In normal circumstances someone who has sharply divided his country with inflammatory rhetoric, driven foreign policy from the much vaunted ‘zero problems’ to the current ‘zero friends’, scorned the fundamental democratic principles of separation of powers and judicial independence, crippled the media and weakened the economy should have no chance of being elected president. But these are not normal circumstances in Turkey. And Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has a very good chance of becoming Turkey’s first president chosen by direct popular ballot.
How is this possible, you might well ask? Liberals in Turkey and abroad scratch their heads in wonder about how someone with this dismal record can retain the trust of so many Turkish voters. By all rights, according to them, he would be consigned to a small footnote in history by now instead of retaining the trust of about 50% of Turkish voters.
There are at least three reasons for this seeming contradiction.
The first is that corruption scandals like the ones that rocked Erdoğan’s government and the abuse of power are nothing new to Turkish voters. Governments long before Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) were no virgins in these issues. Voters only have to look back to the 1980s and 1990s to remember similar, if not worse, examples of corruption, mismanagement, and abuse of democratic institutions. Being a ‘friend of the party’ counted much more than planning regulations in winning valuable construction projects. Cronyism was rampant throughout the economy. Judicial independence was a nice thought, but that was as far as it went.
No one should kid themselves that the pre-Erdoğan media was free in the European or American sense. Many journalists were censured or jailed for daring to criticise the military, comment favourably on the Kurds, or obliquely hint that Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, had human foibles. No serious attempt was made to solve the assassination of a prominent investigative journalist who was thorn in the side of the so-called ‘Deep State.’
The less said about economic mis-management in the 1990s the better. Serial financial crises severely damaged the average citizen. People at the top of the pyramid were delighted with the money they earned from sky-high interest rates and were in no hurry to fix the ridiculous inflation that was making life very difficult for the remaining 99%. Everyone knew that the music had to stop sometime, but hoped they could make their millions before that happened. And collapse it did in 2001 when the country’s financial system was almost wiped out.
And then there are the Kurds, who now seem to hold the trump card in the upcoming presidential elections. The 1990s saw some of the worst violence between the Kurdish guerilla group (PKK) and the Turkish security forces. Successive operations by the regular army and ‘special’ forces failed to stamp out the violence that claimed more than 30,000 lives. In many cases these military operations only increased the Kurds’ burning sense of resentment. Erdoğan, to his great credit, was the first Turkish prime minister to try to solve the Kurdish politically instead of militarily. This may be nothing more than a cynical move on his part to get Kurdish support for his presidential bid, but the fact remains that south-eastern Turkey remains relatively calm.
The second major reason for Erdoğan’s continued support is that under the AKP living standards for millions of ordinary Turks have improved. Health care is better organized, public services are sharply improved, and elderly citizens are given cash supplements to their meagre pensions. A friend did an informal survey of villagers in his area and found a very simple reason for their continued support of AKP. People are better off financially and feel more secure with a single party government. Abstract issues like freedom of the press, abuse of government powers, environmental protection count for very little against cash in hand.
The third reason for Erdoğan’s likely victory is that elements of the main opposition Republic People’s Party (CHP) have learned nothing from their previous electoral failures. The party leadership has finally come to its senses and joined with other opposition parties in nominating a joint candidate acceptable to a wide range of the population. The candidate, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, is a soft spoken, respected scholar who previously was the head of the Organization of Islamic Countries. More important, he vows to protect and enhance the country’s democratic institutions. The vast majority of the Turkish population is socially conservative, and Ihsanoğlu is exactly the type of candidate required to attract that vote.
And yet the hard-core Kemalists, rigid followers of Atatürk, refuse to support him. To them, Ihsanoğlu is not hard-core enough. Such a stance only reveals how little they know their own country. A frustrated anti-Erdoğan friend could only put his head in his hands and moan at the idiocy of this view.
“Atatürk has been dead for almost 76 years. Let him rest in peace. He set the direction and the country has moved on. We need to recognize reality in Turkey. We need to accept that it was our own failures that set the stage for AKP’s electoral success. We need to learn how to appeal to the material needs of the bulk of people, to respect their right to be devout Moslems, and to reinforce real democracy. Only then will we be in a position to seriously challenge Tayyip Erdoğan.”
Alas, this remains a distant dream. Even with the backing of all the opposition parties Ihsanoğlu has only a slim chance to win. Without the full support of all those opposed to Tayyip Erdoğan the opposition will remain in the political wilderness for many years to come.