Plebiscite in the Midst of Hunger: Portrayals From the Last Turkish ElectionsSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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During the last week of June 2002, the Turkish General Assembly convened for a special session and resolved that national elections should take place on November 3, 2002. This event was the culmination of political turmoil that beleaguered the three-party coalition government leading the country since the April 1999 elections under the leadership of aging Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit. As a political scientist conducting field research in Turkey, I had the opportunity to observe the electoral process closely.
The elections on November 3 resulted in the sweeping victory of the Justice and Development Party (JDP), founded just 14 months earlier. The party succeeded in attracting 34.3 percent of the total vote, an unprecedented accomplishment in Turkey for the last 15 years. The runner-up was the Republican People‘s Party (RPP) with 19.4 percent. These were the only parties that gained seats in the parliament out of a total of 18 contenders. The rest of the parties failed to pass the 10 percent threshold to be eligible to gain parliamentary seats. A remnant of the military coup of 1980 that suspended the electoral democracy and brutalized the country for three years erected this threshold to ensure the system‘s stability by preventing marginal parties from entering parliament. Currently, the threshold serves to prevent the non-separatist Kurdish party, too dangerous in the eyes of the military-bureaucratic establishment, to gain representation in parliament. In the last elections, the Kurdish party in alliance with two tiny extreme-left parties collected 5.63 percent of the total vote.
Primarily because of the 10 percent threshold, elections resulted in an artificial two-party parliament for the first time in 52 years and a single party government after 11 years of coalition government. In the euphoria following the election, the fact that 46 percent of voter preferences were not translated into a single seat was not a great concern. Rather, liquidation of the old political elite and the rise of a one-party government displaced any concern with the legitimacy of a parliamentary configuration with such a representation deficit.
This conclusive liquidation of the political elite was not a surprise. In the last fateful decade Turkey experienced, in addition to two devastating earthquakes, the three worst economic crises of its history, a civil war that ravaged the predominantly Kurdish southeast regions of the country, the rise of political Islam culminating in the February 1997 velvet military intervention and tense relations with Iraq, Cyprus and the European Union
The electorate decided that most of the responsibility should fall on the shoulders of the prominent politicians of the 1990s. All political parties and cadres that had been in power during the last decade, with the partial exception of the RPP, were buried in the ballot box. The logic of voting for the untested and clean led many to the party that transmitted this message, namely the JDP.
The elections represented the closure of an era that would hardly be remembered as a bright one. During the last decade, the political scene was characterized by binary polarizations, intensified Turkish and Kurdish xenophobic nationalism and a general lack of concern with widespread violations of fundamental human rights. The JDP preferred to avoid these issues. The party‘s message was built around the theme of “hunger,” and the party portrayed itself as the only party capable of bringing prosperity to the country. Ironically, it did not promise sharp divergences from the policies of the previous government. What it effectively disseminated was its image of being competent and trustworthy. Its messages promised to carry on the austerity and liberalization program as agreed with the IMF, not to diverge from the classical lines of Turkish foreign policy, not to threaten the power hold of the military-bureaucratic establishment in the country, and to avoid the issues of the Kurdish minority‘s rights and Islam‘s role in public life.
TayyipConsequently, what is most striking was the party‘s silence, rather than vociferousness, on crucial political and social issues confronting Turkey. During its electoral campaign, the party shrewdly refrained from announcing a comprehensive set of proposals. What it did offer was quite simple but effective: the cult personality of Mr. Erdogan as the most successful mayor of Istanbul, portrayed as a hero who was banned from running in the elections because of having recited a poem in 1997.
Additionally, it offered a vigorous condemnation of the existing political parties as inept and incompetent and outlandishly simple economic projects to create employment and revitalize economic activity. Thus, the party‘s main campaign themes included offering selective incentives to employers for the purpose of creating a million jobs for unqualified Turkish workers in order to purge illegal foreign workers.
The major issues facing the next government were not subjects of debate. The reason for this was the people‘s detachment from politics and their dismay with political parties as agents capable of producing serious policy alternatives. Along with this, the political parties that built their electoral strategy on radical proposals and solutions failed decisively as even radicalism lost its credibility in the eyes of the public. For example, one of the parties carrying messages of canceling relations with the IMF and standing firmly against the USA‘s operation against the pro-Islamic Contentment Party got barely 2.5 percent of the votes. The only exception to this trend was the brand new Youth Party, which gathered 7.2 percent of the votes with radical messages like kicking out the IMF.
Yet, this disillusionment with politics was not accompanied by disenchantment. Even if people lost confidence in the ability of politics to generate genuine solutions to their problems, out of desperation, they perceived it as the only avenue through which their hunger might be eradicated. Thus, for the majority of the population, the relevance of politics was about how to satisfy their hunger. Their apathy towards it coincided with expectations for the party in government to bow under populist pressure to redistribute wealth so as to appease hunger and misery.
Under these circumstances, the parties perceived to be responsible for hunger were swept away; the parties that directly addressed peoples‘ stomachs prospered. And when politics turned out to be about hunger rather than ideas and values, the elections resembled a kind of plebiscite. After the economic recession of 2001, a third of the population fell below the hunger level and a half found itself below the poverty level. The sound of rumbling stomachs made it impossible to listen to the feasibility and plausibility of different political projects and proposals.
The political rallies that characterized the electoral process vividly demonstrated how hunger influenced people‘s expectations. In rallies, party leaders addressed people who had crowded in a plaza for the occasion and spelled out their promises to them. For each major party, the crucial thing was to give the impression that the plaza was teeming with enthusiastic party supporters. Crowding the plaza and stirring up the people's fervor often required shrewd strategies from party headquarters and local branches, including distributing material incentives and transporting party loyalists in from distant towns.
A depiction of a typical JDP rally is quite telling to understand the characteristics of Turkish politics. The winner of the elections, Mr. Erdogan, spoke in 65 different cities and this series of rallies formed the backbone of the JDP‘s electoral campaign. On the day before the rally, the plaza was decked out with party flags and emblems. The bus on which the leader was to address the public was brought to the plaza several hours before the start of the rally. A few hours before the announced starting time, people would start to gather in the plaza, most of them brought from surrounding towns and villages by local party branches. Depending on the day—whether weekday or weekend, and the time—after working hours or during working time, the quantity and characteristics of the crowd would vary. In all cases, however, elderlypeople from villages were the constant participants in these rallies. In the JDP‘s meetings, women were allocated a separate space. Most of the women attending the rally were party activists. Usually, conditions would be too harsh and intimidating for a woman to attend the rally.
After a while people would start to flow in, and a party member with the best command of language would do his best to arouse the crowd‘s passion and zeal. To hold the crowd‘s interest, the party leader‘s arrival would be announced repeatedly as he approached the town. Until the leader arrived, provincial candidates and influential party figures would be introduced to the people. In the highly hierarchical manner that reflects the party leader‘s nearly absolute power, his ascendance to the platform was the zenith of the rally and his speech was often interrupted by applause and slogans, usually provoked by party loyalists dispersed throughout the crowd.
In such an atmosphere, people were motivated to hear simple, superficially convincing and quick messages of action and delivery from the leader in whom they put their trust. What mattered was not the substance but the rhetoric, not what was told but who was doing the telling. Rallies were the parties‘ showplaces to spotlight their leader‘s invincibility. The leader was alone in addressing a crowd with self-confidence and strength. S/he spoke eloquently, demonstrating knowledge of what people needed and the ability to deliver it promptly. Rallies, rather than being occasions for mutual exchange between the politician and the people, were opportunities to satisfy the hubris of the politician.
In this paternalistic political culture, the politician appears as a God-like figure, capable of delivering prosperity and abundance, and people take the role of passive recipients of the promises. This situation does not promote the ideas of self-help and responsibility that are the linchpins of political liberalism. For most of the country‘s desperate people, parties solemnly act as channels of redistribution and patronage. Parties vie with each other to capture the discretionary power over state resources. Behind the image and psychology of a strong state, the underlying theme of Turkish politics during the last 50 years has been the exploitation of state resources by private interest groups under different party names. In a country where even the entry into the prestigious state institutions requires backing from influential political figures, individuals and groups who conform to the system gain at the expense of society.
Pomp, rituals, ceremonies and display of power are the main elements of this milieu of obsequiousness. When the politician appears on the scene with his entourage, people debase themselves to show reverence. Yet, beyond this aura of power, awe and submission, people are ready to castigate the politician. Behind the façade of obsequiousness, all sorts of conspiracies take place. Discontent is carried through whispers and clandestine acts.
Moreover, it is common knowledge that when elected, the politician is beyond the reach of the ordinary and effective mechanism of accountability. For instance in the JDP, the party leadership determined the candidates for the parliamentary seats. In this top-down approach, grassroots groups and citizens were deprived of any voice or choice in politics except for voting at election time. The result was intense competition between candidates to win the approval of the party leadership. This absence of self-rule and government accompanies the absence of self-help from politics in general. Party leadership determines the candidates according to their wishes and judgement without feeling much obligation to listen to the preferences of people. Inevitably, this stifles autonomous action and thinking in politics In these respects, this last Turkish election was not an exception to this rule.
Given this background and electoral consequences, what was the most significant aspect of these elections? The classical paradigm of Turkish politics argues that one central social cleavage determines the parameters of politics in the country: the center versus the periphery. This cleavage exists on a cultural surface rather than an economic one. It often overlaps with left-right distinctions in the country.
In an era of rapid social transformation, this paradigm fails to shed light on the complexities of Turkish life. The sharp differences between worldviews and lifestyles are eroding. The penetration of mass media to the remotest corners of the country, establishment of universities in previously ultra-conservative Anatolian towns, horizontal and vertical socio/economic mobility and an ever growing consensus about the deleterious consequences of state intervention in people‘s lives have led to the emergence of more tolerant, open, plural and less fanatical values and behaviors. For the first time, the consequences of this transformation were reflected in the restructure of the political system. The parties that failed to capture the dynamics of this change collapsed; the party that best approximated this change won the overwhelming majority in the parliament
The Justice and Development Party‘s emergence as the undisputed victor corresponds to this crossbreeding and hybridization in social values and attitudes. It proposes to come up with a synthesis of local (read “Turkish-Islamic”) with the liberal-democratic values of tolerance, diversity, plurality and individuality. If it manages to do this, it will be a permanent actor in Turkish politics around which new political formations and alliances occur. Furthermore, this realignment in Turkish politics may initiate a model of bottom-up democratization in an Islamic country. Such a development may set a realistic alternative to the authoritarian regimes in Islamic countries and scenarios of violent intercourse between distinct civilizations.
In the aftermath of September 11 and in the midst of the Bush administration‘s attempts to reformulate the dynamics of international order, the Turkish electorate found political platforms carrying messages of polarization, isolation and radicalism to be completely superfluous and irrelevant. It may be safe to conclude that in other countries with predominantly Islamic populations, radical political platforms and messages will fall on deaf ears. The current popular demands for liberation and conciliation with the outside world in Iran tend to confirm these remarks.
Gunes Murat Tezcur, a PhD candidate in political science, is currently undertaking ethnographic research in Turkey for his dissertation. The dissertation analyzes how the value systems of people living in Islamic countries change and the impacts of these changes on people‘s political behaviors.