Anatolian Express IV: Thinking Beyond Erdoğan

Monday, May 19, 2014

Well, it's certainly been an interesting first several days in Turkey this year. As was the case last year, when my arrival in Turkey coincided with the explosion of a peaceful sit-in at Gezi Park into a nationwide series of protests, my visit this year has been met by yet another instance in which the Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdoğan, appears to be coming apart at the seams.

So much drama, so much unnecessary strife. Now, not only has an aide of Erdoğan been photographed kicking a protester in Soma just days after the mine disaster there, but the good Prime Minister himself has also been accused of punching a protester in, of all places, Soma.

It's like watching a train wreck in slow-motion. When you look at the video, it's clear that something is going on. At the very beginning of the footage, amid the whistles and chants of 'Başbakan, istifa!' ('Prime Minister, resign!'), Erdoğan is already mixing it up with someone standing in front of him. The Prime Minister appears to be talking some smack and advancing on a grey-haired man before being directed into a small supermarket where, from the noise and sudden disjointed movements taking place, it looks like some kind of confrontation may have occurred. Erdoğan's security then changes course, leads the Prime Minister out of the shop, and Erdoğan emerges with a somewhat ashen and perplexed looking face.

Just seconds into the video, Erdogan seems to be mixing it up with the crowd

What happened to this guy? Back when he was my mayor in the 1990s he really had the mojo going. The focus of the Refah ('Welfare') Party back then (to which Erdoğan belonged) was providing honest government service to people. Back in the 1990s, they used to put up posters around Istanbul boasting that Erdoğan had 'broken the world record' for planting trees. It was ridiculous, of course, but charming in a certain way.
What the hell happened to you?


I think Erdoğan's four month imprisonment in 1999 for reading a poem by Ziya Gokalp changed the dude. And the longer he's been in power, the more isolated and morose he's begun to appear. He now reminds me of Al Pacino's character in the Godfather movies. The Prime Minister has gone from believing in change and following his beliefs to being surrounded by sycophants who fear him. The man who once spoke in the name of service is now widely considered to be deeply corrupt

Are we having fun yet?

Erdoğan, of course, is a reflection of the authoritarian system in which he grew up. The crap that his security forces have been pulling on protesters for the past year isn't fundamentally different from the sorts of crimes committed by governments in Turkey against earlier groups--leftists, Kurds, religious folks, etc--over the course of decades. What's different now is mainly the ideology of the victims, rather than the content of state-sponsored abuse.

But one day, even Erdoğan is going to leave the political scene. And what will happen then? If past experience is any guide, once Erdogan is gone his party will likely fade away. None of this is permanent.

If I were part of the Turkish opposition right now, my focus would not be Erdoğan, but rather the opposition parties themselves. Erdoğan's not going anywhere for the time being, and he enjoys more support than any other political figure in the country by a significant margin. If the opposition in Turkey really wants to do something constructive, they should get their own house in order. That means democratizing their internal party apparati.

This is something I've talked about before. Party leaders in Turkey hang on for decades. Devlet Bahceli, for example, who is the leader of the second largest opposition party in the country, has led the MHP since 1997. He's managed to bring his party into government as a coalition partner exactly once amid no fewer than four elections. His party currently holds 53 seats out of 550 in parliament. In what world is someone with such a miserable track record allowed to stay in his position? Just be a party leader in Turkey, and you never have to worry about getting fired. It's like being tenured, without having to go through the trouble of producing a book.

It's the same problem with the CHP, the main opposition party in the country. The tone-deaf opponents of Erdoğan, running in municipal elections this year in which the main issue was corruption, chose--of all people--Mustafa
Sarıgül as their candidate for mayor of Istanbul. For all I know, Sarıgül might be totally honest, but he has a pretty sleazy reputation stemming from his role in a scandal relating to the approval of construction of the enormous Ritz-Carlton hotel blocking the view of the Bosphorus for all of those living behind the eyesore.
Regarding Turkey more generally, I think it's important to keep in mind that the seemingly intractable differences between the religious and the secular are of relatively recent origin. Back in the 1970s, it seemed like Turkey was destined to be torn apart by left-right violence, but that eventually went away. One way or another, people in this country are going to find a way to live together. The Turkish opposition needs to realize this and start working towards that future, rather than engaging in futile shouting matches with Erdoğan right now. 

Heal thyself, opposition. Hold a real election for party leader. As authoritarian as Erdogan is in the country at large, every party leader in Turkey is ten times as much a dictator within his own party. Only by opening up the opposition parties to a real vote for leadership will it be possible for them to come up with candidates who are as dynamic as Erdoğan, and who could give the Prime Minister some real competition at the polls.

This is especially the case now, when it seems like there's a particularly obvious opening for a center-left party in Turkey to take advantage of the mine disaster in Soma. In the 1990s, both the CHP and the SDP (the other center-left party in Turkey at the time) abandoned their causes to join coalitions with center-right parties, presiding over an unprecedented level of privatization in Turkey. There were both winners and losers coming out of the economic changes occurring in Turkey in the 90s, but the only party willing to speak for the losers was the religious party, Refah (Welfare), which was the precursor to Erdoğan's AK Party.

The main difference between the Refah Party of the 1990s and the AK Party of today is that the AK Party is a thoroughly corporate entity. They've dropped all of the social justice talk that characterized the Refah Party of Necmettin Erbakan. If there were actually a real grass-roots party in Turkey that was willing to speak up in the name of the deprived and screwed over, they could stand a puncher's chance of snatching away a lot of votes from the AKP.

But it probably won't happen because the leadership of the opposition is most likely more interested in hanging onto their internal power than really setting up the groundwork for a party that could challenge the status quo in this country.

Erdoğan is nothing new in this country, which had witnessed brutal authoritarian attacks on civilians for decades prior to the AK Party's elevation to power twelve years ago. For the most part, it's the victims who have changed, rather than the methods of political oppression. If today's victims really want to change things in Turkey, they'll start by changing their own parties. By doing so, they might find that they can actually provide an alternative that people will buy into.
Also see:
Anatolian Express II: Soma and Toma
Anatolian Express: Back in Istanbul

May Day Mahem in Turkey

Erdogan's Interview with Charlie Rose

Isyanbol: the Gezi Park Protests
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