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Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Almighty

This may be sheer populism. However, it is also the kind of populism that brings millions to the election rallies cheering with joy. Having taken Turkey out of economic crisis once, the AKP is seen as the miracle-maker. And who would want to lose their miracle maker? 

Oguz Alyanak Umit Kurt
18 May 2014
1.5 million people gather for a meeting of the AKP in Istanbul. Demotix/Aurore Belot. Some rights reserved.

1.5 million people gather for a meeting of the AKP in Istanbul. Demotix/Aurore Belot. Some rights reserved.

It is not every day that one gets to witness the judiciary bowing out to the legislature. Not in a democratic country, to say the least. In Turkey, however, democracy works in strange ways, or better put, in ways that its Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan deems proper. The point could not have been made any clearer by the Prime Minister himself. In a speech given a few months back, Erdogan openly criticized the judiciary for presenting an “obstacle” in their [Justice and Development Party/AKP’s] path: “The legislature, the executive and the judiciary should pursue the people’s interest initially” he argued and added, “and then should consider the state’s interest.”

On 10 May 2014, the Turkish Prime Minister has shown that he is ready and willing to challenge the country’s judiciary, if need be. “Don’t get angry dear Prime Minister. What I am saying here is something nice, dear Prime Minister.” These were the words of the President of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations, Metin Feyzioglu, following a furious intervention on the part of Erdogan. In his address to the participants of the 146th anniversary of Turkey’s Council of State, Feyzioglu criticized the government for its failure to respond to the victims of an earthquake that had struck the province of Van in 2011. The 7.1 magnitude earthquake had killed over 600, and left thousands homeless, who, Feyzioglu argued, live in dire conditions in containers to this day. Feyzioglu asked the government to be more accountable for its actions and also demanded more prudence from political leaders as Turkey enters the final phase in its Presidential elections track (expected to take place on August 10, 2014). Seated right across the way in the front row next to the Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Erdogan subsequently went on the offensive. Breaking with the protocol, Erdogan rose to his feet, interrupted Feyzioglu’s speech and criticized him for not speaking the truth, making a political statement and lacking the proper manners. Then, he left the room.

It is also not every day that following such an embarrassing event, you see people, including the Mayor and the residents of the same earthquake-struck province come rushing to the Prime Minister’s defence. Turkey, however, is used to its Prime Minister Erdogan storming out of sessions and his bitter remarks gain him supporters. This, in fact, is characteristic of Erdogan. Recall Davos 2009, where he clashed with the Israeli President Shimon Peres. Following that event, Erdogan’s return to Turkey occasioned a festival-like atmosphere. Hundreds, if not thousands had gathered outside of Istanbul Ataturk Airport, waving Turkish and Palestinian flags, and waiting exuberantly many hours past midnight for their “Sultan” and “Conqueror” to return back home.

“If what is needed is a witch-hunt in this country, that we will also do” pronounced the Prime Minister at a meeting following the exchange at the Council of State reception. Witch-hunts, historically, have served as means to stifle dissent and to reconfigure power back to where it always belonged— with the King, the Son of God—in early modern Europe. It was always a way to eliminate the production and dissemination of information about the secular and the mystical, the natural and the supernatural. It instilled belief that the central authority was still strong and in charge. Today, it serves much the same purpose.

The making of a man of the people

 “People’s Man. Lover of God. He’s the light of hope for the millions” [“Halkın adamı, Hakk’ın aşığı, O Milyonların Umut Işığı”] So went the Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s election jingle for the local elections in late March.

The local elections ended with a decisive AKP victory once again. There were many sound reasons as to why this election might have ended with different results. Not that many expected a sudden shift in power… however, with the corruption scandal, audio tapes (uploaded on Youtube, hence contributing to that platform’s banning in Turkey) outlining shady deals involving the Erdogan family, Erdogan being publicly reproached by one of his closest allies, Fethullah Gulen—thus expected to lose a portion of his voter base—as well as attempts to unify the opposition (by asking voters of the opposition camp not to vote for their party of choice, but rather, to strategize by voting for the strongest alternative to the AKP), it was to be expected that the AKP would at least lose some of the metropolitan municipalities. This could have sent the AKP cabinet a clear warning signal to rethink Erdogan’s capacity to lead Turkey. Erdogan, in the event, stood strong, increasing his party’s votes by around four percent compared to the previous (2009) local elections.

On 30 March 2014, Turkish voters may have gone to the ballot box to cast their votes for the local elections. What we experienced, however, was more than elections: it was a war. Blades had long been sharpened and blood has been shed. This was not yet another victory won by the AKP—it was the beginning of a new era, “the wedding day of the new Turkey” as Erdogan would proclaim, where he would rise as the almighty amongst an electorate which longs for the chosen one.

Where do we locate the source of legitimacy in politics? A seemingly simple question with a straightforward answer: the ballot box, that is, the people—or in Turkey, around half of them. When Erdogan addressed those who criticized him for having lost the credibility to run the country following the corruption charges, the ballot box was the first place he pointed to. In a speech given in 2013, he stated to his provincial chairs in a somewhat fatalistic manner: “We know that the people will judge us. We also know that so will God in the Armageddon. Each step we take carries such awareness, fear and understanding.” Whether it is the “silent majority” during Gezi Protests or his supporters in the social media, or bussed in to demonstrations en masse, Erdogan dared his critics to challenge him democratically, by which he meant through the elections. Erdogan’s critics, however, were reluctant to take him to the ballot box, which has been dominated by the AKP in the previous years. Arguing that Turkey had drifted away from its democratic path, and that the votes were tainted through Erdogan’s populism, the critics wanted Erdogan simply to step down, repenting thereby for his sins. This was wishful thinking at best.

The crises the AKP has been going through in the last few years, and particularly in the last few months have been thoroughly examined by scholars. We do not aim to reiterate their points in this piece. Instead, we find that what remains to be asked is how the AKP gains legitimacy in a way the opposition cannot. In other words, we would like to think about what deifies Erdogan in the eyes of his supporters. Here we have two hypotheses, which maybe surprisingly take us to the writings of the sociologist Max Weber, for whom religion (religious authority) and economy (economic power) could not be thought of as separate, but rather remained always intertwined.

Religion

First comes religion. The AKP may not be the only political party to play the religion card. However, it plays it so skilfully in that it reinvents a leadership whose religious aura exceeds others, and reaches the hearts of the AKP’s electorate. Erdogan becomes the proper representative of Islam in Turkey today. His words draw the moral boundaries—the do’s and don’ts—through which everyday life is organized. In fact, one could argue that his words draw the limits to life itself. Following a mine explosion in the province of Zonguldak in 2010 where 30 miners were killed, Erdogan asserted that it was the “fate” of this profession. He continued: “If you have no belief in fate itself, well then… that is another story.” This answer did not change much over the years. As this piece is being written, Turkey has been struck by one of the very deadliest mining “accidents” in its history. As the death toll nears 300 in the coalmine located in the district of Soma/Manisa, Erdogan’s response, in addition to offering his condolences, is that events as such are of the ordinary: “These are ordinary things. There is a thing in literature called ‘workplace accident’... It happens in other work places, too.” 

Erdogan’s authority, moreover, emanates from an Islam whose borders are not stuck within Turkey, but that is transcendental. Take, for example, Erdogan’s speech in the widely attended Istanbul rally. In his address to the audience, in which he criticizes the leader of the main opposition party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, he stated:

Look Kilicdaroglu, how do you like our montage? [implying the leaked tapes] Isn’t it nice? Don’t you like it? Why not do the same yourself? Let others call it montage; let others say that you ‘packed’ the demonstrations, let them belittle enthusiasm on such a scale. But know this, Istanbul! Today, the orphans of Gaza and Ramallah are watching you.  Today, those circumambulating the Kaaba (“House of God”) are praying for you, and saying: We are expecting good news on the night of the 30th [local elections].

This may be sheer populism at its best. However, it is also the kind of populism that brings millions to fill the election rallies cheering with joy. Erdogan becomes a symbol that unites Muslims in Turkey with Muslims outside. These may often include the oppressed, such as Muslims in Palestine, but also reaches out to the diaspora in Europe or the US, the majority of whom have close ties to the homeland.

Playing the religion card is particularly important at a time when AKP’s credibility as a world power comes under interrogation through events like the corruption scandal, natural disasters or work-related ‘accidents’. Erdogan claims that it is not his party per se, but an ambiguous “parallel structure” that has infiltrated into the state and its various institutions such as the judiciary, police, national intelligence and high courts in Turkey. As the local elections show, many in Turkey also seems to think in line with him, seeing the corruption claims, as well as the leaked tapes as products of this parallel structure, which, in their understanding, is associated with the usual suspects—the United States and Israel. That the leader of the hizmet movement, Fethullah Gulen, lives in Pennsylvania rather than Turkey adds further tension to this debate.

In every crisis Erdogan faces, we witness him skilfully utilizing the religious repertoire. Rather than responding to worldly problems within the confines of the secular realm by drawing from the legal framework, for example, Erdogan chooses to divert attention to the otherworldly one by citing saints, wise ones (ermişler) and Quranic verses. Through this strategy, he aims to replenish the worldly legitimacy that he and his party might have lost through crises, with the otherworldly. This makes him more than a Prime Minister. His control of secular institutions is confirmed by his proximity to the sacred. He is elevated to the status of an elected Ottoman Sultan, a figure who historically also served as the Caliph, gainin his legitimacy from God. When no other politician claims legitimacy through religion or competes for the position of Turkey’s new Sultan, Erdogan’s tactic works perfectly.

Economy

Second, there is the economy. Or better put, a strange kind of fetishism for economic stability. In the early years, it was economic growth that instilled in people the belief that Erdogan was capable of changing Turkey for the better, and turned him into the omnipotent character he has become. Today, it is the fear of recession and a total collapse. While the economic crisis of 2001 may be over a decade away, its memory still lingers. Having taken Turkey out of that crisis, the AKP is seen as the miracle-maker. And who would want to lose their miracle maker?

The AKP gains legitimacy through fear and conflict, particularly within the context of financial stability. The financial market did not give a warm welcome to Turkey’s recent economic shuffles, not because they were violent in nature or detrimental to Turkish democracy. From the point of view of capital, these concerns would possibly rank the lowest on the list. Investors responded to these crises negatively because these crises brought in an element of uncertainty. When the AKP’s power got challenged, whether in the form of a mass demonstration (June 2013) or a corruption accusation (December 2013), the Turkish stock market sent out alarming signals.  No one knew whether/how Erdogan would handle the pressure. Rather than panicking, Erdogan has taken concrete steps by unleashing his police force. Through that, he was able to assure investors of Turkey’s sturdy image.

Big capital, contrary to the common claim, may have a religion or an ideology, but it certainly has no tolerance for uncertainty. It is clear that an electoral win in local elections, which translates into seeing more of Erdogan and his AKP in the near future, also means more protests—particularly in light of the coming anniversary of the Gezi Protests. However, protests become manageable (if not profitable) for a government that does not hesitate in using greater police violence against its citizens. Were the AKP to lose the local elections, however, no one knows how Erdogan would react in the following days. Through playing the card of uncertainty, and instilling fear throughout that a Turkey without Erdogan would be a place much worse than it already is today, the AKP remains a strong contender in these elections—further adding to Erdogan’s image as an almighty man.

During its 12-year rule, the AKP has created an image of a Turkey without alternatives. Having dominated the scene for this long, Erdogan was able to suppress voices critical of his way of handling politics. His stories have become the only stories to be told and his way of telling them has also become the only way. And in that, many in Turkey have broken ties with the possibility that perhaps an alternative way of handling a project, let alone running the country, would bear more fruitful results.

Sadly, we are heading towards a destination where life itself cannot be envisioned in any way other than what we have at hand. Or maybe, we have already reached that destination. In a TV-interview conducted hours after the mine explosion in Soma/Manisa, a miner—who, we are told, had just escaped the explosion—asserted that he would go back into that same mine because he has loans to pay. Is it possible to be critical of a power on which you so wholly depend? Maybe it is simply easier to sit back and watch the show when the chosen one gets up on stage. With all eyes fixed on him, he will continue to tell us the myths, verses and stories of past, present and future… Dream on!

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