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Is Voter Behavior Abnormal in Turkey?

Murat Belge*

In Turkey, those who follow political events say after some time, “I won’t be surprised by anything anymore.” Because generally, the unexpected happens here. Those who come to this conclusion, after a while, lament, “I said I wouldn’t be surprised, yet I am surprised again.” I am one of them. I said, “I won’t be surprised,” and I continue to be surprised.

It happened again the other day. Tayyip Erdoğan gave a hint to the society. He said, “Cities that vote for someone opposed to the central government in local elections will not receive resources.” It was surprising enough for a President to say such a thing, but what surprised me wasn’t that, because I’m used to Tayyip Erdoğan saying such things. He speaks his mind, often deliberately. If it’s a threat, it serves its purpose.

What surprised me was not the speaker, but the listeners. The event took place in Hatay, and the listeners were the people of Hatay, devastated by the Hatay earthquake. They had elected a mayor from the People’s Party, the central government was punishing them, not sending aid, not helping, and he said with his own mouth at such a rally that he didn’t send it. So far, according to Turkish standards, there’s nothing to be surprised about, let’s say. But the people of Hatay at the rally responded to these words with applause. Honestly, I was surprised here!

I’m actually a man who deeply believes in the principle of causality. I think everything has explainable reasons. Therefore, I thought about this event and came to the point of saying, “it’s possible.”

In this country, politics, as Bekir Ağırdır explained in the last issue of Oxygen, is about “identity.” Tayyip Erdoğan continuously declares to the society that he is a good Muslim, makes “native and national” speeches. People believe, we always believe. A part of the society says, “These ‘virtues’ are the values I care about.” They adopt Erdoğan with this identity, saying, “This man is my man.” In some countries, especially in the West, people evaluate their governments based on what they have gained or lost for them. It’s not like that here, or if it is, it’s far behind.

There’s something else Bekir mentioned in the article I referred to: If liking a politician plays a role in determining attitude in voter behaviors, not liking is even more influential, he says. Not liking is a dynamic emotion, it doesn’t stay put. You don’t like, you criticize, you accuse, it can even lead to hate. You don’t need a concrete reason to get here. If things are not going as you wish, you can blame him; you can say, “It’s because of him.” In the political world of Turkey, the “champion of being disliked” is the People’s Party. The party has done its best to be disliked, and the rest was completed by our people: the result is evident — would you be surprised when someone curses İnönü because it didn’t rain on time? Here’s another situation where you won’t be surprised.

I mentioned the “principle of causality.” Yes, the adventure we call “Westernization” has been extremely boring for a significant portion of our people. The “perpetrator” of this unpleasantness was the People’s Party. In this structure, the anger and resentment felt by those from the lower class towards those from the upper class existed here as well. Moreover, those who Westernized were the rich crowd.

The rich crowd, because it was the rich crowd, could also write history in its own way. For example, when we switched to the free election regime in 1950 and the People’s Party lost in the first proper election, this history was described as a “counter-revolution.” For them, interpreting and evaluating this event in this way was normal, a reaction that should be considered normal. What’s not normal, or rather “surprising,” is that the so-called “socialist left” also adopted the same evaluation (one should take a look at Mihri Belli’s evaluations on this “counter-revolution”). Defining the event that granted voting rights to the entire population as a “counter-revolution” is a significant event in itself.

This historical distortion continued. The populism initiated by Menderes found solid ground in such a society. Menderes’s overthrow by the May 27 coup, followed by his execution after a strange process like the Yassıada trials, did not shift this ground. A new door opened in the history of this society: the years we lived under the “dual power” of parliamentary periods followed by coups. The “popular” era of the “champion of being disliked” People’s Party falls into this period, the March 12 era. Because Bülent Ecevit was at the helm of the party at that time, and Bülent Ecevit was against the coup. As a Turkish politician, he had to fight his first battle against his own party. Defeating İsmet İnönü, who carried the ideological identity of the “bad guy of the People’s Party” more than anyone, made him a “people’s hero.”

This was followed by the September 12 coup. At this stage, the ideal of the coup plotters was the restoration of the 1930s, but there are limits to the game you can play with history. Exiting from here, the Turkish society traditionally fulfilled its role again: that is, choosing the most contrary to the idea of the “coup,” the mentality of the coup, among the new power options presented. This time, Turgut Özal was chosen, and thus we entered the Özal years. From this situation, we moved to a new phase: the segment we can describe as “moderate right” was divided into two between Özal and Demirel. This division also brought the end of the moderate right in Turkey. AKP declared this “end.” This is where we are now.

In various articles I wrote on “Westernization” or its other name, “modernization,” I said that when looking at this event in a broad frame, many societies in the world share this fate. And not many of those who share are happy. Because the West turned the world into another world since the extraordinary leap we call the “Industrial Revolution” was made by Western Europe. Undoubtedly, many societies forced to live through this process showed different reactions due to their own structures. Although no one is “happy,” the degree of unhappiness varies from society to society. In this spectrum, Turkey is one of those that are severely strained, and this strain is not past today or has not eased. At this time, after the consecutive election successes of AKP, we have entered a truly serious and critical period as a result of its attempt to reshape society according to its own disposition.

Let’s see what fate will show.

*Murat Belge (born 16 March 1943) is a Turkish academic, translator, literary critic, columnist, civil rights activist, and occasional tour guide.

This article was first published in Birikim Magazine and translated into English by Politurco.

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