Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Demotix/Gonçalo Silva. All rights reserved.
In July, the Turkish Premier invited public figures to a meeting where he publicised his ‘presidency vision’. With this invitation, he indirectly requested that these celebrities endorse his candidacy for the presidency. While many chose to accept the invitation and attend the meeting, many others preferred not to come. But the reasons for hosting such an event are manifest. Erdoğan wants people to make their colours clear.
Erdoğan creates divisions with a message of ‘either you are for me, or against me’. And he imparts this message regularly to every segment of Turkish society. Recently, he even threatened cabinet ministers who kept their silence during his smear campaign against the Hizmet Movement. Erdoğan’s language indicates that those who are ‘against him’ will be prevented from exercising their right to participate in the public and economic spheres of Turkey. There is a price to be paid by those who “do not respect the government of this nation”, as he stated during the Gezi protests, when he warned entertainment and media figures showing support to the Gezi movement to “mind their step”.
Earlier this year, Omer Shener and I co-authored an openDemocracy piece arguing that the ruling AKP government has been ‘securitizing’ all segments of society that remain beyond its control or are still resisting government attempts to gain control of all factions; that is, the government is defining all individuals and groups who resist its direct control as a “security threat.” We noted the government’s presentation of the Hizmet movement as a scapegoat for every problem. The government’s hostility “extends to any civic movement’s questioning of steps taken by the government, though few others receive as much media coverage in Turkey. To suppress Hizmet, the government has started a determined smear campaign aimed at the eyes and ears of the public, using threats and unfounded claims, supported by pro-government media outlets, and slowly turning the movement into a scapegoat for every negative development in the country.”
This policy of securitization is familiar to long-term observers of Turkish politics. It particularly resembles the early years of the Kemalist regime, which was also very much a ‘one-man show’. In those years Kemal Atatürk was Turkey, and Turkey was Kemal Atatürk. This means that he was the ultimate decision maker in foreign, security and domestic politics. He had the power to bypass all the republican institutions whose establishment he had led. Parliament and the cabinet were mere formalities. Those seen as beyond his control were denounced as traitors or threats to his project of a ‘modern’ Turkey. Atatürk also regularly threw parties, inviting public figures and hosting them publicly for dinner. Anyone who aspired to be a public figure or to have influence in society needed to gain his permission or ‘blessing’ by attending such events at his invitation. Those singers, writers and poets who had been ‘blessed’ by him played a crucial role in the cultural sphere of the Republic. In turn, this policy produced millions of flatterers and sycophants.
What we are seeing from Erdoğan is no different. A great many commentators have noted that since 2011 the AKP under the leadership of Erdoğan has become increasingly authoritarian. This was easily discernible during the Gezi Park Protests in 2013. In sharp contrast to his first and second terms, the Prime Minister himself has now become very intolerant of any opposition. Erdoğan, apparently seeing himself as the sole representative of the state - the ultimate decision maker in every sphere – seeks recourse in a strategy of scapegoating in the face of any adversity.
But what differentiates Erdoğan from Atatürk is his language and the people whom he addresses. Erdoğan appeals to religious and conservative people, who comprise a slight majority in Turkey. These people have always seen Kemalists ruling over them as a major threat to their existence; Erdogan appeared as an alternative to this Kemalist model and persuaded religious and conservative groups that he was the only alternative to a Kemalist regime. He implies that the very existence and survival of these groups depends on his being in power.
Erdoğan’s political world is one which requires power holders to practise their power over factions. And survival under Erdogan’s new Turkey requires his blessing.