Prime Minister Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won the municipal election in Turkey on the 30th of March with a significant margin and surpasses its performance in the previous elections in 2009. As always AKP supporters have used the ballot to send a message to the rest of the nation. But this time their message is troubling. They seem to be saying that corruption, abuse of power and curtailment of free speech is acceptable in a democracy as long as Islamic leaning politicians win.
The election was cast as a referendum on Prime Minister Erdogan’s responses to the Gezi Park protests last summer and the graft scandal this winter.
Erdogan’s opponents and many international critics maintain that Erdogans’ response to the Gezi protests was unnecessarily heavy-handed, smacked of abuse of power and his discourse was divisive and unbecoming of a statesman. His response to the graft scandal was more egregious. He either fired or transferred police officers and prosecutors who were investigating his party members and passed laws to tighten the control of the executive over the judiciary. Essentially Erdogan used the powers of his office to subvert justice.
Just prior to the elections, he banned Twitter and Youtube, the two main pillars of social media and public discourse today. The measures were taken to ensure that the secret and or doctored recordings of AKP members could not be used to keep the issue of corruption alive and prevent the issue from impacting the elections. All his responses to the scandal of economic corruption smacked of political corruption and abuse of power. His opponents hoped that this naked display of authoritarianism by Erdogan would force many of his supporters to rethink their vote in the interest of democracy. But they were wrong.
The Turkish electorate disagreed with them loudly. The message sent by AKP supporters is that, corruption, abuse of power, divisive politics do not matter, what matters is identity politics — “our guy, maybe corrupt and may have authoritarian tendencies, but you know what, he is our guy.” This message is unequivocal and raises serious questions about the depth and quality of Turkish democracy.
There is more to democratic credentials than electoral victories. Elections are necessary but not sufficient for a society to be deemed democratic. Freedom of speech, freedom of association, intimidation free environment, accountability, separation of powers, transparency and inclusiveness are all important ingredients of a healthy democracy. Can Turkey today, in all honesty, claim that many of these elements have been strengthened by the latest election?
AKP and PM Erdogan find themselves in a fortuitous demographic situation, where a highly divided Turkey along class and religious adherence, gives AKP supporters an electorally significant plurality of 45-50 percent. AKP supporters tend to belong to the new middle class, are more religiously observant, less nationalistic and more Pan-Islamic than other Turks who have more secular lifestyles, are more nationalistic and less religious. These social differences and perhaps the fear that if one side loses control over power through the ballot box, they will perhaps also lose the freedom to live life according to their preferred lifestyles, drive Turkish politics. Conservatives curtail social freedoms and secularists curtail religious freedoms.
As long as these two sides remain aggressively opposed, fearful and suspicious of the other, Erdogan and AKP will win every election since the secularists who constitute about 50-55 percent of the electorate are divided and have many political parties that seek their votes. Islamic conservatives who are between 45-50 percent are united and have no other party that competes for their vote. PM Erdogan understands this electoral logic perfectly and therefore merely needs to perpetuate the divisions within Turkish society to win elections. His success depends on the exacerbation of the divide and his us-versus-them discourse ensures that.
For over a decade AKP has been the shining light of the Middle East. Under their rule Turkey’s economy has boomed often growing almost 10 percent a year. Education, health care, retirement and social services have experienced tremendous growth. The showpiece of AKP governance is Istanbul, which has grown both economically as well as culturally. As far economic management is concerned even rich Republican leaning businessmen support AKP and its policies. But in the past two years, PM Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian approach to problem solving and his shrill divisive pronouncements are undermining much of what he and his party have achieved.
Recent events — the Gezi park protests, the ouster of the Islamists from power by military in Egypt, and the Gulenists efforts to discredit AKP and Erdogan — have triggered the deepest of insecurities among conservative and Islamist leaning Muslims. They fear that evil forces, a secret alliance of the West, Zionists and domestic secularists are conspiring against Islam and seeking to oust Erdogan and AKP, the only true party that carries the banner of Islam. “They” want to do in Turkey, what “they” did in Egypt (remove Islam from power) is one of the key perceptions that helped voter turnout for AKP. The word coup has special resonance for Islamic leaning Turks who have suffered many times at the hands of Kemalists.
Thus Erdogan who heightened these fears with his discourse about the threat of a coup led by a foreign conspiracy, recast the elections not as a referendum on corruption and abuse of power, but as the last ditch effort to save the Ottoman Caliphate. AKP supporters are not voting to save a political party because it has a good track record of governance; they are fighting an imaginary battle to save the Ottoman Empire from the colonial West and its agents. This election was not about corruption or good governance but about defending Islam. Elections are a useful means since the numbers are favorable, therefore banning of social media, abuse of executive power, diminishing the powers of judiciary, corruption, lack of accountability, mean nothing as long as the Ottoman Empire, Islam itself, embodied in the person of Sultan Erdogan wins.
In his victory speech, Erdogan promised to go after “the enemies,” enter “their caves” and deliver an Ottoman slap. His unquestioning followers are the fists that will deliver the blow. But if the blow is too hard, it may destroy not just “the enemies” but also social cohesion, national integrity and democracy in Turkey.