Exploring Erdoğan’s unwavering support in Turkey

by Kumru Toktamis and Emrah Celik

With the March 30 local elections, the authoritarian turn in Turkish politics, and probably its regional belligerence as well, is legitimized as the ruling party gained almost 44 % of the votes. Common sense may refer to this moment of electoral victory as a democratic one. However, democracy is less about winning elections and more about how the opposition is treated.

A political leader at war with (social) media and their possibilities is less of a likely candidate for democratic leadership. Yet, in his victory speech, the triumphant Prime Minister (who himself was not running for elections) gleefully claimed these municipal elections as a referendum for his continuing leadership, repeatedly marginalizing, if not polarizing, the opposition’s methods and arguments. Three main themes of his victory speech – a) a new national unity under his leadership, b) delegitimizing his opposition, c) the conflict with Syria – displayed Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ability to refine and redefine goals for Turkey’s future.

His understanding of national unity, invoked in the slogan of “one nation, one flag, one land, one state”, is an acknowledgment of cultural diversities under the watchfulness of the big-brother-like tolerance of Ottoman times. This is a brand of tolerance that approves and welcomes diversity as long as prior loyalty to the supremacy of the state is firmly established.  His call for unity is one that avoids political disagreements, branding them as attacks on the national interest as defined by himself. He welcomes his public as actual and potential supporters of his own political party, vilifying those who are not as pawns of foreign interests.

In similar vein, he has portrayed the opposition in Turkey as immoral traitors who lack integrity and nobility, and reside in lairs, like animals do. Ironically, he specifically singled out his one-time political partner, the Gulen movement, a community of faithful around a reclusive cleric residing in Pennsylvania US. Indicating a clear break-up between two major forces of Islamic mobilization in Turkey, he denounced “Pennsylvania”, its media and business supporters as malignant instigators of lies and hypocrisies.  Pursuing his party’s original claim to power as underdogs and victims of the elitism of yesteryear, he declared his as a victory against the arrogance of those who do not trust the people’s will. He also identified his opposition as one that lacked actual policy proposals and that wasted voters’ time and attention on trivial campaigns. He branded his party’s victory as an “Ottoman slap” in the face of his opposition.

Finally, his curious remark that Turkey is presently at war with Syria and his repeated references to the clashes and casualties thereby heralded, signal his continuing pursuit of belligerent regional expansionist policies. With no mention of his other foreign policy pet projects  – Palestine, Egypt or Crimea – all of which have ended up with a clear loss of credibility and more isolation for Turkey, his persistent stance of confrontation in the Syrian conflict seems to be more than domestic posturing, sending some sort of message to regional and global powers following his recent electoral success.

Erdogan’s success as a widely supported majoritarian leader at least spells the end of the CHP-MHP-Gulen style and method of opposition, overwhelmingly based on the periodic release of the ‘taped’ private conversations of the Prime Minister, members of his family and cabinet exposing wide and deep channels of corruption and money laundering. To be fair, Erdogan’s electoral success reveals the ineptitude of his main opposition which seems to be a dubious coalition between left-nationalist, right-nationalist and the Gulen movement.

The left-nationalism that carries the entitlement of once-having-been the anti-imperialist founders of this Republic, and the right-ultra-nationalism that adheres to the superiority of Turkishness as a race and a nation, collaborated in several key municipalities based on their anti-Erdogan positioning, including the capital city Ankara. Their opposition was fortified almost solely by the ubiquity of these ‘tapes’, when they might well have well have turned people’s attention to the erosion of their rights and freedoms and the potential for alternative economic planning.  The Prime Minister in this regard was not mistaken when he alleged that his opposition had no plan or programme to offer the public other than these breaches of privacy.

The main instigator of these corruption tapes were said to be the members of the Gulenist community, a prerogative of being closer to and entrenched with the governing party. The true facts of the break-up, or indeed the basis of the original alliance between Erdogan and the Gulenist movement is yet to be uncovered. What needs to be understood is the pervasiveness of the massive popular support that Erdogan and his party still seems to enjoy despite the wholesale attack on their Islamist (former) partner.

At a historical conjuncture during which Erdogan and his government have been confronted with serious allegations of corruption, one would have expected that this would create a massive erosion of public support and confidence. But his popularity remains constant among his conservative constituency.

Erdogan is supported, whatever he does

Why do the conservative publics of Turkey, regardless of their diverse class and even regional backgrounds continue to support Erdogan?  Such an unflinching political and social embrace of an increasingly authoritarian leader cannot be dismissed with attributes of irrationality or emotionalism.

The conservative communities that organize their lives according to religious principles were often ostracized and suppressed by governments that upheld the state-secularist principles of the modern Turkish Republic. Conservative communities in Turkey have long since had their historic inability to openly express and develop religious sentiments, education and practices in public life, engraved on their lives, thanks to the constant government surveillance of a transgressive state power over religion since the beginning of the Republic in early 1920s.  These historical predicaments predate contemporary controversies such as the ban on headscarves or the religious curriculum at public highschools.

Therefore observant Muslims considered themselves as survivors or victims of one the main pillars of the modern Republic. The overwhelming sentiment of such communities towards Erdogan is one of immense gratitude because his government established and legitimized their public visibility, access to the conveniences of modernity and paths to economic and political power.  This historically entrenched anxiety of losing their recently acquired public status, access and power plays its part in explaining their ongoing political support.

Furthermore, the memories of 1997, the so called ‘post-modern’ military coup targeting social organizations of political Islam may still be guiding the political reflexes of the conservative communities in Turkey. The traumatic consequences of that coup against a democratically elected Islamist government partner – Erdogan’s political predecessor and mentor – must compel many conservatives to suspect any opposition against Erdogan. The fear of possible military coups have never left the collective imaginary of all forms of Turkish public, including the conservative constituency.

In general, the conservatives in Turkey are citizens loyal and submissive to state authority and respond to the call of nationalism. Their strong identification with the state and its nation is another reason why they have rarely staged illegal, anti-government political mobilizations in the Republic’s history. Erdogan’s administration, despite allegations of corruption and manipulation, still claims to be Islamist. He is also the embodiment of power and authority which prompts his constituency’s historical reflex of obedience to the state, this time one that they can largely identify with.

Clearly, Erdogan’s appeal as a nationalist leader of a strong state would hardly achieve its popular reach without the successful economic programmes that not only created a network of populist policies, but also stabilized the ever-volatile financial markets. Devastating memories of the financial frailties of previous governments prompt the dogged conservative support of urban and rural poor. In contrast, the economic stability of the last decade encourages people to turn a blind eye to corruption among the ranks of the ruling party.

But at this point, the ineptitude of the opposition who have failed to generate any alternative policies and programmes to replace Erdogan’s power, instead relying heavily on the sensationalism of corruption scandals has resulted in a highly critical moment in Turkish history. An opposition made up of an alliance between left and rightwing nationalist forces and Gulenists does not seem to offer a viable alternative for the Turkish people, even if they may constitute the actual majority of the society.

Erdogan is a populist leader, extremely talented in connecting with his constituency and invoking their collective memories of social adversity and cultural victimhood. His ability to translate collective symbols, from headscarves to Israel, into political support is the key to his leadership. He is convincing because of his close familiarity with their ideals and vulnerabilities.

Moreover, Erdogan’s campaign displayed remarkably effective political management, creating a cloud of victimhood amidst ongoing scandals and allegations. Erdogan emerged as a victim of historically embedded coup attempts and “international” conspiracies, evoking this shared sense of victimhood, marginalization and ostracization with his public.

The fate of Turkey’s democracy will now be shaped by a) how the government treats its opposition and b) to what extent the opposition will be able to generate alternative programmes and policies, which move beyond relying on media sensationalism, to the actual political and legal pursuit of misconduct to a tangible conclusion.

Turkish state-secularists often express their disdain for Islamists, stating that the latter has a secret agenda to destroy the secular Republic and establish an Islamic one. It is now evident that this Islamist government may indeed be destroying the organization of the Republic, not with an Islamist agenda but with expansive corruption and clientalism.  Turkey’s state and democracy can only be salvaged if a consistent and unyielding opposition contests the government’s actions while prudently allaying people’s deep-rooted anxieties of marginalization.

(Open Democracy, 05.04.2014)

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