In surprisingly fine fettle: the Turkish election

Grassroots social movements of the style seen at Occupy can be converted into actions that will force their relevance upon established political structures.

Julian Sayarer
2 July 2015
Turkish elections, 2015.

Turkish elections, 2015. Demotix/Alexandros Michailidis. All rights reserved.Turkish democracy is in better shape than we thought. The Gezi Park protests of 2013 saved a park from reconstitution as a shopping mall, but in demonstrating Turkish defiance at the style of government employed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, so too did it seemingly lay the grounds for further abuse of power: the corruption allegations against the President and the brutality with which they were crushed, the mysterious power cuts that not so mysteriously sabotaged local elections in 2014, endeavours at reshaping the constitution so as to empower the office President Erdoğan would wish to make permanently his own.

Surveillance increased, intimidation of journalists increased and much as Gezi was a victory, it seemed to have unleashed a power too strong for the brave but small Turkish civil society that had won their Istanbul park and sparked protests nationwide. At times it was almost as if, hopelessly and with some contradiction, a success had brought about the defeat of those who orchestrated it.

But the elections of 2015 should rightly be seen as the final act of the Gezi protests. They are testament to the scale of the triumph Turkish protesters then won – a thing that is perhaps only now apparent. In conversations on Turkish politics, the time clauses “before Gezi” and “since Gezi” have become commonplace, lingual evidence for the watershed then reached.

The historian, Eric Hobsbawm, on hearing of the Occupy protests of 2011, is said to have asked which party the protest was affiliated with. Informed that they were not of any particular party, the historian – though of otherwise considerable knowledge and prescience – decreed that “if there is no party, there is no future.” What has just happened in Turkey is direct evidence against this prognosis; moreover, it is evidence that grassroots social movements, of the style seen at Occupy, can – in the right circumstances and with the right handling – be converted into actions that will force their relevance upon established political structures. Given the high-handed and condescending tone that politicians and established voices often take towards these movements, the Turkish elections are of profound significance, and ought be seen as a model commanding some inspiration.

Despite frequently chiding the workings of modern capitalism for its short-termism, the usual custodians of the progressive political voice have perhaps been found guilty of a similar fault when appraising these new social movements and the hashtags, PR-savvy and viral internet reliance that have been utilised in Turkey as strongly as anywhere else. The internet is but ten years old; humans, society and political actors are still finding their feet with the medium, and the efficacy of the shareable content and ‘shallow’ (or otherwise) networks they create cannot yet be judged accurately. It is complacent to presume that the varied instances of international, on-street activism – from Sao Paolo to Madrid and Istanbul – might not at some stage collate their central nervous system.

Turkey before, throughout, and since the Gezi uprising has demonstrated a strong marriage of online and offline action; the strength might be seen as a result of Turkish society, its strong family and communal ties, but the template is replicable.

More than anything, the Turkish election results are a clear riposte to those activists who will advise against voting at all. Such can only ever be the advice of those with the luxury of apathy, and quite regardless of how understandable the foundations of that apathy might be.

As humans we exist simultaneously in many spheres and on many spectra; our politics is in our conversations, our consumer and employment choices, our social media sharing, attendance at protest but also – crucially – in our voting choices. Democracy empowers us in the sphere of capital-P Politics and – in all but the most extreme circumstances – it is foolish to opt for your own disempowerment in a sphere that legislates for all the others.

Some regional context is also valuable. It is now apparent that, despite the brutal annexation of power by the AKP, Turks can still hold open and fair elections and that –  more importantly – after 12 years of this rule, they are still able to neuter an unpopular government at the ballot box.

As madness rages in neighbouring countries, and western Allies in the Gulf continue to disregard democracy every bit as much as ISIS or Assad, that Turkey is to be found – almost surprisingly – in such health, is to be seen as a source of profound relief and some pride. This revelation ought cast a low light on the ongoing reticence of the EU towards Turkish accession, especially at a time where UK identity politics comes to equate support for the EU with a sense of what it is to be open, inclusive and human.

The truest of victories are those where your opposition comes also to agree.

Erdoğan, with an astonishing humility and after an uncharacteristic absence from screens and airwaves, advised on June 11 that Turkey ought to form its new coalition government without further delay. In a society in thrall to the idea of strong leaders, he – even more remarkably – counselled that egos be put aside in going about this process. We can only hope he was, in this remark, including his own ego; if so, and with continuing vigilance against foul play, what happened at the Turkish election was a thing very positive, and possibly even quite special.

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