‘Teflon Tayyip’ has bounced back to win the Turkish presidency but a new leftist party may be the success story of the election
They call him “Teflon Tayyip”. The man who can face down the challenge of Gezi Park, where 11 protesters were killed and 8,000 injured, and tell the world that they’re drunks and terrorists. The man who can tell grieving relatives of 301 dead miners in Soma that “what happened, happened. It is from God.” And warn that protesters who boo him will be “slapped”. The man to whom protests over revelations about his own corruption are a reason to ban Twitter.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan just won Turkey’s presidential elections with 51% of the vote. Until now, the president has been selected by parliament. The creation of a directly elected presidential post strengthens the executive, and Erdoğan will undoubtedly view this result as a strong mandate.
Might it be that his voters just don’t care about corruption and brutality? There has always been, about Erdoğan, a certain wised-up left analysis that says his pratfalls and irrational behaviour are a purely scripted persona that is admired in conservative heartlands. However, to make this assumption would be to miss some real changes in the terrain, and also underestimate the more mundane bases for his resilience.
The main choice in this election was an uninspiring one. Erdoğan’s major opponent, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, was a fairly uncharismatic conservative backed by the traditionally secular Republican People’s party (CHP) and the far-right National Action party (MHP). His differences with Erdoğan were not chiefly over the issues that have aroused mass protest, but rather with his rhetorical style and his polarising stances in the Middle East. This enabled Erdoğan to denounce him, in a classic piece of demagoguery, as an “Israel man”.
Erdoğan’s support was nonetheless lower than predicted in the opinion polls, where his position ranged from 54% to 58%. He did not lead his main opponent by the 20% gap anticipated, despite the fact that he had the majority of the media coverage and refused to resign as prime minister during his run, ensuring he had the administrative resources of his office to sustain his campaign. Moreover, the increase in support for the Syriza-style left-Kurdish People’s Democratic party (HDP), rising from an average of 5%-6% to 9.7%, was significant.
Even so, the resilience of Erdoğan’s core support is impressive. This is because his policies, however authoritarian and polarising, have hugely enriched the “new Muslim bourgeoisie” that forms the bedrock of the AKP’s support. Turkey’s economy has almost quadrupled in size since Erdoğan became prime minister, and this growth has been punctuated by major infrastructural investments. Whatever the “dark side” of such projects, and however unsustainable the accumulated debt, with growth still averaging above 4% per quarter, too many people are doing well out of Erdoğan’s leadership.
And he means to continue in the same vein. His campaign slogan concluded with the phrase “Target 2023”. This is a developmentalist campaign that is supposed to crescendo 100 years after the founding of the Turkish state, and whose hallmarks include the building of a high-speed rail network and a giant airport. İhsanoğlu complains that all of this public sector investment hadn’t yet propelled Turkey above being a “middle income nation”, but he has no convincing alternative.
One of Erdoğan’s main strengths with his voters is on the Kurdish question. It was his administration that took the politically risky step of opening up negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan and the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), while the CHP and MHP continue to resist peace talks. This is partially about rival frameworks of nationalism. The downwardly mobile secular bourgeoisie regards concessions to the Kurdish people as part of its defeat, while the rising Muslim bourgeoisie regards relations with the Kurdish region as commercially lucrative. The result is that the AKP gained the support of just over half of voters in Kurdish-majority provinces in the 2007 elections. To an extent, Erdoğan has even been able to take credit for the campaign of his HDP rival, Selahattin Demirtaş, who is the first Kurdish candidate for president.
In fact, however, as Demirtaş rightly points out, his candidacy would not have been permitted if Erdoğan had his way. Since the 2009 local elections in which the Kurdish organisation the Peace and Democracy party reasserted its regional dominance, the AKP has used the traditional apparatuses of Kemalist repression to hound PKK activists.
The HDP is in part a response to this repression. A relatively new organisation, it was formed from a coalition of Kurdish, socialist and green-left organisations after the Peace and Democracy party decided that its base was too narrowly Kurdish. The new organisation had its first conference in October 2013, in the afterglow of the Taksim protest movement. It adopted quotas for LGBT and female representation, and enthusiastically took up the slogan of Gezi Park: “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance” . Its campaign articulated a clear leftist, pro-worker agenda, the success of which places the new party in good position to do well in the parliamentary elections.
Erdoğan’s base may be hard to shift, and his main opponents may be decrepit, but the surprise story of this election is that the dynamism is on the side of a new left.
12 August 2014