Turkey: A future of anxiety and unknowns

Although Erdogan’s election is worrisome, Demirtas’s electoral performance claims space for alternat

Turkey's PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the presidential elections with 51.79 percent[AP]
Turkey's PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the presidential elections with 51.79 percent[AP]

August 10 marks the beginning of a new era in Turkey. Winning 51.79 percent of the votes, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected the 12th President of Turkey.  This was the first election in the history of the country where citizens directly chose the president.

The presidency has, so far, had rather symbolic functions and most of the previous presidents did not use much of the power they were granted by the constitution. Erdogan has already made it clear that this will not be the case under his term. He is ambitious and determined to change Turkey’s political system to a presidential one in order to consolidate his power.  

Given Erdogan’s track record of rising authoritarianism and violation of civil liberties, it is not difficult to anticipate a rather dark future ahead of us. The “new Turkey”, as Erdogan called it in his August 10 speech following the election results announcement, will be one of many anxieties and unknowns.

Power struggles and shifting alliances

This election was about more than just the presidency. It was the final round in the struggle that Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has been leading since 2010 to consolidate power and take the upper hand over state institutions.  

The first phase of this struggle was launched in the late 2000s by the political alliance between Erdogan and the Gulen movement with a series of trials against senior army officers for allegedly plotting a coup against the government.  

Inside Story – Erdogan: A new Turkish era?

Tension between Erdogan and his once powerful ally, the Gulen movement, became more and more visible following the disempowerment of the army. The corruption scandal surrounding Erdogan’s government turned the power struggle between these two camps into a public comedy in the months before the local elections on March 30, where the AKP won 45 percent of the votes. 

This power struggle between different actors was at the same time accompanied by a new cultural discourse on values and a sense of belonging that claims to speak for the dignity of the “non-elites”. Erdogan used this discourse to present himself as “one of the people” and challenge the cultural hegemony of urban and secular elites.  

The new Turkey that Erdogan envisioned is a place where “the state and the nation are, starting from today, looking in the same direction”, as he noted in his speech on August 10. In other words, the election for Erdogan was the final round in which his cultural war for redefining values and belonging merged with the struggle to capture state institutions and power.  

This is also why he emphasised in the same speech that the election results demonstrated mass reconciliation within the electoral base. In other words, for Erdogan, his presidency symbolises an overlap between the ownership of the state and the ownership of the nation for the first time in the history of Turkey.  

Rise of conservative politics

Historical injustices continue to shape the politics in Turkey today. Homogenisation and standardisation efforts of the state elites during the early 20th century were premised on a strong denial of religious and ethnic diversity. These efforts left many segments of the population marginalised and excluded.

Given this contested and exclusionary past where human dignity was constantly violated, Erdogan managed to remain in power for more than a decade by skillfully filling this gap of representation between the state and society. The promise for a new Turkey that would fill this gap through democratisation was in fact appealing at the beginning. Hence Erdogan gained considerable support in the early 2000s from a wide spectrum of social groups that had suffered in the past from various injustices committed by the state.  

Nevertheless, in the past four years conservative politics have consolidated and have been marked by a strong adherence to polarisation along sectarian, nationalist and moralist lines in addition to a commitment to fierce neoliberal capitalism. 

The recent alliance between the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to form a common candidate for the presidency was one manifestation of such conservative politics. 

Failing to propose an alternative political vision, mainstream opposition parties chose to manoeuvre within the contours of conservative politics which has been solidified by Erdogan and his government as the foundation of a new Turkey. It is important to note here that some of the cities where Erdogan got more than 50 percent of the votes are those where MHP had majority of the votes in the local elections in March.

All of these are reasons to be worried about what is to come during Erdogan’s presidency. His ambition and determination to rule without any form of checks and balances generates a massive amount of anxiety. One area where this anxiety is manifest, without any doubt, is the debates around the future of the AKP. Although the coming days will make it more clear, it is highly likely that Erdogan’s presidency will turn into an authoritarian single party rule. 

Alternative politics for a new Turkey

However, there is still hope for the future. As the boundaries of hegemonic politics are increasingly defined by strong conservatism, counter-politics is simultaneously pushing back  – turning the political arena into one of unknowns. Despite all the worries about Erdogan’s presidency, August 10 was also a significant turning point in a more positive way. The possibility of radical and emancipatory politics is now open as Selahattin Demirtas, the co-leader of the leftist pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), took almost 10 percent of the vote.

Although gaining the majority of the votes in the Kurdish East and Southeast Anatolia was expected, the surprise was the increase in votes in Western cities such as Istanbul and Izmir compared to the local elections this year. The HDP has emerged from the presidential elections, under the strong and articulate leadership of Demirtas, as a potential hub for different leftist segments and for anyone who looks into the future with an emancipatory vision.

The future ahead of us is a long path full of hardships given the multi-layered anxieties that Erdogan’s presidency has already started generating and given the strength of ethnic cleavages that run across ordinary citizens’ political perceptions and behaviours.

Alternative politics for a new Turkey is only possible with the kind of determination and solidarity akin to what we briefly experienced during the Gezi Revolt in June 2013. What comes out of the ballot box does certainly matter, especially in terms of the allocation of political powers. What is more important now for constituting a future with dignity for all, however, is the ability to constantly mobilise and organise around an emancipatory political vision without necessarily waiting for the parliamentary elections in 2015.    

Sinem Adar is a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar in Sociology at the University of South Florida.

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