Monday, 2 November 2015

Protests Alone Will Never Win Elections

In retrospect no one should be surprised by yesterday’s election results. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) proved once again that it is a formidable political machine with firm control over almost half the Turkish electorate. Once again the opposition learned the painful lesson that by itself protest against the increasing excesses of President Tayyip Erdoğan is not enough to win elections. The only positive note for the anti-Erdoğan forces is that AKP failed to receive enough votes to change the constitution unilaterally and legitimise Erdoğan’s power grab.,

Over the next few days we will hear the tired old excuses of how the AKP didn’t ‘play fair’ or somehow manipulated the electorate – again. It is time to end the whinging and whining and get serious about the serial election defeats. Of course the AKP played the national security card and tried to frighten everyone about the ‘looming’ Kurdish problem. Politics in Turkey is a full contact sport. Domestic and foreign developments since the June elections played right into that theme. People willing to vote for the predominantly Kurdish party HDP in June had second thoughts in November. Many nationalists who voted for the MHP party in June also had second thoughts and decided to stick with the AKP as the best guaranty of Turkey’s security.

Different Election, Same Result
But these anti-Kurdish, national security themes do not explain the persistent failures of the opposition parties to mount a serious challenge to AKP’s dominance. This goes far beyond Erdoğan’s bombastic, divisive rhetoric. As things stand now the best they can hope for is getting enough votes to form a very junior partner in a coalition with AKP. Sadly, they would construe this as a victory. It’s more like calling the retreat from Dunkirk a victory.

            As long as the opposition parties remain divided the AKP, as the representative of Turkey’s overwhelming socially conservative electorate, has a fairly easy job. It is mathematically possible, but practically/politically impossible, for the opposition parties to unite and get more votes than the AKP. But egos and long outdated political ideologies make this nothing more than a pipe dream at the moment. It is nice to get the praise from worthy international organizations and from Turkey’s small but vocal intelligentsia, but neither of these can deliver enough votes to make a dent in AKP’s electoral armour.

            Furthermore, the opposition has to admit that in hundreds of large and small towns across the country the AKP municipal officials have done a decent job – not only in running the municipalities but in establishing solid, local AKP branches that deliver the votes in every election. It is this unglamorous groundwork, not censorious articles in the Economist, that wins elections.

            A useful first step might be to understand how the AKP can withstand the onslaught of serious issues like a declining economy, increasing unemployment, depreciating currency, and a very confused foreign policy. It’s almost as if despite all these issues the AKP electorate simply does not trust the opposition parties to represent its interests. “They may be corrupt. They be leading the country into a dangerous swamp. But they are OUR people. They know us and we know them. We don’t know you.” Demonstrably, very few people from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) are ‘one of us.’

            The CHP, for example, prides itself on being the party that Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, created. The party proudly symbolizes the reforms that Atatürk made as he rebuilt Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire almost 100 years ago. Yet, in my own time in small towns across Anatolia, I learned that a great many people in small-town Turkey did not share the elite’s reverence for Atatürk. Quite the opposite, they felt ignored and believed their time-honoured socially conservative traditions were being trampled under the wave of ‘Westernization’ imposed from the top down.

            Part of Erdoğan’s political genius is that he recognizes this reality and has built an enduring career by building on it. His speeches carry the same theme, familiar to demagogues around the world.  “Only I understand you and can represent you – not those people safely removed in their Istanbul villas or foreign capitals.”

            Harping on Erdoğan’s obvious faults will not change this. The only real threat I see to Erdoğan is from within the AKP itself. He has done a good job purging the party of many who do not share his extreme views. But a core of existing and former MPs is increasingly uneasy with some of his actions. But will they have the courage to act? Will they reach out to like-minded people in other parties to from a new political movement, free from the cant of the past and extremism of the present? Does their concern for the direction of the country outweigh their fear of retribution from the reis – the boss?

            Will the anti-Erdoğan forces follow the good advice that Benjamin Franklin gave to his fellow revolutionaries during the American War for Independence. “Gentlemen, we either hang together, or we hang separately.”

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