware of their imminent dismissal consolidated the environment of fear, leading the anti-Gülenist campaign to fever pitch.

After the Gezi protests of 2013 and the resumption of hostilities in Turkey’s southeast in 2015, the AKP began redefining Kurds and anti-militarist liberals as threats rather than allies.

A new class of winners emerged as a result of this new picture – new firms getting municipal and local tenders, new civil servants recruited from the nationalist right, and new positions opening up in everything from teaching to policing to the media as mass purges took their toll.

If re-elected president, Erdoğan has promised to consolidate power and continue to defeat internal enemies.

Without fail, his opponents have promised to restore stability, democracy and the status quo.

Some of them also have harsh words for his full-throttle spending on megaprojects and targeted incentives for different sections of society with apparent indifference to Turkey’s mounting national debt.

But for many of those who will be going to the polls on June 24, the status quo and relative stability hold few attractions.

Anecdotes of families in which brothers have switched political alliances according to how well or badly they are doing under the AKP – with the impoverished brother choosing to vote AKP and the successful one choosing CHP – are not as far-fetched as they may seem.

A vote for Erdoğan is a lottery ticket for hope and change that says your neighbour’s misfortune could work to your benefit, and that the latest mad swerve of government in an attempt to avert the latest looming car crash could bring power and wealth to a group of which you are a part.

Unless, of course, you are a member of a minority group that is likely to get run over.