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Imamoğlu and the New Social Democratic Political Opportunity in Turkey

Cuma Cicek*

Despite two months passing since the elections, uncertainties and debates continue within the opposition. The most intense uncertainties and debates are undoubtedly within the CHP. On one hand, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and his team are trying to normalize and trivialize the significant failure, avoiding taking responsibility, and hoping to continue as if nothing happened after the major defeat. On the other hand, Ekrem İmamoğlu, a prominent actor who claims to build a new politics, is attempting to lead the new politics with a risk-averse approach.

Although there are only eight months left until the local elections in March 2024, there is still no clear roadmap for the transformation within the CHP headquarters, nor is it known with whom and how a path will be pursued in the 11 metropolitan cities governed by the opposition, especially in Istanbul. If this pace continues, it is likely that a crisis similar to the experience of announcing the candidate of the “Six-Party Talks” two months before the election will emerge.

“Change for Power”

Imamoğlu continues to claim leadership in the new politics, even with a risk-averse approach. He first opened the “Change for Power” website (iktidaricindegisim.org) on July 4, 2023, to receive views and suggestions, and then clarified his stance a bit more in his article titled “A New Politics for Turkey,” published in Gazete Oksijen on July 28.

In his article, İmamoğlu addresses six main topics that he wants to discuss and hopes to be widely debated:

  1. Society’s ongoing demand for change
  2. Establishing politics, democracy, and development locally
  3. Social justice and social policy
  4. Building the necessary groundwork for the solution of the Kurdish and Alevi issues
  5. New political organization architecture
  6. Strong and democratic leadership

Keeping the Desire for Change Alive

Despite the significant failure in the May elections, the demand and need for change still exist. There is also a demand for change among the segments that support Erdoğan, even though they constitute only a small minority. In an environment where the economic crisis affects the vast majority of society, and civil and political rights are increasingly restricted, it is essential for the opposition to keep the social demand for a change of power alive and turn it into a strong desire. However, it should be noted that the opposition’s task is much more challenging compared to the period before the May elections.

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Localization for a New Future Imagination

The localization emphasized by İmamoğlu can serve as a core concept for imagining a new future. The authoritarianism that began after 2013 and became dramatic since 2016 is primarily based on two transformations: re-centralization and de-concentration, meaning the spread of power from the center to localities. After July 15, power and authority were re-established by distributing balance and control mechanisms, while the newly established center spread like an octopus to its surroundings. In short, the new center is everywhere!

In this context, claiming to establish politics, democracy, and development locally and doing it in a multi-stakeholder way can have the potential to build a new future. Localism represents an alternative to re-centralization by including power-sharing and collaboration against the monopolization of power at the local level.

The fact that such a discourse is voiced by the mayor of a metropolis as significant as Istanbul, where about one-third of Turkey’s capital and one-fifth of its population are concentrated, makes this discourse even more powerful and influential. The demand, long voiced by Kurdish politics, has not found any response until now. Kurds have been left alone in their demand for the re-sharing of power and authority at the local level. This discourse, which points to a societal and political change beyond the solution of the Kurdish issue, has been overshadowed by the Kurdish problem until now. However, not only Diyarbakır but also Istanbul, İzmir, Antalya, Trabzon, Ankara, and all of Turkey need localization. Localization represents a rethinking of not only the Kurdish issue but also politics, administration, economy, ecology, and culture for all Turkey, beyond the Kurdish problem, aiming to build them differently, together.

Public Ownership for Social Justice

Regarding the second topic, social justice is one of the most crucial issues that need to be addressed in Turkish politics. We have a long historical legacy concerning resource distribution and inequality. However, with the dramatic economic crisis that erupted in the autumn of 2021, this issue has become a top priority among societal problems for almost everyone.

In the past two years, there has been a significant transfer of capital. The transfer of the country’s resources to certain groups through politics and administration has resulted in widespread poverty. In an environment where labor has become cheaper, and the average wage has been reduced to the minimum wage, the rich have become even richer.

In this context, there is a need for a social-democratic politics that prioritizes human rights in common areas such as housing, food, education, health, transportation, and communication. An inclusive and fair distribution of resources can be the backbone of social-democratic politics. A well-crafted, feasible political program can be a good starting point in this regard.

Identity Politics for Freedom and Equality!

However, we should also consider the identity politics that the AK Party has used in the past two years to exacerbate the unequal distribution of resources in Turkey, despite all its severe consequences. As the May elections showed, a class-based politics and economic discourse alone cannot influence identity politics.

At this point, İmamoğlu’s reference to the Kurdish and Alevi issues deserves attention. However, what is striking here is the concept of “groundwork.” Apparently, İmamoğlu and his team are deferring the resolution of identity issues in the “new politics” that will make a new future possible to the medium term and foreseeing the establishment of the groundwork first.

Identity politics is one of the useful tools for constructing authoritarianism in the political field and inequality in the economic field in Turkey. Overcoming social polarization and achieving “change for power” in Turkey is not possible without building a pluralistic and freedom-based identity politics. In other words, the current unitary and polarizing identity politics can be overcome with a freedom-based and pluralistic identity politics. It is worth noting that this freedom-based and pluralistic identity politics should also encompass the resolution of the Kurdish and Alevi issues, as well as the conflict between the religious and secular sectors.

Beyond Localization: Sustainable and Balanced Spatial Development

It is crucial to link and elaborate on local democracy, local development, and local politics, which are interconnected, with social justice and freedom-based identity politics on one hand and sustainable and balanced spatial development policies on the other. In Turkey, where the difference in development between provinces and regions has worsened over decades, overcoming this problem with solely local or local-based politics is not possible. The unequal distribution of national resources has led to the development of Istanbul and the Marmara and Aegean regions centered around it at the expense of the underdeveloped regions. On the other hand, this development has resulted in enormous problems, ranging from access to clean water, transportation, and housing rights to social justice and the commercialization of public spaces in these cities and regions. The increased frequency of discussions about the risks posed by the Kahramanmaraş earthquakes revealed significant dangers. Today, the possibility of an earthquake in Istanbul turning into a considerable economic and political risk for the whole country is a result of Turkey’s long-held polarized and unequal growth strategy.

Sustainable and balanced spatial development policies are also essential for overcoming political and social polarization. The issues of the Kurdish and Alevi problems, the secular-conservative social divisions, are not just about identity issues. For example, despite the significant loss of power in the metropolises, AK Party, led by Erdoğan, which has transferred more resources to the central and northern Anatolian regions and small cities and rural areas in the last 20 years compared to the past, came out ahead in the May elections. It should be noted that this problem is not just about secular-conservative or Kurdish-Turkish divisions but also involves a class aspect and resource distribution. In summary, the identity issues in Turkey should be considered together with the class issue, and a comprehensive discussion of resource distribution is needed for which localization will be an important starting point.

Politics as an Area of Construction

All these new discourses inevitably bring up the issue of politics and its construction, which İmamoğlu raised under the title “new political organization architecture” but did not elaborate sufficiently. The opposition needs not only a good political program but also an organization that will effectively convey this program to the masses, build an alternative social structure around this program and discourse, and connect representation politics with construction politics.

In this regard, to contribute to the discussions, I would like to propose thinking of politics as a multi-layered and multi-actor area of construction, and political parties and the local-central parliament as a representation area for this multi-construction. Thinking of politics as an area of construction allows it to go beyond the agenda of political parties, to encompass societal problems more than the macro ones, to involve various actors beyond political parties, and, more importantly, to localize and pluralize politics.

Politics as an area of construction is what the Islamic-conservative-nationalist right-wing politics has done best in Turkey. We can even argue that the primary dynamics that have made AK Party successful since the 1950s are the formal and informal networks, which vary from political parties to associations, foundations, Quran courses, mosque organizations, and aid networks, rather than political parties alone.

The mainstream Kurdish movement represented by HDP has also built relatively good experiences, especially in the fields of identity politics and gender politics. However, in recent years, it can be said that the HDP has been confined to its representation area and weakened its connection with the societal networks that create multi-constructions.

Strong Democratic Young Leadership

In Turkey, political leaders are the most important bridge between representative politics and construction politics.

For a strong democracy, governance should be depersonalized and based on institutions, formal and informal rules. However, in countries like Turkey, political leaders can be more decisive than institutions, sometimes even more than political parties. Both the experience of DEVA Party and Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy in the May elections show that political movements without charismatic leaders have low chances of success in Turkey. On the other hand, Erdoğan and Demirtaş can be considered good examples of the influence of charisma.

At this point, giving up strong leaders in Turkey seems impossible for the political institution in the near future. The issue is to democratize strong political leadership and build structures and mechanisms that balance against undemocratic tendencies.

A new social-democratic politics needs a strong, democratic, and young leadership that can change the game or create a new one, renew and diversify political tools by considering intergenerational change, and establish strong connections between representative politics and construction politics.

Imamoğlu is a candidate for this, but whether he will become the new leader of social-democratic politics or not, we will see together in the not-too-distant future, before the 2024 local elections.

This article was originally published in Birikim Magazine on July 31, 2023 and translated into English by Politurco.

Cuma Cicek is assistant professor in the Faculty of Economic and Administrative Sciences at Mardin Artuklu University, Turkey. He received his PhD from Sciences Po in Paris and has published several books in Turkish.

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