AFTER JUNE 2015 ELECTIONS: Turkey’s New Political Landscape — implications for domestic and foreign policy

(presented at European Policy Centre, EPC, on 15 September 2015)

In the recent parliamentary elections, the ruling party, AK Party, won 40.85 % of the popular vote, enough to finish first, but not enough to retain a clear majority it had held for the last 13 years. This represented a 8-point drop since the 2011 elections, giving AKP 258 of the Assembly’s 550 seats (down from 326). And pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) crossed the 10 percent election threshold and gained a place in the Parliament, for the first time, after widening its appeal with over 80 seats.
The elections brought no big change for two other main parties. The centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) – the main opposition – got 25% of the vote, almost the same as its 2011 result, to give it 131 seats (down from 135).
The far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) slightly increased its share of the vote, from 13% to 16%, and gained quite a few more seats (80, up from 53). But it did not pick up as many votes from the AKP as it might have wished.
The elections of 7 June, in this way, ended the AK Party’s long spell in power. Turkey may still largely be AK Party-land, it still is the largest party, but without a majority and with no clear coalition partner.
As no party has an overall majority, coalition was an obvious option. However, before the election a coalition with the AK Party was ruled out by each of the other three main parties, and considerable obstacles lie in the way of any of the possible options. Moreover, Turkey has a long history of fractious and shaky coalitions.
Under the Turkish constitution, the parties have 45 days to form a government. If at that point there is no government, or if a minority government fails to win a confidence motion, the President can call fresh elections. As a result, Turkey’s election board set November 1 as the date for a new vote. In the event of fresh elections, a small slip in support for the HDP could see it falling below the 10% threshold and losing all its seats. The AK Party would be the main beneficiary.
So far, the result has been very unpleasant and tragic for the country, politically, socially and economically. In the aftermath of the elections, much remains unsettled. The government launched a two-front war against extremist group Islamic State and Kurdish separatists accompanied by escalating attacks and clashes that have killed more than 100 security personnel and civilians over the past weeks. Political uncertainties, now coupled with global economic upheavals unsettling global markets, have been hammering Turkish economy.
So, there are many challenges ahead. Turkey seems to be awaiting politically and economically more troubled times.

In order to assess the reasons for the current chaos and uncertainty, I believe one needs to look at the conditions of the last two decades which brought the AK Party to power and kept it in power with an increase popular support until June 2015.
The AK Party, formed 14 years ago, is both Islamic and pro-Western from the start. It is a party of center right, colored by a kind of moderate interpretation of Islam, with a programme composed of detailed sections on keeping religion separate from politics, promoting a kind of democracy and multi-party politics, interpreting religious tolerance within the context of wider human rights. The Party won three consecutive elections despite an intense campaign, both home and abroad, presenting it as a threat to the secular Kemalist state.
The Republic of Turkey, from the start, identified itself directly and immediately with the history, culture and perceptions of the Western world, claiming a total break with the Ottoman and Islamic past. By 1925 an independent Republic was firmly established with its new Western institutions and militantly secular modernising ideology. A completely new social order was created under the rule of small secular elite. The events of these early years mark an important watershed in the development of Turkish state ideology, which is still dominating most aspects of the Turkish state and society. During those years, Kemal Ataturk and his close associates by their actions resolved a fundamental question – whether the new Turkish regime would reach an accommodation with the people or rule over them. Any genuine accommodation with people would have required a serious modification of the militantly secular state ideology. The leadership chose to decide what the country needed and enforced its decisions, regardless of what the majority of the people thought about the matter. The power and legitimacy of the republic were therefore based on a conflictual relationship between the secular centre and Muslim and traditional vicinity from the start. A largely peasant and largely religious population were excluded from public life, and they were looked down upon and patronized by a small urban elite around the Kemalist bureaucracy. No woman wearing a headscarf and no man wearing the typical believer’s beard or peasant looking clothes was ever allowed anywhere near the levers of power. A state which is at odds with practically an overwhelming majority of its citizens can only sustain itself through a powerful repressive apparatus.
The first democratic elections happened in 1950, and a large majority voted against the CHP, the party of the state founded by Mustafa Kemal. This party, however, was overthrown ten years later by a military coup. The same pattern was repeated thereafter, in 1971, in 1980 and in 1997.
Some of those social groups that once made up the vicinity started to gain more and more socio-economic mobility and moved to the cities in large numbers, from 1970s onwards. These, later made up an important section of the young and dynamic middle class. This new and important group of people brought along their provincial identity and more traditional values and demands with them into the center. The tension between the new urban middle class, whose members originally sprang up from the provincial towns and the old established secular elite, is one of the key factors to understand the rise and increased support for the AK Party.

The AK Party’s success and popularity during the past 13 years is closely linked to the fact that the Turkish economy has achieved significant growth during this period. With an impressive growth spurt, Turkey has been placed among the top 10 emerging economies in the world alongside the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Turkey’s per capita income tripled within the decade that the AKP has been in power.
The end of the 1980s not only witnessed the end of the Cold War, but also the early indications of a global shift in the power positions in the world, with very significant long-term consequences, happened around the same time. In the words of Joseph Nye, “wealth and power” started to be “shifting from the West to the rising economies of the East”. This was explained in 2010 in the pages of Foreign Affairs in the following words: “The dramatic growth of Brazil, China, and India – and the emergence of middle-tier economies such as Indonesia and Turkey – is transforming the geopolitical landscape….”
Turkey’s economic growth has been extraordinary during the last 10 years by historic standards. As Europe’s, and US’s, economy contracted Turkey’s economy has expanded to nearby markets.

Even though the relationship between the economic/social development of a country and the democratization of its political system is considerably more complex than a simple one-to-one relationship, there is a fragile but essential link between being a strong economic power and establishing a stable democratic system in the long run. One does not survive long without the other. This is my first point of conclusion about the current situation in Turkey.

It is not possible for Turkey to be a stable and responsible power without achieving fully functioning democratic status, including freedom of expression and democratic rights.
The authoritarian move has been evident since 2011, with the start of violent repression of public protests, jailing of journalists on suspicion of conspiring with terrorists, and pressure being put upon newspaper owners to sack critical journalists. All such reactions and policies are characteristics of an administration that has spent too long in power with a very inefficient and weak opposition. Ironically, all such policies and heavy-handed dealings with the opposition bring AK Party government closer to the previous Kemalist/secular experiences. The government’s excessive use of the state apparatus, including indiscriminate use of tear gas and rubber bullets during the demonstrations, has rightly led to accusations that The AK Party is indeed governing the country in the same autocratic style for which its leaders had bitterly criticized the Kemalist/secular generals of the past.

At the surface, it seems that the AK Party rule in Turkey is still popular, after 13 years and three terms in power, with still the largest share in the popular vote. This brings me to my second conclusion: perhaps one of the root sources of the current chaos in Turkish society and politics – which has found a powerful expression in the 2013 Taksim Gezi protests — boils down more than anything else to a style of ruling, the style of a leader who is increasingly intolerant of dissent. As his regime provided material improvement in the lives of large sections of Turkey’s population, he became more and more arrogant and too sure of himself and his ruling style.

Now he is acting as if the national power is his own personal power. But with a range of protest movements a line had been crossed. The young protesters in Taksim square achieved a significant goal: to show the urgent need to go back to basics and ensure that the fundamental tenets of individual freedom and democracy must function in Turkey. If a significant number of people are not allowed to express their views freely and to demonstrate peacefully and their attempts to view their opposition are met with such heavy brutality, then this is not a proper democracy.

My third point is about the opposition: Perhaps, the greatest deficiency in the current Turkish political scene is the absence of a responsible, credible and effective opposition. Current opposition party, CHP, is too ineffective, too negative, and too much entrenched within the past Kemalist/ nationalist traditions. CHP gets most of its support, around 20-25 percent, from the upper middle class in the wealthier coastal areas and the richer districts of the big cities. The party’s fear and dislike of anything vaguely Islamic are shared by this Westernized, educated, and well-dressed section of the population. The country urgently needs a robust opposition, preferably with a genuine social democratic orientation, but with an appeal to much wider sections of the population.
The current ongoing conflict between the AK Party and the Gülen movement has no potential to bring an alternative. To me this is more like an internal fight within the same Islamist political movement for more share in power. Despite the intensity of the clash, in particular during the last six months, I do not see any significant principal differences between two camps, neither ideological nor political. Both sides share the same conservative frame of reference on almost all social and cultural issues, and both sides have so far proved that what they have very little to offer to the demands of more secular and urban population of the country . More importantly, the bulk of the supporters of both sides are coming from the same group of people — lower and middle classes in Anatolia, who had been marginalized by Kemalist secular regimes since the beginning of the republic. So, in my opinion, the current conflict stems from a power struggle, in particular at the top level, and are not necessarily fuelled by different political, economic and ideological interests.

During its 13 years in power, AK Party has successfully chipped away at the security services, the army and the judiciary, and established its overriding authority. But this is very dangerous for its leader and his party: all this centralization of power also means the centralization of blame. Now, naturally Erdogan and AK Party are blamed for anything going wrong, such as the tragic Soma mine disaster.

Ironically, the last three-to-four years of more authoritarian policies and actions of the AK Party government is clear evidence that Erdoğan’s ruling represents a strong continuity with the previous governments rather than a break. Almost the entire 90-year history of the Turkish Republic witnessed ruling elites running the country with policies driven by anxiety, fear, recrimination and revenge. Erdoğan’s AK Party has proven to be no different. According to many observers, Tayyip Erdoğan, who once declared that “in this country, there is segregation of Black Turks and White Turks” and “your brother Tayyip belongs to the Black Turks,” has now proved that he is running Turkey in the same fashion as the secular leaders of the White Turks.

Bulent Gokay

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Aylan Kurdi and the Swarm of Tears | Farzana Versey

Mumbai, India.

Galip Kurdi lay dead a few feet away from his brother. There are no dirges for the five-year-old, as innocent as Aylan, as much a refugee seeking a life, without knowing the meaning of it. Their mother drowned too. Nine other people lost their lives trying to escape from a home to a mirage or, if they were fortunate, an oasis.

They are just numbers, and if we have good pictures around then they become scattered belongings on shores, their bodies swallowed by waves.


It is Aylan Kurdi’s fate to be killed twice. Once by the waters that pushed his limp form ashore and then to be drowned in the swarms of tears. Swarms. A word made notorious by David Cameron to suggest that refugees are a marauding horde or insect-like nuisances taking over. Swarms of tears also take over. The debate today is centered on self-deprecation, a luxury that a few can indeed afford. The arrogance of such publicly sanctified humility belittles the humbled and the bereft.

Abdullah, the father of the two kids, has lost his world. No country would matter to him. But have any of the lachrymose-ridden Op-eds offered him a home? What does the grandstanding self-introspection amount to? Let me give a few examples.

“What does Aylan Kurdi’s death say about us?”

It is fairly obvious it tells us that we cannot fathom a tragedy unless we have a visual representation of it and can feed off it. We create symbols not to symbolise a social problem but to use as a hat rack.

“Look at the photograph, and feel the pain.”

Only so that the writer of this piece can go into a detailed description of a child’s corpse, details that are evident? “His tiny shoes baring their sodden soles to the sky.” This has been the chorus: “Don’t shut your eyes. Look. This is what we have done.” Then sit back and watch as our sensitivity is clicked and shared. Do we even care that we transform a short life into a précis?

Piers Morgan then goes on to state, “I believe that if Americans had been allowed to see images from inside Sandy Hook school after the massacre of 20 young children in 2012, then new draconian gun laws would have been implemented within months.”

What laws have been implemented in spite of these Americans looking at pictures of racist attacks?

Abdullah Kurdi is pained. “…now the whole world is going to watch my story, where was the whole world before when my kids were hungry, when I didn’t have a job?”

Why did nobody ask us to identity with such a plight? Using the photograph as prompter, Nicholas Kristof tried to pass off his moral high ground as the world’s guilt: “If you don’t see yourself or your family members in those images of today’s refugees, you need an empathy transplant.”

Empathy is germane, not generic. Kristof had a background story, not everybody does. What the world feels today – or was it yesterday? – is collective sympathy. Social media has made it possible to buy empathy/sympathy across the counter although it is touted as a prescription drug.

Art and artifice

“The Post appears to be asking its critics to hand out artworks as antidepressants.” The writer of the piece was referring to the Washington Post’s Style section asking art critics to “meditate on the role of the arts in coping with grief” after the Sandy Hooks incident. Not chuffed with the idea, Phil Kennicott’s message was clear and might apply to the Aylan story as well: “I think seeking consolation during a tragedy that hasn’t directly affected you is histrionic, and a bad form of sentimentality, and it distracts from urgent and obvious feelings of anger and political determination. Rather than seek solace, we should work to change the society in ways that will help prevent this kind of mayhem.”

Why is there a tearing hurry to make a ‘telling statement’ on an ongoing crisis? “Thank you for the tragedy. I need it for my art,” said Kurt Cobain. It is unlikely that the artists who are now paying tribute to Aylan would be as upfront. Some great art owes its inspiration to tragic events, but was it created merely as a reaction?

There is one image of a child lying face down in bed, the moon and stars chiming as twilight streams in through the curtains. “This is how it should have ended”, was the tag line. Is this how a child sleeps, a child who is escaping? Such artistic license implies that refugees are good life-seeking migrants when all they want, need, is a piece of earth and a piece of sky.

While it is important to taunt world leadership, placing a young child’s cold body at the centre surrounded by men in suits or keffiyeh in conference rooms with high ceilings makes it appears like he is something on their plate to be feasted upon.

Another artwork with the now-familiar image of the boy on the beach shows a plastic sand bucket and shovel in the forefront. Does this not convey that seeking refuge is a picnic, an outing?

Last year when four boys, sons of a fisherman, were killed in aerial strikes on a Gaza beach, some Israelis were posting ‘Bomb Shelter Selfies’. Art and social consciousness today seem as cocooned and vicarious.

Politics of benevolence

Alongside the news of the Pope appealing to parishes and monasteries to house one refugee family each and the Vatican making the move by sponsoring two families come reports of conversions.

The West uses the start-stop method often during social crises, the passive-aggressive strategy coming in handy. It would be foolish to assume that overnight some countries have had a change of heart. Governments often use foot soldiers as ‘fringe elements’ to do what political correctness prevents them from doing. Will the neo-Nazi groups that target immigrants be any kinder to refugees?

The same ugly face of ISIS is repeated to whitewash the saviours. Reports of a covert operation by ISIS gunmen entering the European Union among refugees seems to consolidate the phobia instead of assuaging it. Not surprisingly, conservative lobbies have their backup plan ready for explaining their reservations. I got this note from a Hindu rightwing person: “Migrants stream into Austria, swept west by overwhelmed Hungary – Arabs succeeded in exporting Pisslam to Europe without any Missionary work. Wait for an Islamic country to be carved out of European union. Just like India with huge chunk of muslim population, Europe will suffer.”

The criminalization of refugees is a real issue. The police in Prague were branding new entrants just the other day. Said activist Hana Frankova, “The Czech authorities are presenting them as criminals, and it resonates well with the public when they are detained.”

We may blame governments, but there are citizens who would not wish it any other way. A gush of online hashtag concern hubris will not alter that. The objectification of Aylan is the tragedy that has superseded the tragedy of thousands fleeing. The emphasis on this child, this shore, this event seems like event management to divert attention from what is happening everyday when dinghies do not capsize.

As one Palestinian posted, if it is dead babies that bring about change, we have many to show. I’ve seen pictures of other babies from Sudan to Kashmir, some from decades ago. This should bring tears to our eyes, the continual insensitivity, the building of houses of cards over the rubble of history.

Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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