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The Need to Rethink Turkish Politics

Prof. Ahmet Insel*

When this issue of Birikim was being prepared for printing, the local elections of March 31, 2024, had not yet taken place. Therefore, we can postpone the assessment of the results of the local elections for later, and here focus on the state of both those supporting the government and the opposition voters during the election campaign, which appeared as indifference in some and weariness in others. This condition is likely to be as prevalent, if not more so, after the election as before.

Observers have noted that the media coverage and debate programs about the elections attracted less interest compared to the past. Crowds were not as large at election rallies in most places. The activity that started a week or ten days before the election was considerably less lively than in previous elections. Of course, election rallies were still relatively crowded compared to previous elections, and the media was flooded with election news and analysis throughout the month, not to mention the competition in banners and flags, especially considering the excitement generated by the uncertainty of who would emerge victorious from the ballot box in several symbolic constituencies, such as Istanbul. Considering this, one could question the purported lack of interest in the elections. In fact, in cities where the outcome of the election was uncertain, there was a significant population who perceived the election result as either a great victory or a devastating defeat. The relative lack of interest could also be attributed to the fatigue from frequent elections. However, what we are trying to highlight here is the relationship between elections and politics, leading to a perception that the excitement related to politics is increasingly losing its capacity to direct and give meaning to the political scene.

Of course, the voter turnout will shed some light on these assessments. However, the turnout rate alone does not fully reveal how society perceives the elections and their results. It indicates the presence or absence of interest but does not sufficiently reflect the nature or type of that interest. A high turnout, if the data are accurate, signals an interest in political developments, but it could also reflect extreme excitement and an agitated state. As in other areas, this overly agitated state could mask a lack of substantive content, and at least could potentially do so. The appearance of extreme politicization could be a manifestation of this political content vacuum.

This political content vacuum does not mean a lack of interest in who wins or loses. On the contrary, for the overwhelming majority of the electorate, the constant perception of elections as a matter of existential significance covers up a void concerning the content of the supported politics. It is a “political excitement” dominated by extreme reactivity. Being politically overly agitated and reactive is known to diminish interest in other subjects.

When one succumbs to extreme reactivity, the subject of the reaction dominates one’s mental world and suppresses interest in anything else. Thus, the opposing side dazzles the mind; it does not allow one to think about anything other than what the opposition says and does. Overly reactive political perceptions and emotions are often an expression of a depoliticized state. Politics, as aptly noted by Tanıl Bora, is reduced to “not pleasing the enemy.” A well-known phenomenon in the world of football is that fans of eternal rivals rejoice more over the defeat of their rival than the victory of their own team.

Being apolitical is neither the symmetrical opposite of becoming politicized nor is there a seamless straight line from depoliticization to politicization. Being apolitical, like indifference and extreme reactivity, suppresses consideration of what political struggle is for, what its main purpose is, and what could be done to achieve this purpose. This depoliticization can also appear under the guise of extreme politicization. It is not an apoliticization based on delegating politics to technocratic management or distancing from politics. Nor is it achieved through methods of ideologization or claims that politics is based on natural laws.

The most influential forms of this type of depoliticization in the last half-century have been neoliberal political ideology and methods—the most famous being Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” slogan—and its extension, the “new public management” trend. The assertion that the “best technical solution” can be achieved by leaving politics to technocrats is also one of the main methods used to disengage society from politics. Politics is almost exclusively designed through elections and representation, trying to confine people to a very narrow area. The liberal illusion supports the separation of the private and political/public spheres.

In contrast, in Turkey and other similar countries where authoritarian/autocratic regimes prevail, depoliticization is fueled by extreme politicization. This extreme politicization, not only abroad but also within society, feeds a rigid polarization based on a “friend-enemy” distinction and shapes policies accordingly. It can encompass almost all of daily life and social existence. In an environment where opinions are highly polarized, all attention focuses not on what to do or what is proposed but on who wins and who loses, and all other evaluative factors revolve around this focus. The paradoxical result can be extreme distrust in institutions and political actors, or complete allegiance to a person, group, institution, or symbol based on this friend-enemy political divide. This is usually complemented by completely rigid political stances.

In this context, political parties also depoliticize and become mere conveyors of executive power, reducing politics to a mere alignment behind a leader, a pioneer, or a symbol/flag. The political realm loses its relative autonomy, and politics turns into a battleground dominated by responses to the leader’s issues or extremely politicized confrontations. Elections in these elective autocracies typically serve as a tool to shallow politics. The concept of elective autocracy, which might initially sound like an oxymoron, has gained popularity in describing today’s authoritarian/autocratic regimes due to this dynamic of extreme politicization-depoliticization.

In politics, the main determinant of winning or losing becomes the leader’s charisma capacity, leading to a contraction in political thought in search of charisma, with the charismatic leader dazzling political thought. Success is indexed to the power to stun the political thinking capacity of both the “friend camp” and the “enemy camp.” The establishment of a savior leader cult, not only among the power faction and its supporters but also within opposition circles, stifles politics and politicization. It even leads to personalities who put their attributed charisma up for auction in the political market aiming to dominate the center of politics.

During the local election campaign in Turkey, much of what is described above was observed. Throughout the election campaign, the general indifference prevailed against the policies proposed by the parties and mayoral candidates. While the interest in political issues decreased among the voter bases of both the government and the opposition, all candidates articulated issues such as housing, environment, education, and health as problem areas, but remained silent on proposed solutions. These were hardly discussed or not discussed at all. Rare attempts to initiate debate neither made their voices heard locally nor nationally. However, politics is more than just stringing problems together like beads; it involves discussing and evaluating solutions in a certain order of importance, considering their interactions with one another. Politics in Turkey has increasingly lost this character and nearly completely lost it with the implementation of the autocratic presidential system. The local election largely turned into a vote to support or oppose the president. Tayyip Erdoğan himself explicitly stated that local governments need to side with the state president, actually with himself, to receive resources from the center, while also declaring a disregard for the partial autonomy of local governments as indirectly expressed in the constitution, effectively presenting local elections as the third round of the presidential election. As a result, consecutive presidential elections have confined politics to the narrow area of “electing a president.”

While mayoral candidates competed with their promises, we saw that the idea of the insignificance of face-to-face debates, of introducing and discussing the political projects indicated by candidates’ promises, has now firmly settled. Tayyip Erdoğan’s long-held principle of refusing to debate his opponent or opponents in front of impartial journalists and turning the election campaign into something akin to a stand-up comedy monologue has now become a common habit not only in general and presidential elections but also in local election campaigns in Turkey. In local election campaigns, candidates did not engage in political debate with each other in the same setting. Meanwhile, the state president and his circles, saying “even if it’s fake,” openly and recklessly resorted to deceptive methods, and the policies based on “alternative facts” extracted from their abuses may also have lost their impact due to becoming widely accustomed.

The pre-election scenario revealed a significant portion of the electorate that continues to support the government but whose dissatisfaction is gradually increasing, alongside a portion that has lost hope in the opposition parties, overwhelmed by the economic crisis, and not seeing the dynamic of change they hoped for. This manifested as an expansion in the ranks of those approaching politics with relative indifference, even if they expressed their intention to vote, without meaningful and significant expectations.

Regardless of the outcome of the March 31 local elections, Turkey’s pre-election scenario will not change after the election. The paradoxical phenomenon of depoliticization on one side and extreme politicization on the other will continue to prevail. Unless an unexpected development occurs, a four-year period without elections will begin. Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling coalition, if they do not attempt or fail in attempting to change the rules of the game during this period, all parties will prepare for the post-Erdoğan era. Those who have not achieved results from the policies they have followed so far are expected to reassess them from a political perspective, develop a new politics—not just in rhetoric and stance, but in political content and style—and integrate this into a new political perspective. This necessitates rethinking politics, ending the current state of affairs, and defining political goals, placing them within a hierarchy of interconnected principles and values, creating a clear order of importance, and considering the process to achieve these goals not just in terms of political communication planning but beyond mere political communication. This also means not succumbing to the suppressive effect of the savior leader cult on politics, dulling it, and ultimately depoliticizing it. Can we hope for this?

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Ahmet İnsel (b. 1955) is a Turkish economist, editor, journalist and political scientist. Professor at the University of Paris 1, he regularly appears on the Turkish and foreign media, especially French, to talk about the political situation in his country.

The article was originally published in Birikim Magazine and has been translated from Turkish.

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