Turkey’s Elections: Creating Consent through Insecurity
Turkey has become an authoritarian country in the past few years. Since 2011, Recep T. Erdoğan has enjoyed almost completely unchecked political power. There has been immense pressure on the media. The judicial system has been excessively controlled by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and at times by Erdoğan himself. Corruption scandals linked to the AKP were wiped under the carpet. Police and judicial staff were re-recruited. And despite all economic problems and criticisms, Erdoğan has recently moved to a presidential palace of more than one thousand rooms. From there he aspires to introduce a presidential system with further reaching executive powers. For many, Turkey is under a one-man rule de facto.
Against this background, the June 2015 elections were of utmost importance for Turkey. Before the elections, the president of the country, who must have been impartial by law, was running rallies and asking for 400 deputies, so that the AKP would be able to change the constitution without needing the opposition’s support. That the leftist Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), with Kurdish roots, passed the 10% threshold and that, due to its much shaken prestige, the AKP’s votes dropped by 20% meant that this plan failed.
Before the elections, the major opposition parties were pledging for re-opening the investigation cases of Erdoğan’s corruption scandal. The election results offered them an invaluable opportunity to at least diminish his de facto one-man rule. However, the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) refused to form any type of alliance with the HDP. Likewise, they rejected a coalition government with the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) in June. Both were self-destructive moves for the ultra-nationalists. Meanwhile, the over-extended AKP-CHP coalition talks remained fruitless. There was a deadlock. And early elections were within sight already.
How could Erdoğan and the AKP, with the aim of forming the majority in parliament, galvanize electoral support and push the HDP below the 10% threshold within a few months? What new could they say or do so as to improve the party’s prestige and undermine that of the HDP in such a short interval of time?
Erdoğan’s New Strategy: Politics of Insecurity
Drastic times call for drastic measures. One opportunity for the AKP to seize was the nationalist votes that were waiting to be collected in a golden tray, thanks to the miscalculations of the MHP after the elections. The other was the alleged link between the HDP and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist organisation by the NATO and the EU and whose struggle against the Turkish state has claimed more than forty thousand lives since the early 1980s.
On July 22, thirty-four leftist youths who were on their way to Kurdish-controlled Kobane in neighbouring Syria to provide local children with toys and stationaries were murdered in Suruç by a suicide bomber linked to ISIS. The PKK and the HDP saw the Suruç bombing as a deliberate act of the AKP, whose relations with IS were dubious in their eyes. Two policemen were killed in Ceylanpınar by the PKK in retaliation of the attack, which marked the end of the ceasefire with the Turkish state that had been in place since 2013. Following these acts of violence, the interim regime of the AKP started air raids on ISIS and the PKK, targeting mainly the latter’s premises in Northern Iraq.
The PKK counter-acted, for self-defence, as they put it, attacking Turkish military bases and police stations. Its actions perfectly buttressed Erdoğan’s strategy. Since then, and I am speaking of an interval of less than three months only, thousands have died. Political tensions escalated, just as nationalist sentiments fuelled by outrage over the PKK attacks. Curfews were declared in several towns in the southeast. During a live TV interview on September 6, 2015, Erdoğan said that if 400 AKP deputies had been elected, the situation would have been very different.
Selective Security and the White Toros
Throughout these months, the AKP regime employed a selective security policy. This is exemplified by the tragedies that befell the HDP. Despite its insistent pro-peace discourses, many believed that the HDP failed to disassociate itself with Kurdish nationalism and the PKK. The AKP and the MHP called the HDP a political extension of the PKK. Since June, more than 400 HDP premises were attacked by extreme Turkish nationalists – including a bookshop in Kirsehir, which belonged to a HDP member. Notably, while the bookshop was burned, the police were only watching the attackers without interfering (reminding one of the Madimak fire of 1993, where a Dutch a doctoral student was also killed).
On October 10, the worst terrorist attack in Turkey’s history took place during a peace rally in Ankara. Again carried out by an IS suicide bomber, the brother of the Suruç bomber. The blast took place inside the HDP cortege, and claimed 102 lives. Despite several appeals of the family of the two brothers to the police, little had been done to heed these warnings. This was regarded as an epic neglect and taken to be another testament of the AKP regime’s selective provision of security.
The horrors of public memory were also used in election campaigns. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu remarked at an election rally in Tuspa (Van) that, if the AKP were to be taken out of office, terrorists would fill the town and white Renault Toros cars would start to patrol around. These cars represent a symbol of insecurity in Kurdish public memory. In the early 1990s, at the peak of the fight with the PKK, the members of the deep state were using mainly white Renault Toros, and it was not uncommon at the time that prominent Kurdish figures in the East were kidnapped in these cars, at times never to be seen again.
The recent experiences in Turkey demonstrate how security is rooted in the past. In the absence of just governance and trustable security measures to inculcate a sense of security, the fear of a recurrence of past horrors has informed present voting decisions. On November 1, many Kurds in the East did not go to the ballot. Moreover, the fear of further economic and political instability led to a higher AKP voter turnout. Analyses show that, in the absence of trust for the MHP, 50% of the ultra-nationalist seats went to the AKP, which employed discourses of patriotism and fear throughout its campaign.
The consent of the governed is a most fundamental principle of democracy. In Turkey’s November elections, the insecurity of the governed was a defining feature of the consent given to the AKP and Erdoğan. Yet under an authoritarian democracy, opposition groups are feeling ever more insecure now; some are further embracing a romantic version of nationalism, some longing for past leaders (most notably Kemal Ataturk), some planning to leave the country, and some are determined to fight for their rights and liberties at all costs.