The "Three Turkeys": Making Sense of 30 March Local Elections

The message these elections have hammered home, and here the "context" does matter, is the apparent lack of willingness on the part of these groups to continue to live together.
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Yes, the vote count is still contested in several municipalities and districts, including the capital Ankara which remains as the main bone of contention between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP). Yes, power cuts were reported on the night of the elections -- while votes were being counted -- in over 40 cities across Turkey, which the Energy Minister Taner Yıldız later blamed on a "cat" who walked into the power distribution unit! And, yes, several restrictions were imposed on social and conventional media in the run-up to the elections, making it harder for the electorate to make an informed choice. Still, AKP emerged as the uncontested winner of the 30 March local elections in Turkey, managing to get 43.3 percent of the votes, as opposed to CHP and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) which received 25.6 percent and 17.7 percent of the total votes respectively. AKP also succeeded in holding on to the symbolically important mayoralties of Istanbul and (at the time of writing) Ankara, leaving most of the cities in Southeast Turkey to the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). Contrary to expectations, the newly founded sister party of BDP, the People's Democracy Party (HDP) performed miserably in Western Turkey, obtaining only 1.9 percent of the total votes cast.

Does Context Matter?

Erdoğan's sweeping victory took many by surprise; after all, 2013 has been a rough year for the "long man" or "grand master" as his supporters call him. The double challenge of the Gezi protests, which took 3.5 million to the streets last June to save one of Istanbul's last green spaces, and the more recent corruption charges brought against prominent figures of Erdoğan's cabinet and some members of his family, would deliver a serious blow to his electoral fortunes, several commentators believed (or perhaps hoped), reducing the margin between the overbearing AKP and his competitors. Yet these expectations were not fulfilled. Neither the Gezi protests and the 17 December graft probe, nor the broader context in which they took place, notably the ongoing tug-of-war between Erdoğan and his erstwhile ally, the influential cleric Fethullah Gülen, mattered. The politics of polarization that has become the staple of Erdoğan's rule in the last eight months seemed to have done the trick, at least for over 19 million people who have voted for him.

One can endlessly speculate on the factors that have led to Erdoğan's continuing popularity -- from relative economic stability and improved public services to the lack of credible alternatives and the fear of losing the privileges won in the last twelve years -- but this is not the question I am interested in, partly because I believe all these factors are concealing a deeper transformation that has been going on in Turkish society, a growing rift of which the AKP is merely a symptom.

The Turkish society is coming apart at the seams, groups with different lifestyles, moralities or cultures, are drifting apart, annulling a contract that have been foisted upon them almost a century ago. What this entails is the writing of a new social contract, or alternatively, a series of separate contracts if the challenge of living together peacefully proves too difficult to overcome.

One or Many Turkeys?

"A nation's existence is," the famous French historian Ernest Renan professed more than a century ago, "a daily plebiscite, just as an individual's existence is a perpetual affirmation of life". Nowhere seems this observation to be more true than in the case of Turkey where, election upon election, the division of the country into three different parts becomes more accentuated and consolidated.

There is first the Turkish Kurdistan, in Southeast Turkey, overwhelmingly dominated by the pro-Kurdish BDP, which snatched three more provinces from AKP in these elections, thereby setting the stage for what the incarcerated PKK leader calls the "democratic autonomy" project. It has always been claimed that the Kurds, despite their concentration in Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia, were dispersed throughout the country, and that Istanbul is the largest Kurdish city. This may well be the case, but the HDP experiment has shown beyond any shadow of doubt that the "Western Kurds" do not tend to vote for pro-Kurdish parties/candidates, despite the candidacy of one of the icons of Gezi protests, Sırrı Süreyya Önder, in Istanbul.

Then there is the Sunni Muslim nationalist Turkey, mostly concentrated in, yet by no means confined to, Central, Northern and Northeast Anatolia, with a strong presence in metropolitan centers, such as Istanbul and Ankara. Conservative in lifestyle, with strong religious and nationalist values, this is the majority Erdoğan -- and before him most center right parties -- taps into and presents as the "New Turkey," as opposed to what he would call the "Old Turkey" of the allegedly Kemalist, "coup-lover" White Turks.

The latter, squeezed into coastal areas and commanding no more than 30 percent of the overall vote, is an odd mixture of staunchly "secularist" (not simply secular) Kemalist nationalists and a host of smaller groups with mostly liberal and left value systems and secular (not secularist) lifestyles. Oscillating between pro-Kurdish, fringe left parties and independent candidates, and often reluctantly the so-called "center-left" CHP, this was the group overwhelmingly represented in Gezi protests, which could be read as the symptom of a large-scale frustration with traditional parties and conventional politics.

Needless to say, the problem I am trying to underline here is not the existence of groups with different lifestyles, cultures and so on per se; that would be stating the obvious. After all, no nation, in fact no group larger than face-to-face communities, is homogeneous in the sense in which nationalists would have us believe. The message these elections have hammered home, and here the "context" does matter, is the apparent lack of willingness on the part of these groups to continue to live together.

Let us refresh our minds. Close to 20 million people have voted for a leader who called a 15 year old boy who lost his life after being hit by a gas canister during the Gezi events a "terrorist" (as if terrorists can be rightfully killed by the police). Tens of thousands of his supporters booed the grieving mother who had accused him of being a murderer, while millions of members of "the other Turkey" were attending the funeral of the same boy. Erdoğan showed no signs of backing down in his post-election victory speech.

Likening his fight against the Gülen community to Turkey's "struggle for independence," he threatened his opponents by declaring that he will "walk into their dens." "Those who are used by Turkey's enemies as pawns were disappointed today", he added; "now is the time to comb them out."

Nor are members of the other Turkey prepared to make peace. Having voted strategically for the second strongest candidate in most municipalities to oust AKP mayors, they amassed outside the offices of The Supreme Electoral Council of Turkey to force a recount of the votes wherever they believed the election results were rigged. The Kurds, on the other hand, made it clear that they will proceed with their plans to build "democratic autonomy" in the provinces they now control.

All this may appear as a fancy academic dream, or an exercise in free-thinking. Alas, it is not! One has only to consider the reactions of different Turkeys to the disappearance of a three year old boy, Pamir, on 4 April Friday to grasp the seriousness of the situation. Following a call by the missing boy's father, hundreds of people organized on Twitter, à la Gezi, to find Pamir who had apparently walked out of the house in early morning hours without his parents noticing.

24 hours later, the AKP supporters and bot accounts allegedly started to post tweets, calling this as yet another manipulation of the Gezicis (those who took part in Gezi protests) to take to the streets, that the father of the boy was Alevi with links to illegal terrorist groups. "Why didn't you empty your swimming pools you White Turks", reportedly read the headlines of a pro-AKP news portal when Pamir's body was found dead in the neighboring villa's pool. If the nation is indeed "a soul, a spiritual principle," as Renan reminds us, that soul was drowned once again today, alongside Pamir's frail body.