Secular chagrin, authoritarian dreams: Turkey’s 2014 elections

As contested local election votes are being recounted over and over again in several cities under state of emergency conditions, Turkey is about to leave behind one of the most controversial elections in its political history amidst the opposition’s accusations of election fraud. The polls on March 30th resulted in a yet another victory for the neoliberal-neoconservative Justice and Development party (AKP), which swept about 45% of the vote, whereas the main opposition party People’s Republican Party (CHP) secured around 28%. Moreover, two main Turkish cities, Istanbul and the capital Ankara remained under AKP rule despite the heightened expectations of the tacit coalition between the secular nationalist CHP, right-wing ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and Gulenists —followers of Pennsylvania based Sunni Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen—who are suspected of leaking the alleged “corruption tapes” implicating AKP officials and their families In other words, the mayoral elections, which turned into a de facto vote of confidence for an AKP government many feel is worn out, ended up in a consolidation of its power, except in the Kurdish region where the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) snatched three provinces from the AKP.

For those who have regularly observed recent developments in Turkish politics, the election results may seem baffling: How could such a scandal-ridden party gain such a remarkable success in elections less than one year after the Gezi Uprising rocked the country; a few months after the spiraling government graft scandal that implicated the PM Erdogan and his family and led to three cabinet resignations, massive purges in in the police and the judiciary, and the banning of YouTube and Twitter; and less than a month after government plans to launch a false flag attack on Syria as a pretext of war were exposed?

I had to follow the local elections in Turkey from afar through the lens of the social media, where many secularist Turkish citizens are also bending over backwards to answer this question. (I use “secularist” specifically to refer to a self-ascribed political identity that implies attachment to some of the symbols and values of official Turkish secularism such as laicism and gender-mixed public space.) In social media, these disillusioned citizens constantly ask themselves and each other how pious people can continue to support a political party that has been revealed not only to be authoritarian but also mired knee-deep in corruption by any reasonable standard. Below, I critically engage with some of the most problematic answers they give to this question.

One popular explanation circulating in the social media is that the elections were rigged. There were indeed widespread reports of local fraud, including burnt ballot slips and mysterious electricity blackouts in tens of different cities on the election night that the minister of energy, when prompted by a journalist, grotesquely blamed on a cat. While the Supreme Board of Election has declined demands for recounts in provinces that were narrowly won by the AKP, votes are recounted tens of times under police siege in the provinces where the AKP candidates lost. In Kurdish populated Turkish-Syrian border towns, which are of strategic importance for the AKP’s sectarian imperialist Middle East policy, soldiers, police, and paramilitary forces supporting the AKP candidate, are still clashing with thousands of Kurdish protesters disputing elections results. All these might have directly influenced the outcome of elections in different localities. Nevertheless, if taken as a pretext to dismiss the AKP’s electoral success, the allegations of election fraud become no more than a “political fantasy” that bridges between what ought to be (AKP should have lost the elections) and what is (AKP has won the elections).

Another popular explanation among secularist Turks is the “ignorance thesis,” which claims that those who voted for the AKP did it out of sheer ignorance. Immediately after the elections, social media was saturated with statistical graphical illustrations showing the distribution of votes according to educational levels or to the number of bookstores in a given province, all pointing out the “fact” that the AKP voters constituted the “most ignorant” segments of society. The ignorance thesis implies, first, that the AKP voter is not the rational Homo Politicus; and second, that the AKP voter has a kind of false consciousness which could be dispelled only if they could access, process, or understand the information about the “real face” of the AKP. We know from history that the elitist disdain for the masses embodied in the ignorance thesis only serves to support the AKP-like political parties’ populist claims of authenticity and being one of the people. One of the reasons underlying the AKP’s success is precisely its ability to speak to the resentment of those who have been disdained as ignorant in the course of Turkish modernization.

The last popular explanation claims that it is the naked economic interest that dictates AKP votes, binding the urban poor to the party through social assistance, charity, or even “direct purchase of the votes”. The often-used phrase for the urban poor in social media is “those who sell their votes in exchange for coal and pasta.” Reduced to a sort of pure economic motivation—an economic bare life—in this discourse, the urban poor is deemed shameless and blamed for their economical dependence on AKP, in other words for their own poverty. Aside from its tone of working-class hatred, this emphasis on the AKP’s clientelist redistributive system comes closest to a social scientific explanation. But we have to remember that it’s not only the urban poor who ride on the ruling party’s coattails. “Anatolian tigers” and the new middle classes, who have fueled the recent economic growth by investing in the construction bubble and debt economy via the consumerist ethos of the nuclear family, are also on board. The public secret is that secularist middle and upper middle classes who vote for the opposition can and also do jump on board when the question is economic complicity with the AKP’s neoliberal policies. Let me just give an example from my own apartment complex in a middle class neighborhood in Istanbul. The approximately two thousand tenants of the apartment complex, whose sometimes violent polarization along the secularist-Islamist axis is publicly visible, act in unison when it comes to seeking a deal with AKP-connected construction companies so that they could more easily get needed official permits to rebuild the apartment complex and profit from the AKP government’s neoliberal urban renewal policy.

In short, as is evident from the interpretative frameworks they use to explain the election results, Turkish secularists are processing the painful lesson that the Arab Uprisings taught many activists throughout the MENA region: Mobilization on the street, hegemony in public culture, and in this specific case, even the shadowy support of the transnational Gulenist movement did not help the secularist opposition when put to test of the ballot box. The good news for Turkey and the region is that, unlike Egypt, no one is calling the military to action in Turkey—well, that is with the exception of the AKP government, which deployed the army against Kurdish protestors demonstrating against election fraud. It seems that after the reconfiguration of the military’s role in the Turkish political system during the reign of successive AKP governments, secularists no longer wait for the military to come and save the country, as if waiting for Godot, but instead organize, protest, mobilize, and more importantly draw lessons from their past mistakes.

Unfortunately, the same thing cannot be said for the PM Erdogan, who now must be feeling so unbeatable at the ballot box that he fetishizes in his political discourse so much to argue that an electoral victory would absolve him from charges of corruption. In his harrowing post-election balcony speech Erdogan signaled that he is not retreating one bit from his increasingly authoritarian, totalitarian, and jingoist political stance.  Reiterating his calls for “one nation, one flag, one motherland, one state,” Erdogan demonized his opponents as pawns and promised to “enter their lairs” and make them pay, while also making the curious statement that Turkey was at war with Syria.

The next parliamentary election in Turkey is due to be held in 2015 but Erdogan seems to have been emboldened enough by the elections to run for a Putin-style presidency in August 2014. The key in this process will be the fate of the peace negotiations between the government and Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In order to guarantee his election for presidency, Erdogan has to win the support of the Kurds, and that seems only possible through the recognition of Kurdish cultural rights and possibly autonomy. Ironically, despite his right-wing nationalist emphasis on “one nation, one flag, one motherland, one state,” Erdogan has to bow to the Kurdish struggle’s democratic demands in order to realize his authoritarian ambitions. The following months will show us whether Erdogan will be able to sign off a strategic democratization deal with the Kurds to rule a Turkey with an iron fist but lacking the hegemony he sought and with a tarnished international reputation.