For our weekly ‘Ideas on Europe’ editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we have the pleasure to welcome Prof Başak Alpan, from the Middle East Technical University, in Ankara.
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Only two weeks left before the election. What is the mood in the country like?
The mood is perhaps best captured in the recent advertisement by Yeni Rakı (one of the biggest Rakı brands in Turkey). The clip seemingly asks people how they will celebrate the centennial of the Turkish Republic (which is six months away), but is actually implicitly depicting the sheer joy people would feel if the opposition wins in the 14 May elections.
The advert illustrates well how emotionally laden and tense this election campaign is. For the first time in two decades, the incumbent party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that has been in power since 2002, and its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, are facing the risk of losing the presidential elections. Most of the pre-election polls predict that the opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu will win the majority of votes in the first round, with Erdoğan coming in second.
How has AKP managed to remain so long in power?
AKP came to power in 2002 with the claim that they were not political Islamists but “conservative democrats” who would be the voice of those who had hitherto been oppressed and under-represented by the staunchly secular, Western-minded, and elitist Republic. But AKP radicalised and adopted an authoritarian and religious-oriented positioning, especially after 2010.
The Gezi protests of 2013 and the coup attempt of 15 July 2016 all contributed to the narrative of “fear” cultivated by Erdoğan, which seemed to have attracted voters in all previous elections. This time around, AKP runs under the slogan “once again”.
And what opposition is AKP facing?
The main opposition bloc, known as the Nation Alliance, is led by the Republican People’s Party (CHP). It includes five other parties, which explains its popular name “the Table of Six”.
It is campaigning for strengthening the parliamentary system, reversing the democratic backsliding of the country, easing the extremely high inflation, and accomplishing a reset of Turkey’s foreign policy. And of course, it is heavily criticising the government’s response to the devastating earthquake of February. Candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is also supported by the leftist Labour and Freedom Alliance, which is only running for the parliamentary elections (with the highest number of women candidates, by the way).
These elections look definitely different…
It is an election of many firsts.
For the first time, the opposition is competing with both Ankara and Istanbul already governed by CHP-aligned mayors. While this might sound irrelevant to a Western European ear, you should bear in mind how politicised Turkish local elections are. The popular Istanbul and Ankara mayors could help the opposition garner the support of especially young voters, who are still undecided.
Also for the first time, strategic voting will be a tool in the parliamentary elections: it’s about ensuring as many opposition MPs winning seats in the Parliament as possible.
Last but not least, democratic consolidation is an important agenda item with very concrete promises like upholding the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judgments and releasing prominent Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas and Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala from prison.
And how are you personally experiencing the election?
These elections are crucial for the educated, secular, urban, middle-class voters like myself, who spent the best part of their younger years under the AKP rule.
The erosion of our democracy, the decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, the charges put against the Academics for Peace movement in the past years, and the hyper-inflation that very severely hit the lifestyle of the middle class, are pressing concerns that need to be addressed not only by the new president, but also by a hopefully diverse parliament giving voice to groups like women, Kurds, Alevis, LGBTQs, etc.
I would love to take politics solely as an academic job for some time, rather than the existential struggle directly determining the flow of my life that it has been for the past years.
Perhaps this day will come, just like spring comes. And when that day comes, we will, with Kılıçdaroğlu’s words, perhaps live in “a Turkey that does not hurt each other, that loves and respects those who are different as they are. A Turkey that embraces, not distances. A Turkey with a full stomach and an abundant heart; a Turkey that loves to live.”
Thank you very much, for sharing your personal views on the forthcoming election in Turkey. I recall that you are associate professor at the Middle East Technical University.
Interview by Sophie Girstmair