The presidential elections that have changed Turkey

The elections are introducing new alignments into Turkish society but also reaffirming worrying poli

Selahattin Demirtas's campaign has attracted Turkish leftist voters, writes Goksel [Reuters]
Selahattin Demirtas's campaign has attracted Turkish leftist voters, writes Goksel [Reuters]

On August 10, the citizens of Turkey will vote for their country’s president for the first time in history. While previously it was parliament that voted for the head of state, the system now in place is a two-round popular election. The election has changed Turkey even before it has taken place.

The candidates

There are three contenders in the race. The candidate of the AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been prime minister for 11 years. His leadership style has antagonised those it didn’t captivate. Besides reigning over government accomplishments in areas like health care and transportation infrastructure, he has tackled entrenched challenges such as military tutelage and the Kurdish problem. But his actions and rhetoric have polarised society and his intolerance of dissent has created a lot of bad blood. Under Erdogan’s leadership checks on executive power one by one ebbed away. 

Erdogan frames his presidency as the necessary step to bring the AKP’s New Turkey vision to fruition. Every time Turkish citizens have gone to the ballot box since November 2002, the AKP has been victorious. Thus Erdogan enters the race riding a wave of invincibility, propelled by a narrative of a predestined victory, not only as the will of the nation, but also of God.

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, former Secretary-General of the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC), is the consensus candidate of the two leading opposition parties and a number of other minor parties. 

Given the expectation that Erdogan, if elected president, will continue to micromanage through the AKP majority in the parliament and his cadres in state institutions, Ihsanoglu’s campaign has primarily advocated the need to preserve the constitutional role of the president – supervising checks and balances without steering domestic politics. His soft-spoken persona and emphasis on the rule of law offers assurance that he can contain the erosion of the separation of powers. But for voters accustomed to fiery speeches and aggressive politics, his rhetoric is unsensational.

Selahattin Demirtas, the candidate of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), has been a leading name in the Kurdish movement. His campaign has reached out to a broader constituency than just Kurds, appealing to typically pro-labour and left-leaning groups, as well as other excluded identities. While he has struck a chord with diverse constituencies interested in individual and cultural freedoms, democratisation, and social justice, there is a natural limit to the votes he can garner. He does not appeal to the conservative nationalistic majority of the country which sees Demirtas as a PKK associate.

What is new?

The profile of each candidate, and particularly the way society has organised around these candidates, already signals some fault line shifts in Turkey’s political culture. Turkey’s traditional political constellations have been altered, and once clear-cut identity cleavages have become blurred. While a good number of voters – particularly among Turkish nationalists and liberals – struggled to find a suitable presidential candidate, they also challenged conventional wisdom in the process of trying to do so.

Accordingly, this election campaign has witnessed some unlikely political clustering: a group of LGBTs supporting the AKP under the name AK-LGBT, some very pious and some very secularist groups supporting the same candidate against the AKP, and liberals in their 30s excited over a candidate whose traditional Kurdish constituency they had been taught were separatist traitors and against whom they were mobilised during their military service in the 1990s.

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Such symbolic examples have created awareness that society is not inevitably trapped in age-old divisions, or civilisational clashes. Encouragingly, this awareness can potentially unleash new momentum in the country in the long term. For the short or mid-term, however, the trends highlighted by the election campaign are potentially worrisome. 

The once-distinct identity division related to Islam’s place in public life has faded. During the month of Ramadan, Islamic references were quite pronounced in the presidential campaigns. As a pious scholar of Islam, Ihsanoglu – Erdogan’s main rival – was safe from any challenges to his Muslim credentials.

Even if it began for the sake of averting a win by Erdogan, an acceptance of religion as the most important staple for Turkey’s society seems to have established itself among secularists and liberals. There are clearly positive aspects to this change, insomuch as prejudices and hostility on the basis of religious symbols are overcome. However, Alevis, non-practicing Muslims, non-Muslims, and non-believers have been marginalised during the race, and seem braced for being increasingly excluded and derogated, socially and politically. 

Another interesting election development is that Turkey has become more Middle East-oriented. The promise to drive positive change in the Middle East has been present in all three presidential campaigns. Erdogan’s angry righteousness on regional matters ranging from Egypt to Syria has mostly been directed at the West. Ihsanoglu has advertised his diplomatic prowess that can elevate Turkey’s role in the Middle East. Demirtas envisages that his victory would spread enthusiasm for peace and inspire the empowerment of the downtrodden across the Middle East.  

The Israeli offensive on Gaza bumped Palestine to the top of campaign agendas, particularly Erdogan’s. It added fuel to his regular slamming of the the West with utmost reductionism. Erdogan’s heavy-handed style in the international arena is widely viewed from inside as the projection of Turkish grandeur.

Hostility against the West has also served to bundle together all critics of the government, inside and out. According to the pro-government propaganda machine, opponents of the government are all connected to western conspiracies bent on bringing Erdogan down in order to weaken Turkey, and thus they all can be deemed national security threats. The narrative is simple and it sticks. The lack of a concise counterargument about the West among the other candidates probably says more about what appeals to society than it does about the candidates. Indeed, the EU management of Turkey’s accession process has certainly played a role in this reality.

Fair and square?

Another issue that has surfaced during this election season is the question of fairness and resources. There has been vociferous debate, culminating in petitions to the Constitutional Court about the unfair advantages Erdogan has over other candidates by remaining prime minister during the race. His position has indeed blurred the line between the use of state resources and airtime for state affairs versus as opposed to electoral campaigning.

Social mobilisation against this paradigm has spread but can be stifled and disarmed before it reaches a critical threshold.

However, the bigger problem is not fairness during the election campaign period. Rather it is the entrenched perception that individuals or institutions will face negative consequences if they advocate for a change of political leadership, and that one’s opportunities can be enhanced by being on the right side of history.

In recent years, the Turkish people have witnessed the tightening of government control over everything from universities to the internet; numerous incidents of selective justice, and of regulatory and supervisory state authorities being used to serve political ends; and persistent public rhetoric tailored to intimidate potential defectors. Essentially, the taming of potential donors and voters took place long before the election campaign kicked off in July.

The result of this perception is that advertisement agencies turn down business from Erdogan’s rivals; private sector actors are convinced tenders will be lost and problems will be found in their books if they fall out of favour; individuals feel their every move is being scrutinised; and critical NGOs keep a low profile lest they be targeted under the guise of their suspected connections with foreign conspiracies.

Meanwhile, supporting the New Turkey cause makes it easier to get jobs, state-subsidised housing, scholarships, licenses, and building permits.

Turkey has a long history of abuse of power and destructive identity politics. The current ruling elite is by now, well-settled into this comfort zone. Social mobilisation against this paradigm has spread but can be stifled and disarmed before it reaches a critical threshold. This risk is heightened by sectarian winds from the Middle East and models of illiberal states rising to fill power vacuums in the world. The elections reflect how Turkey has changed, and they will certainly further change Turkey.

Diba Nigar Goksel is editor-in-chief at Turkish Policy Quarterly. She writes mainly on Turkish foreign policy, Turkey-EU relations, the Caucasus, democratisation and gender rights. 

Follow her on Twitter: @nigargoksel

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