Better late than never.


AK Party’s ‘not-so-secret’ formula for success

©Yavuz Baydar

« The elections and two referendums of the past nine years presented bitter lessons for the main opposition, which remained in denial when it came to reality, clinging to a language and approach that did not respond to it. It no longer hopes for tutelage and is now learning that “change or vanish” is the new wisdom. »

A fresh page has been turned in Turkey’s keenly observed progress toward a full-scale democracy. Sunday’s elections, which ended with a not-so-surprising sweeping victory for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), took place without fear, with no concern — or “hope” — about the threat of tutelage.

The 2002 elections unleashed a wave of subversive activity to force the AK Party out of power — at least to weaken it to the point of political paralysis — and the voting in 2007 took place amidst mass trauma due to judicial coup attempts and a military e-memo meant to prevent a democratic normality: choosing a president. Those days are over. This time the electorate was to a large extent relieved, also because the referendum on the constitutional amendments had sent a clear signal to the political class. It was a “yes” to the continuity of change and an end to the ancient Kemalist guidelines that were apparently perceived as a stumbling block before full normalization.

AK Party leadership did not seem surprised at the fact that it was every second voter’s choice. Others did. The mistake of the latter was the extreme focus on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s personal style — described as arrogant, threatening and dictatorial — and a number of issues (justifiably) related to freedom of expression.

But this was a narrow angle chosen by the foreign press: Yes, Erdoğan is a phenomenon, but there has also been a full package of issues regarding the performance of his party. Sunday’s vote was a “yes” to continuity, but also a yes to what the people were satisfied with: stability. People are to a large extent content with the constant improvement in their living standards. The AK Party’s service-minded and pragmatist approach was the winner.

Citizens are happy that there are no longer cuts in electricity; households have gas-heating in many areas; there are now almost no villages without clean running water; health care reform means much cheaper medicine and easy access to hospitals; free schoolbooks; and two-lane roads and housing even in the remotest parts of the country. Clearly, there is a discontinuity between the image of Erdoğan as an authoritarian figure and what his party has been doing for the people, neglected and humiliated for too long by an elitist, insensitive, selfish political class. Let this paradox lead to a lot of debate on “semi-authoritarian benevolence,” but what blurred the perspective of some major Western media outlets was that those voters having second thoughts about voting for the AK Party were not so impressed by the opposition, in particular the Republican People’s Party (CHP). “Too much power concentrated in one party and leader, so vote for the opposition” was not a very wise way of putting it: The opposition must also be convincing for its domestic audience. The CHP’s leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, failed to do so. He had raised the stakes up to 30 percent, but seemed unaware of the fact that his style and pledges belonged to the old Turkey, where politicians promised everything under the sky to voters, in order to let them down later. The days of patronizing and duping voters are over. When CHP’s leader uttered words like “Vote for me, everything will be better, because my name is Kemal!” the voters were unmoved. It has to do with massive sociological changes. In the early days, even up until 2007, rather significant portions of the population were living in rural areas. Now, those who have moved to towns and cities are around 75 percent of the population. This means that a new middle class has been taking shape, profoundly concerned about a stable future and unwilling to lose what it has gained in terms of living standards, thereby defining the outcome of the vote. It must be added, too, that because the CHP stopped using the “we are shifting away from secularism” argument even some “centrist” middle-class segments were encouraged to vote for the AK Party. Somehow, a psychological barrier seems to have been broken. This is a crucial part of what these elections are all about and presents a safety valve for any undue disruption of democratic processes.

Let me end with a couple of observations. The post-June 12 period will be a new phase, with the “deepening of democratization” on the agenda. There are huge challenges on the way, such as a new constitution and an end to the Kurdish conflict. Urgent steps are required in the field of freedom of speech, and lengthy detentions pose serious problems.

But, if anything, these elections achieved two goals. Some of us have — as liberal pundits — long argued that the main fault line in Turkish politics has been between those who want to consolidate democracy with full civilian control of the military, and those who favor continuation of military tutelage or outright military rule. The former now is much closer to their goal. Second, the elections and two referendums of the past nine years presented bitter lessons for the main opposition, which remained in denial when it came to reality, clinging to a language and approach that did not respond to it. It no longer hopes for tutelage and is now learning that “change or vanish” is the new wisdom. Better late than never.

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