Erdoğan the Macho-Man: Populism and Pluralism in Turkish Democracy

Erdoğan the Macho-Man: Populism and Pluralism in Turkish Democracy

Juliana DeVries: Erdoğan the Macho-Man

On June 12, Turks will head to the polls for national elections. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, will likely win by a landslide. Amid the immediate focus of most commentary on the election, it is worth reflecting on the roots of Erdoğan?s popularity, his place in the Turkish context, and the implications of it all for democracy today.

Erdoğan?portrayed in some analyses as a macho, big-man-on-campus type?has been compared to Turkey?s founder, Mustafa Kemal ?Atatürk? (or the ?Father of Turks?), but he isn?t alone in that regard. Every successful politician in modern Turkish history has followed a trajectory similar to Atatürk?s: rule by populism until you die or your party is banned by the Constitutional Court, and maintain popularity as much for your traditional, dominant-male characteristics?such as military prowess and stubborn behavior?as for your executive skills. After Atatürk came İsmet İnönü, a military hero referred to as İsmet ?Pasha? (a honorific similar to the British ?Lord?) until the secularists deemed the title too Ottoman-sounding. İnönü, who spent nearly fifty years as prime minister, president, and Republican People?s Party (CHP) leader, was known for such antics as defiantly turning off his hearing aid during unfavorable diplomatic negotiations. Deniz Baykal continued the cult-of-personality CHP tradition, leading the party for twenty years until he was forced to resign in May 2010 after appearing in a soft-pornographic video with his former secretary. The major opposition on the center right has also adhered to the Atatürk model: Süleyman Demirel, for example, nicknamed ?Father? and ?Shepherd,? served seven terms as Turkish prime minister and one as president during the second half of the twentieth century. The most enduring Turkish politicians have appealed to constituents? needs, handing out favors Tammany-style, with more attention paid to big personalities than to big ideas.

Erdoğan has learned from his fore-?fathers?; he has accumulated his own cult of personality, marked by piety and a past in semi-professional soccer (Turkey?s favorite sport). He appeals to just about everyone as the ringleader of Turkey?s booming economy. Erdoğan?s AKP has also benefited from the failures of the Turkish Islamist parties of the 1980s and 1990s, which ultimately faded from influence after repeated closures by the Turkish Constitutional Court for ?anti-secular activities.? To avoid this fate, the AKP has found middle ground with the opposition party, even winning potential CHP votes by, among other means, allowing Kurdish language radio stations and continuing to reform the constitution toward EU-accession standards. The AKP has also used democratic reforms and court cases to weaken the military establishment. The most recent constitutional reform package, for example, passed by referendum in September 2010, shifted more power from military to civilian courts. The AKP is such a crowd pleaser that the only groups blatantly left out of its platform are Islamist extremists and staunch nationalists.

Since Turkey became a multiparty system in the 1950s, the Center Right has dominated with its catchall pragmatism, and the AKP, although more overtly pious than center-right parties of the past, varies little from this narrative in its political strategy. What does differ today is just how little fight the main opposition party, the CHP, has been able to put up. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who took over for Deniz Baykal as party leader after the video scandal, cannot hope to compete with Erdoğan?s entrenched macho-man status. In the past, even when the CHP did not have a strongman at its helm, it had the military establishment behind it to close whichever center-right or Islamist party it deemed undesirable?either by way of Constitutional Court ruling or by military coup. Under the AKP, these solutions are not as available as they used to be, both because of constitutional reforms and the recent Ergenekon trials, which have put military generals suspected of plotting a coup on trial in a transparent way for the first time in Turkish history. We can therefore attribute Erdoğan?s enduring success not necessarily to his Islamist past, but to his pragmatism, his cult of personality, and the luck of scandal, as well as to Turkey?s democratic reforms.

Turkey currently has one of the higher voter turnout rates in the world?around 80 percent for the September constitutional referendum?but what is the value of a vote in a decided election? As the Western media furthers our obsession with Turkey?as a growing economy, as an international player, as a model for emerging democracies elsewhere in the Middle East?it becomes vital to investigate Turkey?s democracy with skepticism. Pluralism is a prerequisite for a successful democracy, and an overly predictable election could signal the breakdown of this requirement. Should the lack of significant competitors to Erdoğan cause concern?

This period of CHP weakness could prove to be a temporary lull as the Left struggles to reinvent itself after the Baykal incident, but there are other, structural factors limiting Turkey?s pluralism. It is possible that Erdoğan is just so great that no one wants to vote for anyone else, but with Turkish press freedom at a historic low (and with Erdoğan suing dozens of Turks for insulting his honor), how are we really to know? The AKP administration has also thus far refused to lower the 10 percent threshold for parliamentary representation, a move many minority groups hoped would happen in the September 2010 constitutional amendments. The limitations on freedom of speech and minority representation could be keeping Turkey back from truly open elections?elections where a predictable outcome would not raise an eyebrow but rather warrant congratulations to a popular politician.

If Turkey is to become the beacon for Middle Eastern democracy we keep trying to make it out to be, the structural barriers to pluralism must be overcome. But actually achieving pluralism can be a tricky business, as groupthink and apathy are some of the most formidable and elusive obstacles. All countries, the United States included, could use more diversity of opinion at the highest levels; here, individualism, capitalism, and conservative social values dominate political discourse at the national level, and dissenting voices rarely gain ground. So perhaps there is a lesson in the Turkish election for all of us. A successful democracy can accommodate change and negotiation; it teems with the voices of conflicting opinions and worldviews, within a structure that allows both the loud and the quiet speakers consideration. Efforts to expand the consideration given to marginalized and less-heard voices deserve our support.

Photo: Anti-censorship protest in Istanbul, May 15 (Kevin Anderson/Flickr c.c./2011)