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Erdogan’s Rhetoric and the Turkish Political Landscape

Polat S. Alpman*

“We will not be finished until we say it is over.” This phrase emerged during the trial process that began after Hrant Dink was murdered. I don’t know if it has been used in this exact form before. The message of the phrase is very clear. As the assassination of Dink began to be dismissed as the act of a lone young gunman, and the traces of civilian and military bureaucrats, decision-makers behind the assassination were increasingly obscured, those who opposed covering up this crime chose this phrase as an easy and effective way to say, “we do not accept you concluding this case prematurely.” This phrase also expresses an attitude towards being virtuous. The stance announced every January 19th, since Dink’s murder, is not just a struggle of memory but also embodies a determination not to succumb to malignancy.

The occasion for this article was a speech during the AK Party’s Parliamentary Group Meeting by Erdoğan, who said, “they have not grasped that this movement has very deep roots and a broad horizon. Ladies and gentlemen, let everyone see and know this. Nothing ends until we say it ends, and it will not end.” The “we” he refers to is not an imaginary or hypothetical type, but rather himself, and he has every right to say so. Literally, in Turkey, nothing will end until Erdoğan says “it is over.” Still, I must admit I was a bit surprised to hear this sentence from Erdoğan. Could the local election results be significant enough to warrant saying “it is over”?

Starting his speech by discussing the virtues of democracy, Erdoğan said the election results have prompted the AK Party -perhaps himself- to a necessary self-critique, describing his party and himself as ‘the very essence of the nation.’ This rhetoric is not new to Turkey. As known, issues such as nationalism, racism, far-right, right-wing populism, authoritarianism, and patrimonialism are often discussed under the characterization of charismatic leaders positioning themselves as the essence of the nation. This is a common strategy in autocracies where charismatic leaders portray themselves as heroes or saviors while also crafting a narrative of victimhood. This management technique in autocracies involves creating the perception that these leaders represent the will of the nation, thereby naturalizing their power as a political, divine, or sacred right.

My reminder is due to the many emphases in Erdoğan’s statements, especially the “we are the very essence of this nation” emphasis, pointing to the associated weaknesses. “Our dictionary does not include arrogance, looking down on the nation, building walls between us and the nation, or distancing ourselves from the nation. I always say, we are the very essence of this nation. We do not engage in politics to grant privileges to some, nor to distribute offices, titles, or honors. Wherever we are, we are there to serve our nation and Turkey with love. It is our duty to swiftly address any weaknesses that arise,” Erdoğan said, knowing better than anyone that the AK Party has long since lost its quality as a mere party. What he said there as “never ever” are things that he himself brought up for the first time since the election at the AK Party Central Executive Committee meeting on April 2, 2024. He even mentioned that “to not melt like ice in the sun, to not become like the parties they criticize, and to not pay heavier prices, the AK Party must see its faults, gather itself, and strengthen the bridges of the heart with the nation again,” which was widely discussed.

Is it really possible to escape from becoming a party of a state elite oligarchy, having long ago detached from the class bases it once had, limiting itself to the political representation of a narrow ideological camp, and being forced into solidarity or competition with other political movements that are even more conservative, I don’t know. However, the tendency of the state, bureaucracy, and capital elites clustered around the AK Party to boast, look down on their voters, build walls between themselves and groups unlike them, and show their elitism by distancing themselves from the common citizens they see as vulgar, is almost a primary manifestation of being in power in Turkey. This can also include some environments involved in civil society organizations backed by the state and many religious communities.

Erdoğan, although he started his speech by talking about the virtues of democracy, settled on the same wavelength as Bahçeli’s group speech the day before (April 16, 2024) just a few sentences later. He strongly emphasized that voters and politicians of other parties should not get carried away, that Turkey is governed from the center, not locally, and that he is the one who governs. “Looking at the results and thinking this is a local election, those who get carried away, act recklessly, and even have different aspirations, are pitiful… Some, as if entering a general election mood, think they will govern the country. Those who try to establish a dual structure in Turkey, calling it ‘local government’ and ‘central government’, if these statements are not moves to pay debts to their coalition partners they’ve brewed with, it’s nothing but a raw dream,” Erdoğan said, clearly seeing that the political space in Turkey, which had been paralyzed for a long time, began to open up again with local elections.

The power, which has been trying to narrow the political space and relationships and taking risks for it, cannot prevent new movements in the political arena for the first time through elections, which might not be enough for the opposition to get carried away but enough to act recklessly and harbor aspirations. After all, facing an administration that has consolidated judicial, legislative, and executive powers in one hand, those who have no other choice but to receive votes from each voter individually achieved significant gains in this election.

Erdoğan had another warning about arrogance, but this time to members of the AK Party. Erdoğan must be aware that one of the main issues is the rigidity in the rhetoric of being ‘the very essence of the nation.’ Because of this rigidity, he cannot communicate with social groups outside his political base, offering them nothing but threats and coercion. However, this time he must cope with his own voter base turning their backs on him, which is not a situation he is used to. “… there can be no arrogance in this movement. In this movement, there can never be detachment from the nation, from the nation’s values, from the nation’s conditions, from the nation’s agenda. There is also no room for despair in this movement. This is not a movement that cowards can shoulder. We do our accounting, put a distance between us and the mistakes, say ‘where were we,’ and continue on our path stronger than before. We start taking necessary steps in light of the messages from the ballot box and our evaluations,” he addressed the voters who had continued to support him until this last election and either did not go to the polls this time or did not vote for him. Moreover, it is no secret who Erdoğan refers to when he talks about the nation. Therefore, when he talks about the ‘nation’s values, conditions, agenda,’ it can be said that the number of elements in this nation cluster is not determined very generously. However, the main issue here is related to the limits on which the Party’s political rhetoric is based. While the members of the capital class around Erdoğan use his symbolic power for their personal power, they also maintain their organic connections with their voter bases through the ease of rigid rhetoric. It must be acknowledged that AK Party elites have been indulging in the arrogance of viewing society as identity piles consisting of voters for a long time, and their skills do not extend beyond praising themselves and disparaging those who do not vote for them. I find this tragic. They probably know best what the problems are, who they are with, and what they have become. Would they have made such criticisms about themselves if the election had not turned out this way? I seriously doubt it. On the contrary, even if they had won by just one vote, they would have expressed their gratitude for the nation’s favor towards ‘the very essence of the nation’ and continued by saying ‘we love you folks.’

The experience we are currently living through marks an important phase in the political history of Turkey. I mention this not because of the success the CHP achieved in the local elections, but because the state has long been engaged in engineering efforts to seize control of all areas from the press and media to health services, the military, education, religious beliefs, and cultural activities, not just to win elections but to ideologically squeeze society, and they have failed to accomplish this engineering. Erdoğan is not wrong in identifying the problem, as AK Party elites indeed exhibit habits like arrogance and looking down on society. However, when Erdoğan presents the solution as clinging more firmly to the principles that created the AK Party, is he really proposing a solution? It is understandable that he desires to revive the excitement and motivation of those days, assuming an essence, a cause, a past filled with grievances, but it is also clear that this is not a solution. In other words, the Islamist movement, which Erdoğan brought to power and dominated every area, has largely lost to its political similars, as mentioned above. While he may see returning to the principles that founded the AK Party as a solution, he does not want to see that this is the real reason for the problem.

In the last part of his speech, he condemned Israel and presented the Palestinian issue as his personal cause. If a return to origins is to be made, then the regional issues of Islamism, such as oppressed Palestine, captive Jerusalem, and cursed Israel, could be twisted to become Turkey’s issue, which might work in the short term. At the end of his speech, a video collage featuring words like Palestine, killer and terrorist Israel, Jerusalem, and Gaza, watched by the audience chanting “Down with Israel,” shows his efforts to portray himself as the sole patron of Palestine are not in vain. Clearly, both he and the senior decision-makers of the AK Party believe that the revelation of trade with Israel had an impact on the election results. Both his political tradition (the National Vision movement) and his “One Minute” outburst emphasize that “this cause” is his own cause. By reasserting this, he seems to want to give the first sign of returning to the essence he claims to represent, the imagined nation. The only problem here is the continued denial that the electorate in Turkey is increasingly distancing itself from the narrow definition of the nation outlined by Erdoğan, the AK Party, and the MHP. Let me explain with an example: About 70% of young people in Turkey want to live abroad, and the countries they refer to are Western countries. The proportion of those who vote for the AK Party and want to live abroad is also about 50%. Thus, the youth of this country do not fit in their own country, and their political attitudes do not involve radical differences.

In the last part of his speech, he criticized Israel and re-presented the Palestinian issue as his personal cause. If we are to return to the origins, the regional issues of Islamism such as oppressed Palestine, captive Jerusalem, and cursed Israel could be twisted to become Turkey’s issue, which might work in the short term. At the end of his speech, a video collage featuring words such as Palestine, killer and terrorist Israel, Jerusalem, and Gaza, watched by the audience chanting “Down with Israel,” shows his efforts to portray himself as the sole patron of Palestine are not in vain. Clearly, both he and the senior decision-makers of the AK Party believe that the revelation of trade with Israel had an impact on the election results. Both his political tradition (the National Vision movement) and his “One Minute” outburst emphasize that “this cause” is his own cause. By reasserting this, he seems to want to give the first sign of returning to the essence he claims to represent, the imagined nation. The only problem here is the continued denial that the electorate in Turkey is increasingly distancing itself from the narrow definition of the nation outlined by Erdoğan, the AK Party, and the MHP. Let me explain with an example: About 70% of young people in Turkey want to live abroad, and the countries they refer to are Western countries. The proportion of those who vote for the AK Party and want to live abroad is also about 50%. Thus, the youth of this country do not fit in their own country, and their political attitudes do not involve radical differences.

[1] Some of the places where I quoted Erdoğan are from the website of the Presidency of Communication of Turkey (see President Speaks at AK Party Group Meeting). One thing that caught my eye was the use of single quotation marks around ‘brewed’. In this speech, without naming the Equality and Democracy Party of Peoples (DEM Party), the implication of a covert alliance between this party and the CHP, and the statement that municipalities won by the DEM Party in provinces with a dense Kurdish population are still under the threat of trusteeship, speaks not of the continuity of government policies, but of the lack of other political options left for this ruling bloc. This is increasingly pushing both Erdoğan and the current government, perhaps even the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), out of the social, cultural, and political changes taking place in Turkey. I am talking not about a result, but about a process. This process will not end with an election, nor will it conclude with the AK Party losing political power, but the sectarian right-wing form that has been prevalent in Turkey’s politics is increasingly appealing to a narrower segment, despite what everyone might think about the rise of the Welfare Party Again (YRP).

*Polat S. Alpman is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Work, Yalova University. He was born İstanbul, Turkey. He holds a master’s degree and a doctorate in Sociology from Ankara University.

*This article was originally published in Birikim Magazine in Turkish and translated into English by Politurco.

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