Turkey: A deep ideological contest

Erdogan has been Turkey’s tallest political leader for the past two decades 
Turkey: A deep ideological contest
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Elections for the presidency and parliament were held in Turkey on May 14. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AKP) party along with some minor alliance partners won a majority in parliament but Erdogan, who stood for re-election for the presidency, did not succeed in getting more than 50% of the vote, a necessary condition to win the election. He got 49.51%, his nearest rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, secured 44.88% and Sinan Ogan obtained 5.17% respectively of the votes cast. Under the Turkish constitution a run-off between Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu will now occur on May 28.

Erdogan has been Turkey’s tallest political leader for the past two decades. He co-founded AKP along with Abdullah Gul in 2001. The party’s object is to turn Turkey from its secular constitutional and political system established by the founder of the modern Turkish state, Kemal Ataturk, towards a moderate Islamic polity. Initially though the party sought to give the impression that it would work within the system and press for greater freedoms including of those who were of a more conservative disposition. From the beginning, the true force of the party was Erdogan though Abdullah Gul was respected and served as the country’s president from 2007-2014 at a time when Turkey followed a parliamentary system. From 2003 to 2014 Erdogan was the country’s prime minister and head of the government.

In 2014 Erdogan decided to contest the presidential election which he won in the first round with 51.79% of the vote. This was the first time the people directly voted for the president. It was an indication that Erdogan was determined to replace the parliamentary system with a presidential one. He succeeded in doing so through a national referendum in 2017 and he became both head of government and head of state. Abdullah Gul went practically into political wilderness and Erdogan became the unquestioned leader of the AKP.

In the presidential election held in 2018 under the new constitutional system Erdogan won in the first round with 52.59% of the vote. In Erdogan’s victories both in 2014 and 2018 there were substantial differences in his vote-share and those of his nearest rival; more than 13% in 2014 and 22% in 2018. Hence, in the current election not only has Erdogan fallen short of the required more than 50% vote but the difference in his and Kilicdaroglu’s vote-shares is only 4.63%. With Sinan Ogan getting 5.17% of the vote some observers feel that he can exercise a substantial influence over the run-off election though Erdogan justifiably appears confident of victory largely because of his firm support base in the Anatolian heartland and also because he ‘controls’ the main stream media and the institutions of state have bowed to his will. Significantly, while the Erdogan administration has been criticized for incompetence in responding to the devastating earthquake in southern Turkey in February this year the people of the affected area have voted in his favour.

There is little doubt that Erdogan has eroded the secular foundations of the Ataturk state. The great Turkish modernizer had ruthlessly suppressed the Caliphate. He had also intruded into the personal lives of the people. He had disallowed women to be veiled in public places and men from wearing the fez cap. While not challenging the essence of the people’s faith, Islam, he wanted Turkey to imbibe the spirit of the ideas and principles which had led to Europe’s progress. He also did not really seek to establish a democratic system of governance. For him the instrument of change had to be the institution to which he himself belonged—the army. And, it was the army which considered itself the guardian of the values of Ataturk. Hence, it intervened in the political system after Ataturk’s death in 1938 whenever it thought it necessary to do so.

While a large section of the Turkish people accepted the changes brought about by Ataturk there were still substantial segments of the population in the Anatolian heartland as well as among the poor and lower middle classes who did not truly do so. They remained attached to conservative Islamic values especially on gender issues including in matters of women’s dress codes. The AKP under Erdogan mobilized this conservative population at a time when political Islam was becoming strong in West Asia and the hold of the Western educated elites of the region were weakening. It is also a testament of Erdogan’s skills at political manipulation aided by cracks within Turkey’s military establishment that he was able to tame the army.

What also helped Erdogan was the resistance of some influential countries of the European Union, especially France, to Turkey’s joining the Union. While they would never openly acknowledge the reason for their opposition to Turkey it lay in the country’s Islamic roots. Consequently, Erdogan has now fully given rein to the country’s Islamic tradition. In this context nothing was more dramatic than his decision in July 2020 to restore Hagia Sophia’s status as a mosque. In doing so Erdogan departed from Ataturk’s decision to make, what was once one of Christendom’s holiest churches, and after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1452, a mosque, into a museum. This decision outraged Christian countries but Erdogan simply ignored them.

While many in Turkey and the wider world who wish the country to return to the values of Ataturk would be praying for the miracle of Kilicdaroglu’s victory in the May 28 run-off election the chances are that Erdogan would win. With that he would seek with greater vigour to restore Turkey to the glory of its Ottoman past.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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