The Shadow of Centralism in Türkiye’s general elections

The crackdown on political opposition and the growth of Ottomonist politics in Türkiye means that Kemalism is the only real alternative.

elections
Turkish President and People's Alliance's presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech at the presidential palace, in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday, May 28, 2023. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dissipated a challenge by an opponent who sought to reverse his increasingly authoritarian leanings, securing five more years to oversee the country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia that plays a key role in NATO. (AP Photo/Ali Unal)

The general elections in Türkiye held on 14th May 2023 marked a significant turning point in the country’s political system. The elections are the second elections to be held after the transition from a parliamentary system to a presidential system. This shift has raised concerns about the concentration of power within the government and its impact on democracy.

The recent elections witnessed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan securing the presidency. In the Parliamentary elections his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), suffered huge losses. No party was able to secure an absolute majority, but it looks like the AKP will be able to form a majority coalition by working with 3 political partners as allies. This is the weakest show for the AKP on the parliamentary side in the Twenty-first century.

The AKP previously was able to form the government with just one ally in its coalition, but now requires many more. The AKP won 267 seats out of a total of 600. The AKP secured 28 fewer seats compared to the previous election. The major opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), emerged as the beneficiary, with 23 seats more than last time. The CHP, often compared to the Indian National Congress in Türkiye, is a key player in the evolving political dynamics of the country.

Presidential Result

Erdoğan won the Presidential run-off election with 52% of the popular vote. In the first round, four candidates ran. First was the incumbent Erdoğan. Second was Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who ran in the runoff election with 48% of the popular vote. The other two candidates, Muharrem İnce and Sinan Oğan were ultra-right-wing candidates. Sinan Oğan dropped out of the race, though his name still appeared on the ballot. İnce secured 5.2% in the first round, cutting mostly into Erdoğan’s vote share, keeping him just below the 50% mark. The Turkish presidential election saw a run-off for the first time in history. This race captured the attention of the nation, reflecting the desire for change and the diverse political ideologies at play.

While the Parliamentary election was more diverse in terms of issues raised, the Presidential race was focused on issues surrounding nationalism. The campaigns were mostly oriented towards the personality of the candidates and focused on issues of nationalism, terrorism, and Turkish pride.

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Two Imaginations of Türkiye

Türkiye has been characterized by two distinct nationalist imaginations. The first, inspired by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, envisions a modern secular country based on the principles of republicanism, reform, secularism, populism, nationalism, and statism. This ideology, known as Kemalism or Ataturkism, emphasizes a secular and progressive vision for Türkiye. In contrast, the second imagination perceives Türkiye as the centre of civilization, with aspirations to return to a golden age. This vision sometimes referred to as Ottomanism, seeks a revival of the Ottoman Empire and, in some interpretations, supports the development of an Islamic Caliphate. Followers of this vision often embrace religious fundamentalism and uphold traditional values.

Major Issues in the Elections

The single most important issue in the campaign was the handling of the Syrian-Turkish earthquake last year, where nearly half of a lakh people died. Erdoğan was heavily criticized for his poor handling of the earthquake. During his time in office, Erdoğan reduced funding for emergency response and gave support to non-profits to take up these positions. This redirection of support caused havoc during the earthquake. This was a turnaround from the 2002 elections, where Erdoğan was thrown up as the leader of Türkiye. These elections followed the 1999 Turkish Earthquakes, where thousands of people died in Türkiye. Erdoğan campaigned on the need for strong central leadership to handle national disasters and promised transparency and better responses to natural disasters. He won against the CHP winning 363 seats.

All of the major political parties held similar views regarding dissent and terrorism. The Presidential race focused on two distinct views on Turkish nationalism and left very little space for positions that did not fit into those models. Opinion polls show that the majority of Turks want Syrian refugees to return to Syria, and all of the major Presidential candidates supported a repatriation of refugees. All Presidential candidates promised to crack down on dissent in the Kurdish-majority regions of Türkiye and the continued bombing of the Kurdish-controlled territories of Syria.

While on concrete issues, the CHP does not differ substantially from the AKP, their position to return offered some hope for change. The CHP campaigned on the position of a return to parliamentary democracy, independence of the judiciary and a small step away from the neoliberal economic policies of Erdoğan. These moves would have given some space for progressive forces, but these have been lost owing to Erdoğan’s victory in the Presidency and its continued rule over the parliament. The CHP has a more progressive position regarding secularism, women’s rights and LGBTQI issues.

 Space for alternatives shrinking

The current political configuration of Türkiye leaves very little room for dissent. Centralization has meant that the election focused on a narrower set of issues, and the positions have been converging. The return to the earlier days has become the only way to save the possibility of debate. The election was very polarized. Opinion polls were indecisive until the election as the candidates were neck-and-neck in terms of popular support.

The only hope for Türkiye at this point is to call for a return to the pre- Erdoğan style of politics. The crackdown on political opposition and the growth of Ottomonist politics in Türkiye means that Kemalism is the only real alternative. The showing of the CHP in the parliamentary elections shows that there still is growing space for change, but that change will require either a radical movement or a lot of time to build up. Until then, Erdoğan will have control over Turkish politics and will continue to push his agenda for keeping power.

These elections show a spent opportunity. Erdoğan’s popularity was at an all-time low owing to the poor performance in response to the Syrian-Tirkish Earthquake. While the strength of the opposition is still on the rise, it seems that it still is not strong enough.

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