Reflections on the June 24th Turkish Elections
MIDDLE EAST & NORTH AFRICA, 2 Jul 2018
27 Jun 2018 – The following comments on the Turkish election results are written in response to requests from friends and media sources. I am sensitive to the inappropriate hubris of Americans traveling the world to impart their views on how other societies should be managed and governed. Such postures of criticism and praise is particularly suspect in this time of Trump where a pre-fascist leadership in the United States pursues policies at home and abroad destructive of elemental rights of its citizens and residents as well adopts as an entirely reckless policy agenda that imperils the ethical, ecological, and economic future of not only the country but the world. It is arguable that we Americans should stay at home and devote our energies to fighting on national territory for a better tomorrow. I offer these comments as someone who has come to regard Turkey as a second home, not quite with an expatriate gaze, but as an engaged partial annual resident over a period of almost 25 years dedicated to a benevolent future for Turkey and its most hospitable and lovable people, of course, with the exception of Turks maneuvering their vehicle in traffic!!
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. Beyond this there seemed to be present 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, 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 Bosphorus, a generalized urban blight, and that his military campaigns in Syria and Iraq were responsible for a dangerous nationalist fervor as well as rejecting legitimate Kurdish grievances and aspirations, as well as helping to explain 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.
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 when adopting a wait and see approach to the failed coup in 2016, exhibiting a thinly disguised wish in the West for regime change in Ankara that disturbed many knowledgeable people in Turkey, including those in the political opposition. It also continues to give the most negative interpretation to the Turkish response this violent challenge, even ignoring the evidence by discounting the attribution of responsibility to the Fetullah Gũlen movement, by referring to it as only ‘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 recognize that almost any government would respond strongly, and even rationally, if faced with a penetrating adversary that operates secretly and showed its willingness to stage a bloody coup to seize power. 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. I can only imagine the kind of protective measures that the U.S. Government would have taken in that period if the Communist movement had indeed 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 yesterday’s elections. There was a mood among the opponents of Erdoğan that his game was about to come to a welcomed end, and this had come to include 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 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 have been retained, and the executive presidency would never come into being.
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 was elected as president as it would greatly diminish his capacity 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, 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 first 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 be possible and desirable, and this was mainly understood to mean at the time the willing 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 authoritarianism in a harsher form than what was experienced for 30 years under Mubarak. It confirmed 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 as operative in the U.S, just prior to the 2016 presidential elections when Trump’s victory surprised and brought intense grief to almost all the people in my social circle, as well as shame to the 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 second were along the Western coastal fringe of the country, with its 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 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 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); 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 under the slogan ‘the world is greater than five.’
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, dependency on agricultural imports. These promblems 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. Alternative electoral outcomes would not have generated quick solutions, except the 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, which might have quickly produced a stronger lira.
What Turkey does have now, which it has badly needed during the prior AKP years is Muharram Ince, a forceful leader of the CHP opposition who by his showing in the election, running seven points ahead of his party, can create an atmosphere more conducive to the sort of political debate and policy friction that makes constitutional democracy perform at its best. Ince also 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 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 leader the kind of control in the legislative branch that would smooth the work of rulership. The Turkish elections delivered none of the results that are associated with dictatorial rule and the polling places were internationally observed—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 and is rarely allowed on its own to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 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 that a majoritarian approach to governance breeds intense internal conflict and embittered forms of polarization that interfere with the pursuit of his signature goals such as economic growth, enhanced regional and international stature, and a 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 comments of Ince who unconditionally accepted the validity of the electoral results putting an end to mutterings challenging 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 if coupled a declaration that the state of emergency will not be further renewed, a move already intimated as a post-election initiative although resisted by AKP alliance partner, the MHP.
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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