Turkey: Voting out founding ideology

The Turkish people not only elected Erdogan, but they also voted against the founding ideology of th

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the presidential elections on August 10 [AP]

As widely expected, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged victorious in the first round of Turkey’s presidential elections with about 52 percent of the votes. This is his ninth consecutive election victory (3 general and 3 local elections, plus 2 referendums and the recent presidential elections) – a record that is hard to beat by any politician in any democracy. The joint candidate of the main opposition parties, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, received around 38 percent of the vote, whereas the pro-Kurdish and left-leaning candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, took slightly less than 10 percent.

Erdogan the conciliator

In his victory speech, Erdogan struck a conciliatory tone and adopted inclusive language. He called on the opposition and different sections of society to leave behind the old rifts and to embark on establishing a new Turkey.

While spelling out the names of groups making up the socio-cultural and ethnic composition of Turkey, he did not only refer to the Muslim sections of society, such as the Turks, Kurds, Circassians and others, but he also included non-Muslim sections of society as well: Armenians and Greeks, in particular.

Erdogan wins turkey’s presidential elections

Referring to the primary foundation of Turkey’s identity, he spoke of the concept of Turkiyelilik in place of the official and constitutional concept of Turkishness (the constitution defines all citizens of Turkey as Turks).

The term Turkiyelilik stands for a more civic conception of citizenship in place of the previous ethno-centric understanding of Turkey’s citizenship and identity. This term facilitates moving away from ethnic and sectarian cleavages in Turkey.

The state’s favouring of certain ethnicities and sects over others has been the root cause of many of Turkey’s woes. Moreover, such a redefinition of Turkey’s citizens is likely to contribute to Turkey’s ongoing Kurdish peace process, as the state’s previous policy of Turkification – strictly enforced, but utterly failed in the case of Kurds – provoked the rise of Kurdish nationalism which later manifested itself in the armed action of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Erdogan also adopted a conciliatory rhetoric on Turkey’s social and political faultlines that have emerged recently around difference in lifestyle. Erdogan said he will remain respectful of citizens’ different lifestyles from the presidential office as well. The debate over lifestyle essentially accounts for the tension between Turkey’s conservative and secular sections of society. All these conciliatory words illustrated that Erdogan is warming up to his role as the president, a position that will require him to be even-handed towards all citizen of Turkey.

Putting this aside, this election outcome essentially illustrated first, that the majority of Turkey’s population demand the revision of Turkey’s founding ideology (Kemalism); and second, that genuine politics is the only game in town for any party that strives for political success or popular support.

Revising the founding ideology

Election results indicate that both Erdogan and Demirtas earned more votes compared to previous elections, hence both can count this election as a victory.

Moreover, unlike Ihsanoglu, they both are political figures and represent two social bases that had been marginalised by the previous Kemalist establishment: the conservative and Islamic segments of society and the Kurds.

In contrast, Ihsanoglu was running on the joint ticket of the main opposition Republican People Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Whereas CHP is primarily representative of the secular, western-oriented part of the founding ideology of the Turkish Republic, which was premised on laicism, nationalism (Turkishness) and a western-orientation, the MHP is representative of the nationalism (Turkishness) part of the same ideology. Thus, Ihsanoglu ran in this election as the representative of the previous Kemalist establishment and its founding ideology.

And at present, any party in Turkey which reduces its political platform to protecting the old status quo is doomed to failure.

Erdogan and Demirtas represent the segments of society that demand the revision of this ideology. Erdogan’s social constituency was primarily the victim of the republic’s militantly enforced secularising policies and demanded their relaxation. Demirtas’s social base has essentially been the victim of the republic’s nationalist (Turkification) policies and demanded the redressing of this aspect of the founding ideology.

In this election, Turkey’s founding ideology was put to the vote. The result was a clear victory for revisionist forces: conservatives and Kurds. In fact, since the 1990s, conservatives and Kurds have been the primary force for change in Turkey.

They are both ascending in Turkey’s politics and possessed the necessary will, energy, and motivation to change the country to make space for themselves in the socio-political and economic centre, and to revise Turkey’s founding orthodoxies.  And at present, any party in Turkey which reduces its political platform to protecting the old status quo is doomed to failure, as repeatedly demonstrated by the dismal election performance of Turkey’s main opposition party. 

As the military was pushed backed to its barracks and its influence curtailed, politics in Turkey has been freed from its previous chains. Therefore, political parties should engage in politics in earnest, if they strive for political success and public support. No longer is it possible for any political party to come to power and shape public politics through means other than genuine political processes.

As Turkey has changed in this regard, political parties need to reconsider their political platform, strategies, and language. They have to start to genuinely engage people and produce policies and politics that aim at their base. The insistence of Turkey’s moribund opposition not to understand and execute this basic form of PR is at the root of its repeated failures.

For instance, in a context, where people were going to vote to elect Turkey’s next president, the opposition chose an apolitical name with generic messages as their candidate. Opposition candidate Ihsanoglu spent the whole campaign period just trying to make himself known to the public.

He succeeded at this: only around 10 percent of society knew him at the time of his nomination, but this figure reached 90 percent by the end of the campaign. But by the end of his election campaign, the general public still did not know where he stood on major social and political issues. Being politically unknown was a significant setback for Ihsanoglu.

In a political environment unburdened by the vestiges of military rule and of extra parliamentary forces’ influence, Turkey’s people voted to revise its founding ideology by choosing Erdogan and emboldening Demirtas. As Erdogan changes his role from being the prime minister and the chairman of the AKP to being the president of the Republic, he has recognised the content and imperatives of his new job and adopted a conciliatory rhetoric of unity.  

Galip Dalay works in the political research department at the SETA Foundation in Turkey. He is currently a PhD candidate in International Relations at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara.

Follow him on Twitter: @GalipDalay

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