As chaos swirls around Turkey’s embattled prime minister, can the opposition take advantage?
By Lauren Bohn | Foreign Policy
ISTANBUL, Turkey — In one of Istanbul’s cosmopolitan districts on the winding Bosphorus Strait, two female campaigners stood armed to the teeth with campaign gear — pamphlets, pins, balloons, and a trailer booming patriotic beats. “Here’s the plan,” said a soft-spoken Gulsun Karsli. “We’ll go house to house and remind people why the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is the best.”
“But first,” she paused and smirked, “We’ll take a selfie.”
Turkey is currently in the hectic throes of election season. On March 30, voters will go to the polls to elect the mayors of Istanbul, Ankara, and local municipalities across the country. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party appears poised to come out ahead, with polls projecting that the AKP holds roughly a 10-point lead over its main rival, the Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Tensions, however, are high. In an increasingly polarized political landscape, the vote is essentially a referendum on not only Erdogan’s increasingly white-knuckled grip on the country, but on the very identity of modern Turkey.
But even in Kadikoy, a district that AKP historically loses, the team of AKP campaigners — a brigade of sharp-tongued, smart-phone wielding women — isn’t worried.
“Look, Erdogan’s transformed this country and turned it around completely from when I grew up,” says Seyda Ertem, a businesswoman who studied at Barry University in Miami. She says her long, blonde hair and penchant for trendy clothes come as a surprise to many, who don’t expect an unveiled, stylish woman working for the Islamist AKP. She says that she has been asked derisively how much money she’s being paid to support the party.
“It’s all just noise,” she says, rolling her eyes. “There is no solid opposition, just noise.”
Indeed, there’s been quite a bit of noise in Turkey this year. Last summer, Erdogan’s government fired tear gas and water cannons at demonstrators protesting against his plans to demolish Gezi Park, a beloved green space in Istanbul, to make way for yet another mega-mall. The protest wasn’t merely about trees, but a larger fight over the identity of the country and who ultimately decides upon that identity. The park became yet another battleground in the country’s perennial struggle between Erdogan’s self-proclaimed pious constituency and a secular elite rooted in the military.
Since then, major rifts have emerged between the AKP and its erstwhile ally, an Islamic movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive cleric based in Pennsylvania.
The tug-of-war has culminated in a stream of leaked audio recordings, which reveal an extensive and sticky web of state corruption. In one purported leak, Erdogan tells his son to dispose of large sums of money. In the most recent leak, high-level security Turkish officials discussed potential military operations in Syria.
But even more revealing than the leaks has been Erdogan’s reaction — more indicative of a recalcitrant child than a world leader. After allegations of corruption surfaced, he reportedly replaced police commanders involved in the probe and high-profile prosecutors. In February, he pushed parliament to pass a law that allows the government to blocks websites without a court order.
Erdogan wasn’t bluffing about his intent to control the flow of information in Turkey. His government blocked Twitter last week, citing the leaks as a reason, then blocked YouTube — where new leaks had been posted — on March 27.
As Turkey’s diverse political battles look set to converge on election day, a few key issues will define the country’s future in the days and year ahead. One of them is the cultural and political divergence of Turkey’s urban metropolises and its Anatolian heartland.
During the height of Gezi Park protests, my colleague Elmira Bayrasli and I hopped on a plane and traveled to Kayseri, an industrial city almost 400 miles away from Istanbul, which has witnessed extraordinary economic growth in the past decade. From this vantage point, regime change looked unlikely: Only a handful of activists sat in a park protesting, while most shook their heads and laughed as they walked by.
It’s not just Kayseri that has experienced an economic boom under Erdogan — the whole country has prospered. Before the current political crisis, the economy saw an average annual growth of 5-7 percent. Those reforms translated to vast social mobility: Turkey’s middle class mushroomed to 59 percent of the total population — up from 25 percent in 1995. So too did the AKP’s electoral power: in the 2002 elections, the party secured 34 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections. Five years later, its support had increased to 47 percent, and in 2011 the AKP secured nearly 50 percent of the Turkish vote.
Such sweeping improvements made Erdogan a darling on the international circuit, with the West heralding him as a model for Muslim-majority neighbors in the region. “The Turkish model” was the all the rage not just in the West, but across the Middle East: While on a reporting trip to Gaza in fall 2011, I saw stores named “Erdogan” selling shirts and mugs emblazoned with his smile.
Back at home, Erdogan has remained engaged with the large rural underclass that catapulted him to power — an underclass that saw itself as historically suppressed under previous governments. Until the AKP’s rule, the staunchly secular military was the arbiter of Turkish political life, enforcing the goal of forced Westernization and secularization held by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
Ataturk’s vision, for instance, included a ban on women wearing the Islamic headscarf in public spaces like universities. When at a gathering of AKP members, I’m usually offered a chain of stories on how they, their wives, sisters, and mothers were forced to study abroad or quit their jobs because of the ban. Erdogan’s wife, Emine, was reportedly prohibited from entering a military hospital in 2007 when she refused to remove her headscarf.
“[Critics] say Erdogan is back-tracking on women’s rights, on liberties, because he’s an Islamist,” says Zeynep Yilmaz, a 61-year-old teacher. “So I ask: ‘Ataturk was a champion when I wasn’t allowed to show my face at a university?’”
Kemalism, as Ataturk’s ideology is known, marginalized the country’s conservative and religiously observant underclass, who regarded themselves as “Black Turks” — suppressed by the “white” secular elite. Until Erdogan’s rise, this elite, with its close connections to the military, exercised almost complete control of the country.
“In this country, there is segregation of Black Turks and White Turks,” Erdogan has said. “Your brother Tayyip belongs to the Black Turks.”
This populist outreach, however, only goes so far. Erdogan’s recent moves to stifle dissent have led to some criticism — even among some of his supporters — that he is creating a political order as imperious as the one he supplanted.
“Power is a dangerous thing … a very dangerous thing,” Fatma Bostan Unsal, a co-founder of the AKP, recently told me. She had been soft and guarded with her critique of Erdogan, but voiced muted worries that the party has increasingly revolved around him alone. “Power needs to listen to the people,” she said. “It corrupts … you have to be careful.”
While Turkey experienced a decade of gleaming economic growth, its amazing run might be coming to an end — and that could spell trouble for the AKP’s political dominance. Turkey’s economy has stalled for the past year: consumer confidence has declined and, in December, the International Monetary Fund warned that the country — with a significant current account deficit — could face a sudden slowdown.
So far, however, Erdogan’s populist appeal has compensated for any economic challenges. On a recent trip to Fatih, a conservative district of Istanbul, residents complained to me about rising costs, and voiced fears over a lack of job opportunities. When I asked them, many whom had voted for the AKP, if their political allegiances have consequently shifted, they stared at me in near confusion.
“The AKP know who we are,” said Ozgul Celik, a 57-year-old construction worker. “And we know them. We are them.”
While the average AKP voter may be relatively clear about what they believe and what they want, the opposition’s identity is harder to define. As we’ve seen across the Middle East for the past few years, while mass protests may grip television coverage and convulse Twitter feeds, they often fail to spark the creation of dominant political movements. During the days of the Gezi Park protests, instead of trying to harness the moment of discontent that had captured the world’s attention, many activists seemed loathe to reach outside their comfort zone.
Many were resigned that those not protesting couldn’t be convinced to abandon Erdogan, as though they were too far-gone — naïve, brainwashed, religious fanatics.
That attitude has sometimes bred a kind of fatalism among Erdogan’s opponents. When I asked Mehmet Pekbas, the press officer of the Kayseri chapter of the Republican People’s Party, the AKP’s greatest rival, how he was planning to reach out beyond his known constituency, he shrugged. “The AKP uses religion to reach people,” he said. “We are at a disadvantage from the start.”
The only thing that seems to unite the diverse elements of the opposition, then, is the fact that they are not AKP. In that sense, Erdogan is actually the opposition’s best ally: In instigating and antagonizing them, he’s giving them a rallying point. And yet, across Turkey, many still looked upon the upheaval in Gezi Park in confusion, asking what “they” stood for and what “they” wanted.
At a massive AKP rally in Istanbul last summer, attended by hundreds of thousands, the party played on those divides like a well-versed instrumentalist. AKP leaders called Gezi protesters “White Turks” who didn’t want democracy, but rather the sole power to define the culture of modern Turkey. It’s the same charge their opponents volley right back at them.
The unproductive, condescending back and forth has proved nothing, save Turkey’s deep inability to internalize democracy. But until Erdogan’s opponents harness the discontent beyond an echo chamber of dissent and sporadic cat-and-mouse protests, the AKP won’t be leaving the halls of power anytime soon.
Back on the Bosphorus in Uskudar, an AKP stronghold, a middle-aged woman shook her hips to the tune of the party’s official campaign song blaring from a campaign van: “He is the people’s man/ A confidant of the oppressed/ He is a nightmare to the cruel/ Recep Tayyip Erdogan!”
“This is a strong Turkey because of him and the AKP,” she said, waving a bouquet of red carnations the party was distributing to passersby. “Who else has accomplished what they’ve accomplished?”
Behind her, a teenage boy glared at her with his eyebrows raised in both amusement and thinly veiled disgust. He stuck out his tongue and chucked two red carnations into a trash-bin.