A Reflection on the June 24th Turkish Elections (modified and corrected)
MIDDLE EAST & NORTH AFRICA, 23 Jul 2018
18 Jul 2018 – This is slightly modified text of an earlier post that seeks to take account of responses from friends, and gave me the opportunity to express these somewhat contrarian views in a clearer way, as well as correct some mistakes. This version will also be published by Sharq Forum in Turkey.
In the days before the Turkish elections there were evident clashing fears and hopes mixed with predictions that mirrored these passions, and anticipated some kind of upset of the Erdoğan game plan for the future of the country. The long simmering intense hostility to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seemed to have finally found its political voice in the person of a former high school physics teacher, Muharram Ince, the CHP candidate with his own gift of inspirational political oratory that created a feverish enthusiasm at his pre-election rallies, and there were reasons to believe and hope that Turkish citizenry was ready for a change after 16 years of AKP governance.
The Turkish economy was believed to be in terrible shape as signaled by the international fall of the lira, the pre-election spike in the cost of staple foods, high unemployment, and a dangerous shortfall in foreign capital needed to neutralize the effects of balance of payments deficits on high interest rates that make borrowing money very expensive. Beyond this there seemed to be present a prevalent a kind of political fatigue, a feeling even among former supporters that this controversial leader had held the reins of power far too long for the good of the country, that he badly damaged the international reputations of Turkey by over-reacting to the failed coup of 2016, that he was weakening the secular ethos of the Ataturk legacy while shifting power, influence, and wealth to emergent business elites spread around Anatolia and among the friends of the AKP, that he was inflicting an expensive gigantism on the country in the form of a presidential palace, world’s largest airport, proposed Istanbul Canal, giant mosques, a third bridge over the Bosporus, a generalized urban blight. Additionally, Turkey’s military campaigns in Syria and Iraq were responsible for a dangerous nationalist fervor as well as exhibiting hostility to legitimate Kurdish grievances and aspirations, as well as being a major cause of the massive refugee influx of recent years.
To evaluate this intensely negative portrayal of Turkey as it has played out in Europe and North America it is essential to take account of the concerted and powerful anti-Turkish international campaign that depicts Turkey as in the grip of evil political forces that made it the most illiberal of democracies led by a brutal and unscrupulous autocrat, making it a totally unsuitable and unreliable NATO ally that even dares to flaunt U.S. alliance leadership. This campaign, not ever acknowledged as such, brought together the Fetullah Gũlen network, anti-AKP think tank Kemalists spread around the West, secular leftists united with militant Kurdish activism, an Armenian movement seeking validation from the present Turkish government for its genocidal victimization of over a century ago, and influential Zionist elements disseminating to its influential supporters a steady stream of anti-Turkish propaganda as evident in the material on the websites of such well-funded U.S. NGOs as the Middle East Forum and Gatestone Institute, featuring such notorious personalities as Daniel Pipes and Alan Dershowitz.
This anti-Turkish campaign has been effective in (mis)shaping the outlook of international public opinion and of the liberal governments of the West. It expressed itself most dramatically, and for Turks unmistakably, when adopting a wait and see approach to the failed coup in 2016, disclosing a thinly disguised wish in the West for regime change in Ankara that disturbed many knowledgeable people in Turkey, including many in the political opposition. It also continues to give the most negative interpretation to the Turkish response to this violent challenge, even ignoring the evidence by discounting the attribution of responsibility to the Fetullah Gũlen movement, by referring to its role as perpetrator only as ‘alleged.’ More seriously, while unreservedly condemning the post-coup roundup of Turks, including many journalists and academics, it never mentions the degree to which the Fetuallah Gũlen movement operates by stealth, and had for years deeply penetrated all public institutions of Turkish society with its devoted cultic followers, including the military, security, and intelligence sectors. These realities in Turkey are usually conceded by even the most ardent of Erdoğan’s domestic adversaries, but are never mentioned in the international discourse, even in such venerable organs of opinion in the West as the New York Times, The Economist, and BBC.
I share the critical view that the Turkish government used the pretext of security to go after a variety of enemies that had little or nothing to do with the coup attempt, but I also acknowledge that almost any government would respond strongly, and from its standpoint, rationally, if faced with a penetrating adversary that operates secretly and showed a willingness to stage a bloody coup to gain its ends of seizing power and taking over the Turkish state. I am old enough to remember the Cold War atmosphere in 1950s United States that obsessed about the alleged Communist tendency ‘to bore from within,’ leading to McCarthyism, a far reaching witch hunt that discredited and severely harmed many innocent and decent persons, weakening the morale and security of the country. I can only imagine the excessive kind of protective measures that the U.S. Government would have taken in that period if the Communist movement had actually tried to take over state power by recourse to a violent coup scenario, especially if perceived as working in tandem with the Soviet government. This refusal of international observers to contextualize the security challenges facing post-coup Turkey is an unmistakable display of an intense anti-Erdoğan bias that distorts perceptions and exaggerates criticisms.
It is in this highly charged atmosphere that the people I know best in Turkey by and large approached the recent elections. There was a mood among many secular opponents of Erdoğan that his game was about to come to a welcomed end, and this view included some highly regarded early high profile advisors and officials who had earlier worked on behalf of the AKP, and its charismatic leader. This mood translated into a consensus prediction that the alliance of parties would get enough votes to prevent Erdoğan from receiving the 50%+ votes he needed on June 24thto receive the mandate in the first round of voting to become the president charged with managing the constitutional shift from a parliamentary system to what Erdoğan himself was calling ‘an executive presidency.’ This rejection by more than half of Turkish voters would have meant a second round of voting between Erdoğan and whoever came in second, presumably Ince, to determine who would be the next president of Turkey. The expectation was that if Erdoğan didn’t win a majority in the first round, then he provided a fairly easy target in the runoff election as the opposition parties had agreed in advance to unite if such an eventuality came to pass. If this had happened, the parliamentary system would likely have been restored and retained, and the executive presidency would never become a reality.
The second fervent hope of the opposition was that the AKP would go down with their master, undoubtedly winning more seats than any other party, but still falling short of what would be needed to exercise majority control in the Turkish Parliament. It was anticipated that this outcome would be desirable even if Erdoğan were to be elected president as it would greatly diminish his ability to dictate legislative outcomes to Parliament. The more respected public opinion polls also gave credence to these expectations, although there was disagreement about whether Erdoğan might squeak by in the presidential vote either immediately or in the second round of voting, there was a fairly high level of agreement that the AKP, despite its alliance with the far-right MHP, would still not have a governing majority, and hence would be unable to get its way on key issues, including the constitutional revision.
The first question the morning after is what went wrong with these expectations. My initial attempt at an answer harkens back to my presence in Cairo shortly after the fall of Mubarak in early 2011. For various reasons I had wide contact with a range of influential persons in Cairo almost all of whom were affiliated with the secularized upper middle class. These folks, while offering a variety of analyses of the Egyptian political scene, shared a hope that in the post-Mubarak circumstance an inclusive democracy would become possible and desirable, and this was mainly understood to mean at the time a willingness to encourage the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood as a minority presence in the Egyptian Parliament. It was also coupled with the expectation of electing one of their own, Amr Moussa, former Foreign Minister and Secretary General of the Arab League, as the next president when elections were scheduled to occur in 2012. Egypt had a runoff arrangement similar to the one in Turkey, but Moussa never made it to the second round, having won only 12% of the vote, and the Muslim Brotherhood shocked the secular elites by achieving a political majority, initiating a sequence of events that pushed the country back to renewed secular authoritarianism in a harsher form than what was experienced for 30 years under Mubarak.
This underestimation of the grassroots strength of the MB illustrated for me the political myopia that often misleads modernized elites living in a dominant city in their country to believe that the future will unfold as they and their friends hope. I have dubbed this tendency ‘the Cairo Syndrome,’ and although less pronounced in these 2018 Turkish elections than it had been in Egypt, it certainly played its part in aligning advance expectations with wishes. In case my assessment is read as exhibiting Orientalist sympathies I can report the same phenomenon was operative in the U.S, just prior to the 2016 presidential elections when Trump’s victory shocked and brought intense grief to almost all the people in my social circle, as well as shame to the most sophisticated national pundits who earn their living by predicting political outcomes, often relying on abstruse algorithms to wow the public, and then shamelessly, without admitting their mistaken assessment, pronouncing after the fact why what happened was bound to happen.
The more illuminating concern is why with all that seemed to work against Erdoğan, he not only won but ran more than 12 percentage points ahead of the AKP, suggesting the persistence of his personal popularity as compared with the weakening of support for his political party. In fact, Erdoğan did not lose any individual support if this election is compared to the prior 12 elections where he had also always prevailed to varying degrees. Part of the explanation is the depth and passion of his base among the poor and pious, and those resident in the non-Kurdish parts of Eastern Turkey or in the interior of the country. The only places where Erdoğan and the AKP finished a distant second was along the Western coastal fringe of the country, including the lead city of Izmir. Despite the inspirational nationalism and modernizing agenda of Ataturk, and his still robust legacy (his picture is still by far the most imposing and common presence in offices, public buildings, and middle class homes), Turkey was and remains culturally very rooted in Islamic cultural and religious traditions in ways that give Erdoğan an authentic aura as the supreme representative of Turkishness that transcends the whys and wherefores of political debate.
And then there is the phenomenon of national pride, just as Erdoğan stood up so triumphantly against those who staged the coup, he has stood tall against the world, including the United States and Europe. He has brought much progress in the social and economic spheres to the poor and materially disadvantaged, and helped give Turkey a strong regional and global role that it had never achieved previously in the republican era when its leaders seemed content with their role as a passive junior partner of the West, and in recent decades of the NATO configuration. In a turbulent region and world, Turkey has made some substantial contributions to global public goods that are rarely mentioned: the civilianization of governance overcoming a deeply embedded military tutelage emanating from the Ataturk approach; an extraordinary refugee policy that has settled 4 million Syrians and Iraqis fleeing their countries (far more than all of Europe combined, which has regressively responded to its much smaller numbers by giving rise to a resurgence of the pre-fascist extreme right); humanitarian missions to Somalia, Rohingya, and elsewhere that have brought needed world attention to distressed and victimized people otherwise neglected; a high ranking among countries with respect to per capita expenditures for humanitarian assistance; a serious challenge to the geopolitical manipulation of the UN at the Security Council under the slogan ‘the world is greater than five’ frequently repeated by Erdoğan
On balance are the election results good for Turkey? It is not an easy question to answer, and a meaningful appraisal must await indications of how the newly constituted presidential system operates and whether the economic challenges can be effectively addressed. It is not encouraging that governing and legislating seem dependent on agreement with the MHP, an ultra-nationalist political formation, hostile to Kurdish aspirations, and militaristic. Also, Turkey faces an array of difficult internal and international problems, especially serious inflation and a weakened international currency, as well as a disturbing dependency on agricultural imports. These problems seem to have no short-term fix, and would likely magnify societal tensions if an IMF or EU type of austerity regime were to be instituted, or if ignored by a head-in-the-sand posture. Alternative electoral outcomes would also not have generated quick solutions, except that the well funded anti-Turkish international campaign might have celebrated and solidified results more to its liking by pouring capital into the country to meet the deficit, to build confidence in a new compliant political order, and to fight inflation and capital flight, and such steps would probably have quickly produced a stronger lira, at least temporarily.
What Turkey does have now, which it has failed to do during the prior AKP years is to develop a responsible opposition that puts forth alternative policy proposals. Muharram Ince, the forceful presidential candidate of the CHP opposition who by his showing in the election, running seven points ahead of his party, seems to have the leadership capacity and approach needed to create an atmosphere in Turkey that is more conducive to the sort of political debate and policy friction that makes constitutional democracy perform at its best. Ince, like Erdoğan, relies on populist and colorful rhetorical language that matches Erdoğan’s own crowd mobilizing style that may have the effect of creating more democratically oriented negotiations and collaborative solutions within government, especially with respect to the altered parliamentary role, in response to national policy challenges.
In this world of ‘elected dictators’ let us not demean the impressive democratic achievement of these Turkish elections that belie the irresponsible mutterings of those most disappointed who irresponsibly contend that the outcome was rigged. Surely, a political personality as accomplished as Erdoğan, if exercising the sort of dictatorial powers that his detractors claim, could have done a better job if these accusations were grounded in fact—rigged elections can be usually identified by huge margins of victory, by excluding unwanted parties from qualifying for participation, and by giving the anointed leader the kind of control in the legislative branch that would smooth the work of rulership. The Turkish elections delivered none of these results that are associated with dictatorial rule, voting proceeded without violence, and the polling places were internationally observed and without any notable irregularities reported—the margin of Erdoğan‘s victory was less than 3%, the Kurdish HDP received 11% of the vote allowing it to cross the 10% threshold that not only meant parliamentary participation but denied the AKP its much desired majority, and the AKP ran significantly behind Erdoğan suggesting a pattern of split voting and a lack of the sort of party discipline that is an unmistakable feature of a true autocracy. Closely contested elections of this sort only occur in societies where procedural democracy associated with the primacy of elections is allowed to function even if flawed in various ways , often giving wealthy donors disproportionate and anti-democratic influence. Of course, Erdoğan had the benefits of long-term incumbency, as well as the fruits of his strenuous efforts to tame hostile media, and this unquestionably tilts the process to an uncertain degree, but is a general feature of party-driven politics in the contemporary world and is rarely allowed on its own to cast doubt on the legitimacy of electoral results.
Even if these flaws are corrected, or at least mitigated, procedural democracy is not enough, and one hopes that Erdoğan will use his newly acquired powers over judicial and other governmental appointments wisely. More deeply, we can hope that Erdoğan has learned from the Gezi Park experience of 2013 that a majoritarian approach to governance breeds intense internal conflict and embittered forms of polarization that interfere with the pursuit of his signature goals of economic growth, enhanced regional and international stature, and the growing cultural appreciation of Muslim values and traditions.
At this moment, in the immediate afterglow of electoral victory, Erdoğan does seem to be adopting a more inclusive language, speaking of his commitment to the unity of the nation, a theme echoed in the gracious concession comments of Ince who unconditionally accepted the validity of the electoral results putting an end to anti- Erdoğan extremists irresponsibly ready to challenge the results, and pleaded only that the elected leadership now take account of the whole Turkish population of 80 million in the conduct of governance, and not only of those supporting the Erdoğan approach. If Erdoğan wants to start this new phase of Turkish constitutionalism on a positive note he could not do better than extending an olive branch to imprisoned academics, journalists, and human rights activists through the exercise of his power to pardon, especially as a welcome complement to the declaration that the state of emergency will not be further renewed, an encouraging move, especially as reported opposed by AKP’s alliance partner, the MHP. If the new system moves quickly and effectively to restore international and national confidence in the Turkish economy, prospects are good for political stability and a more robust democratic atmosphere in the country.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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