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Reflections on Power and Democracy: A Critical Look at Elections and Governance in the Middle East and Turkey

NECIP F. BAHADIR

Last week, Ilham Aliyev won the presidential election in Azerbaijan with 92.1% of the vote. Although the OSCE detected irregularities, the result was not surprising. Aliyev reclaimed Azerbaijani territories occupied by Armenians in Karabakh. His victory in the elections, entering as the ‘Conqueror of Karabakh,’ was entirely natural. Even under normal conditions, he would still receive around 90% of the vote.

Even though democratic regimes are spoken of in countries to the east of Turkey, and elections are held with multiple candidates, the rate doesn’t change much. In Egypt, the largest country in the Arab Muslim world, Sisi’s votes fell last year, but he still managed to get 89.6% of the votes. There were other candidates in Egypt as well, but the result there was also not surprising.

It is rumored that after an election, a Western journalist congratulating Saddam Hussein said, “Congratulations to you. You received 97% of your people’s votes. What more could a leader want…” But Saddam was not that happy. He turned to the journalist and replied, “In the Middle East, a leader doesn’t look at the votes he got. First, he wants to know who didn’t vote for him!” If he can find out, it’s clear what he’ll do to those who didn’t vote for him; either jail or exile… He has no concern or thought of convincing them!

Half of the country is against Erdoğan! So far, no one beloved and embraced by everyone has come to the world. Even prophets had to leave their birthplaces because they were unwanted. Such high vote rates are probably not a manifestation of love.

Recently, there have been frequent comments that Turkey is increasingly resembling the Middle East… Anatolia has both cultural and geographical eastern aspects. Although the AK Party’s more than 20-year rule and Erdoğan’s ‘invincibility at the ballot box’ perception may resemble Middle Eastern administrations, Turkey is, of course, neither an Egypt nor an Azerbaijan.

Despite using all state resources to the fullest, silencing opposition voices, annihilating civil society, and the unfair competition, he barely surpasses 50% of the vote. Nevertheless, there is a 50% opposition against him. Half of the country, that is. Otherwise, Erdoğan’s leadership caliber is not behind Sisi’s. It could even be said that he is far ahead in terms of international popularity. The East loves popularity.

Aside from Egypt and Azerbaijan, Turkey’s tragedy is here; after switching to a multi-party democratic system, the regime has regressed recently. The 1940s are characterized as the single-party era in political history and are condemned by society. Leftist parties are still paying the price for that era, decades later. The Presidential Government System is even more backward than the 1940s single-party era.

The biggest problem is societal ‘indifference’! Today, not only ‘single-party’ rule but also ‘autocracy’ where all powers are concentrated in one person is in effect. Blaming all sins on the politician would not be right. Every leader wants to use unlimited power. However, society does not allow this. The system develops its own control mechanisms. Here, the biggest problem is the society’s indifference. Erdoğan draws his power from his base that supports him unconditionally. He turned into a religious cult beyond a leader and created ‘his own believers’. “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” wasn’t said in vain. The public’s support, ignoring failed policies, corrupted both Erdoğan and the system… And Turkey, of course.

Let’s not forget that leaders who cannot attain power fulfill their authoritarian desires within their party. In these lands, even restaurants are named after their owners; like İsmail’s Place, Köfteci Yusuf… In such a culture, it’s normal for the whole country to become Erdoğan’s Turkey, isn’t it? If the system’s auto control mechanisms collapse, this is what happens.

‘Political Islamism’ is just a facade! It’s a tragedy for a society that has tasted the fruits of democracy and loved multi-party life to inexplicably give way to the past, to adopt and support a regime longing for monarchy, and doing so along the axes of values and sanctities is even more painful. Contrary to popular belief, AK Party’s ideology is not political Islamism. Whether you accept it or not, political Islamism has a philosophy.

The meaning Erdoğan attaches to the state, the methods he follows on the way to authority, and the efforts he makes to stay in power cannot be explained with either politics or Islamism…

Such crude methods, reckless policies are outside both politics and Islamism. Actions like the headscarf issue and Hagia Sophia are nothing but a smokescreen for policies and actions that are in no way compatible with Islamism. It would not be right to make a judgment about the nature and color of the AK Party government by looking at a few formal practices that dazzle the society. Erdoğan made the sanctities of religion a ‘capital’ for his political struggle and spent it recklessly. That’s the essence.

If you withdraw justice, law, and fairness from your policies, you cannot talk about religion or political Islamism… As a religion, Islam’s main criteria are justice, rights, and adherence to the law. Also, the aspect of ‘morality’ from a human perspective is essential. The issues that political Islamism focuses on are the weakest areas of the AK Party government. Not what it failed at, but what it ignored and overlooked.

AK Party’s judiciary is competing with Independence Courts! Can we talk about the Islamism of a government that fails the justice test? Even the AK Party base and MPs admit that the justice report card is poor. Today, trust in the judiciary is at the lowest level in the history of the Republic. The AK Party’s judicial system competes in injustice with the medieval inquisition and the Independence Courts of the early years of the Republic…

In courts, the most basic rights are violated, and procedural law is thoroughly disregarded. To make these determinations, you just need to listen to the courtrooms and not be a ‘deaf devil’. Today, the AK Party and its base include not only the ‘mute’ but also the ‘deaf devils’. We face a government that boasts not of justice but of the abundance and size of prisons.

Which world citizen or a Muslim would want to be judged in courts under the shadow of the AK Party, labeled as political Islamists?

AK Party has no concern with ‘political Islamism’! Rest assured, the AK Party government, where Erdoğan is the sole authority, has no concern with political Islamism. The whole issue is about controlling power with crude politics and not letting it slip away. That’s all there is to it. The rest are just stones on that path. The appearance and messages of religiosity in the eyes of the public, alliances in Ankara with the right and left elements of nationalism like MHP and Homeland Party… Add to that the Kemalist vein of the old regime. You would have taken an X-ray of the government.

Can we talk about Erdoğan’s Islamism when Doğu Perinçek says, “He has come to our line”? The propaganda and slogans of Erdoğan being a ‘world leader, a regional power of Turkey’ collapsed in Gaza.

Erdoğan’s support must be explained with political reasons and sociological dimensions. The Anatolian people have unlimited credit for the sanctities. Just as Adnan Menderes’s restoration of the call to prayer covered all his mistakes and wrongdoings, Erdoğan’s religious rhetoric and symbolic actions were enough for the conservative masses that form the base of his electorate. If you add benefiting from the material blessings of power, you unravel the secret of Erdoğan, the master of the ballot boxes.

The Magician and Moses’s Staff! Of course, we must not forget that Erdoğan is a ‘ballot box magician’. Magicians always make an impact in these lands. Sooner or later, the paint of magicians peels off. The hat from which rabbits are continuously pulled remains empty. Magicians’ magic wands are helpless against Moses’s staff. Just let the owner of that staff appear… The enchanted eyes of the electorate open. The mute speak, the deaf hear. My explanation is not actually in metaphysical terms. If physics fails, what can I do?

If the sun rises somewhere, there is hope. Giving up, succumbing to despair is tantamount to death. It’s a fact that Turkey’s eastern side is far from democracy… However, there is also the western side where rights and freedoms shine. In these lands, the ballot box is always hope. Maybe a wind blows, sweeps the throne to one side, the king to the other…

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