“Seni bilen hayran, bilmeyen düşman” or, Why Erdoğan Remains so Popular
At a rally in Istanbul’s Bakırköy district last Saturday, members of the all-female audience were whipped up like teenagers at a pop concert long before the main speaker arrived.
“Who are we waiting for?” teased the compere. “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan!” they roared in reply. When I asked some of the women what they liked about Turkey’s Prime Minister, most struggled at first to respond, as if his qualities were so numerous that listing them was impossible. “I don’t believe there’s another person on this earth like him, he’s perfect in every way,” said one.
It was a stark contrast to comments I heard later that day in Büyükçekmece, a municipality controlled by the opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) on the edge of the city where Erdoğan appeared at another rally, in preparation for nationwide municipal elections due on 30 March. I was asking a greengrocer his views on the Prime Minister when a customer interjected. “People have seen what kind of a thief he is,” he said, and then motioned as if to pull a noose around his neck. “He’s a traitor and he’ll hang.”
The diametrically opposing views were summed up best by a poster held aloft at the Bakırköy rally: Seni bilen hayran, bilmeyen düşman. “Those who know you are your followers, those who don’t are your enemies.” What struck me about this slogan was that it perfectly summed up the strength of the political message Erdoğan is espousing. It is a mantra that encompasses both support and resistance; it presupposes, even requires, opposition, while simultaneously dismissing that opposition as illegitimate. People outside of Turkey are often baffled as to why Erdoğan retains such a solid core of support in the face of serious corruption allegations that his government has done a fairly poor job of refuting. I think many outsiders—and also many among Turkey’s domestic opposition—do not grasp just how strong his political platform is, and how in the eyes of a significant chunk of the population, his narrative becomes even stronger the more he is seen to be under attack by his “enemies.” His message is also shored up by a deep-rooted historical narrative, and tangible achievements in the present that provide rhetorical responses to the corruption allegations that are far more effective in many people’s eyes than substantive ones. Erdoğan’s slogan of the “national will”—a concept that sounds deeply creepy concept to many people—is far more compelling and less nebulous to many Turks than notions such as “the separation of powers” and “the rule of law,” particularly given that law itself has been tainted by the motives of the Gülenists.
I am embarrassed to admit that before Saturday, having lived here for four years, I had never been to one of Erdoğan’s rallies—though his voice is a constant soundtrack in today’s Turkey. It blares from car radios and television screens in shops, cafes, and groceries across the country. Most television channels switch coverage to the Prime Minister whenever he speaks. When he took to the stage at Sinan Erdem Sports Hall in Bakırköy, in front of an audience of around seven thousand women, some with young children, one or two with husbands in tow, it was to speak on the occasion of International Women’s Day. The mood was pumped up beforehand by a series of speeches by party grandees, including Istanbul mayor Kadir Topbaş and Families Minister Ayşenür İslam. They spoke about their “zero tolerance” policy towards violence against women, about the scores of health centers, sports halls, and daycare centers the party has built in Istanbul, and how it will continue to build such things. The government often draws attention to the many other things they have built: new airports across the country, the recently opened Marmaray tunnel beneath the Bosphorus, thousands of miles of highways.
Opponents of the government view these accomplishments with a jaundiced eye. To them, physical buildings seem insignificant when compared to fundamental rights that are denied or threatened: a woman’s right over her body, for instance, which Erdoğan constantly contests with his threats against abortion and his oppressive glorification of motherhood. There is a large portion of the population, however—and in general a poorer segment of the population—to whom the AKP’s concrete achievements are far more substantial than a series of concepts, which, when they do impact their lives (a conservative girl forced to have a backstreet abortion, for instance), tend to not to be view in politicized terms: as part of fate, or the will of God, or the way of the society.
During the Gezi protests, as I spoke to dozens of people, one of the few sour notes in what was otherwise the most inspiring and positive social movement I have witnessed in Turkey were the views many people expressed about government supporters. “People support AKP because they’ve given them stuff,” was one view I heard often, or “they’ve bought their votes.” The general view was that AKP supporters were parochial, pious drones, duped by a cynical government. As a dismissal of agency, it was on a par with the government’s patronizing assertion that Gezi protesters were “marginals,” or pampered kids led astray by terror groups. Some people were referring to the popular belief that the AKP buys support through distributing free coal, but also buried in there is the assertion that somehow the material achievements of the AKP—the roads, airports, and so on—are electoral bribes.
To give an example of why this is a grave misconception, consider Tüzköy, a village in Nevşehir blighted by an epidemic of cancer linked to a rare, naturally-occurring mineral in the local rocks. I did a story about this place last year. Since the 1960s, the Turkish state had known about Tüzköy’s plight (more than fifty percent of its deaths were caused by a cancer that often struck people in their early thirties). For four decades, nothing was done about it, for a variety of reasons: local politics, weak coalition governments, military coups, the meager capacity of the state, and so on. It was when an AKP mayor was voted in shortly after Erdoğan took office that the government moved the entire village. The situation now is not perfect, but most people I spoke to were very happy about the move, and happy that their children will no longer live with the prospect of an early, painful death. Of course, to AKP opponents, this may be seen as a reward for the mayor’s loyalty. Similarly, government largesse in opposition-controlled areas—such as public transport projects in Izmir—are explained as a political attempt to win support. Perhaps. But that obscures the more important point, which is that the AKP is performing—unlike many of its predecessors—the basic functions of a government. Without drawing attention away from the corruption, lack of consultation, and environmental destruction underlying much of its development (though the latter issue lacks popular traction in Turkey), the opposition should acknowledge clearly and unequivocally the massive material progress of the last decade, and the AKP’s role in it. Perversely, this may be the only way that such achievements will cease to be perceived by many voters as the monopoly of the AKP, and their continuation contingent on them being in power. Perhaps, in time, delivering development and infrastructure services would no longer be viewed as a function of political patronage.
Anyway, Erdoğan took the stage. He began as he often does, with a sweeping series of greetings to people from across the (Muslim) world. He saluted the suffering women of Syria, Somalia, and Myanmar “who have held on to their honor in spite of everything.” He saluted women of every profession and walk of life. In one aside, he even saluted “those exploited women in the West, who have even been turned into commodities that can be bought.” It was a classic example of the way in which Erdoğan appears to unite, while actually dividing. To his followers, these salutations make him seem like a towering statesman, pitying and even embracing those whom he finds distasteful; yet it is also an implicit denunciation of that large portion of Turkish women who have adopted “Western” cultural norms.
For its audience, it was a masterful speech. The slogan of the event was Kadin varsa demokrasi var—“If there are women, there is democracy”—which I presume must mean participation of women makes democracy, rather than their mere presence. On that theme, Erdoğan launched into an anecdote about a village called Arslanköy where in 1947, he said, local women successfully resisted efforts by the CHP to rig the election result. This segued into a pitch on today’s looming municipal polls. The CHP would again try to steal the vote, he claimed: “Protect the ballot box, protect your vote.” Democracy, as exemplified by the women of Arslanköy, the long-suffering conservative masses, and Erdoğan himself was again under assault by the same forces as in the past: shadowy foreign foes, the CHP, the secularist elites who had long held the reins of power and brought in the army whenever their grip appeared to be slipping. The current corruption allegations fit perfectly into this narrative. Unlike in Gezi, where the government’s “coup” allegations were patently ridiculous to outsiders, no one really disputes that Erdoğan is correct when he claims the graft probe is an attempt to overthrow him. In the eyes of many Turks, it is this fact, rather than the truth or falsehood of the allegations themselves, which resonates most strongly, tying the graft probe into a long-established and deeply emotive historical and political narrative. The views of the people at the rally reflected this: “These are traps that have been laid by our enemies…Turkey is in the most glorious period since the founding of the Republic, and there are people who are jealous and are trying to create problems,” said one woman. Others weighed the government’s economic achievements positively against the allegations: “There’s always been corruption, everyone who comes to government has done this…But he’s worked so hard for us at the same time, even if it were true I’d still support him.” Another simply: “I support him until the end, until death.”
Drawing on the idea that he is facing a coup-like attack, Erdoğan repeatedly seeks to channel the spirit of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, another charismatic populist who took an authoritarian swerve in his later years and was ultimately deposed in a military coup ın 1960 and hanged following a show trial. “What they did to Menderes, they want to do to me,” he told the rally in Bakırköy. At a time when Erdoğan is fighting for his political survival, he is framing the narrative in such a way that the outcome that one chunk of the population is demanding—that he leave power and be made to account for his alleged crimes—will be viewed by another large chunk of the population as tantamount to a coup. They would have a point. After all, whatever the veracity of the corruption allegations, they have undoubtedly been raised as a calculated attempt either to eject Erdoğan from office, or to weaken him as much as possible at the polls. Within the opposition, the graft allegations and the government’s response to them—effectively to suspend the rule of law—have created the firm conviction in many people’s minds that Erdoğan is no longer a legitimate Prime Minister. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition CHP, now refuses to call Erdoğan Başbakan (Prime Minister), and instead calls him Başçalan (Prime Thief).
Just as Turkey’s opposition misapprehend the solidity of government support and the deep resonance of Erdoğan’s message, so his own camp misapprehends the significance of the still-fractured opposition ranged against him. This misapprehension issues from Erdoğan’s narrative itself (and the endemic divisiveness of Turkish politics), namely the claim that he and his supporters are synonymous with the concept of democracy. It is this belief that allows him to claim with a straight face that winning 49.9 percent of the vote in the last general elections allows him to claim ownership of “the national will,” even though more than half of the electorate voted for someone else. The AKP’s supporters tend to view these opponents as at best sore losers, and at worst active coup plotters and terrorists. For this portion of the population, the continuation and entrenchment of Erdoğan’s government represents the entrenchment of democracy itself. What is missed here is that the success of the AKP in its first decade, and the reason Turkey was viewed with such high regard by much of the outside world during this time, was that it was a democracy operating with the consent of almost all its people. Even those who despised the AKP acknowledged its right to govern. Erdoğan, of course, still has a very strong democratic mandate in the basic sense, and he may hold on to it in upcoming elections. But he will no longer be able to have stability unless he is willing to enact drastically repressive measures, and that will cost Turkey its democracy.
Erdoğan talks as if these local elections will draw a line under the current crisis, but it should be immediately obvious that they will not. His problem is not electoral legitimacy, but legal legitimacy. The assault by the Gülenists will likely continue, and a large chunk of the population will not trust any mandate he claims based on the result, due to the rising perception that given the extent of the government’s alleged corruption and the high stakes (Erdoğan could end up in prison if he ultimately loses power), the elections may be rigged. In the final analysis, these local polls may not be that important at all, except that they will be the gauge by which Erdoğan decides whether: a) to run for President in August, and b) to hold early general elections.
In Turkey yesterday, as anti-government protests erupted once again, in a square in Istanbul tens of thousands of mourners were tossing carnations onto the coffin of a slain boy, while cursing Erdoğan for his death and demanding his resignation. Elsewhere, Erdoğan was speaking to another huge crowd in the eastern city of Mardin, also tossing flowers—onto his adoring supporters. In spite of the rage erupting in Istanbul, he did not mention Berkin Elvan once. It is tempting to look at this and reach for the easy stereotype of the out-of-touch autocrat primed for a fall. However, neither of these scenes is a fake. Erdoğan may be deeply alienated from half of the population, but he absolutely has his finger on the pulse of the other half, and he knows it. This is what makes Turkey’s situation so scary: Erdoğan’s political narrative is steering two substantial chunks of the population onto a collision course. Viewed in the medium term, I find it harder and harder to see the situation resolving itself without a far more serious period of social unrest than we have witnessed hitherto. Whether Erdoğan stays or goes, Turkey is in for a tough time. We have seen the anger on the streets of those who feel marginalized by the government’s divisive and authoritarian policies, but perhaps the other foot has yet to drop: the anger of the equally large or larger proportion of the population who feel the man who delivered to Turkey what has ostensibly been a golden decade is being snatched away from them by nefarious forces.
[Another polarising image: an AKP election lorry burning in protests last night over the death of Berkin Elvan. The slogan on it reads:
“On the road to the New Turkey”. It will suggest the toppling of a criminal to some, the shattering of dreams to others.]
[An earlier version of this article was first published on the author’s blog.]