How can the results of the recent municipal elections in Turkey be understood amidst the constantly changing political landscape: graft scandals, revolting judicial decisions, changing political alliances, and an ever-increasing polarization? It can be argued that only preliminary lessons can be drawn when analyzing an ongoing historical process for historical and structural clues. This is a state that cannot overcome a widening social opposition, which views elections as the only conduit for democracy (while tampering with these very conduits themselves), which is only able to use brute force against the voices expressed on the streets. It is a state that can only tell lies, since it can no longer (re)produce its own reality, turning ever more clearly into a security and police apparatus. In such a context, do the results of the local elections count for anything?
The question here is: when marginalized identities proliferate, when new sorrows and indignations amass, when a populist government manages to monopolize all branches of power under its thumb, what kind of democratic institutions and practices, what kind of struggle, can resist or even transform this kind of rule? How will it be possible to prevent this single-party, single-identity, single-family, one-man rule to drag society into bigger disasters after the collapse of expansionist foreign policies and nearly going to war with some of its neighbors? Amidst this climate of conflict, secret negotiations are supposedly ongoing with the Kurdish Liberation Movement; these are hardly likely to be conductive to a new constitutional arrangement that deepens democracy and brings peace to the conflict. What kind of mechanisms and forces can push this government towards more democratization and the consolidation of the peace process? And finally, how could such an opposition go beyond the simple strategy of exposing government corruption and lawlessness and become more encompassing in its opposition?
It has become common knowledge by now that the alliance between the Gülen movement and the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP), which came together to transform the state apparatus and colonize the public sphere, is dissolving acrimoniously, spreading animosity and venom everywhere. The government could not respond to ever more differentiated pleas for democratic reforms, as the old bureaucratic regime has decayed and is being scrapped. This old regime has subsequently been replaced by an entrepreneurial logic, a corporate-state rationality that constructs its own pious consumer society. Since the events of Gezi and the turning point of 17 December, that dynamic has been interrupted. Since then, we have been living in a transitional regime: it can be argued that the government has been struggling to discard the old bureaucratic rules and institutions, seeing them as a nuisance and hindrance, while not having fully arrived at installing its own political regime and institutions. Its own new establishment and the new bourgeoisie have not yet reached full maturity, while the government seems to have lost some of its drive to consolidate its institutional continuity. Thus neither the Erdoğan government’s strategy to agitate for a “national struggle” in order to turn the municipal elections into a referendum whereby it could rid itself of the stain of serious corruption allegations, nor the new alliance between a supposedly renewed Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP) and the Gülen movement, who attempted to use the scandal in order to shake up AKP supporters and make them reconsider their support for the government, worked in the end.
The “New” CHP’s Rationale: Revelations and Cynicism
The CHP’s main objective, rather than striving towards further democratization, seems to be the restoration of the “old regime” while giving itself a slicker appearance, simultaneously regaining their former dignity and status. Its supporters have been socialized in, and still operate through, a secular-nationalist code; while they have been marginalized from the administration and from political positions, they have so far preserved their economic and cultural status as part of the urban middle classes in general. But in addition to these CHP supporters, there are others who have been underrepresented and been unable to voice their dissatisfaction, mainly liberal intellectuals without affiliation. Their worldview cannot be precisely pinned down, and it is doubtful that this amorphous political movement can encompass the abundance of the lower economic classes, which have always been historically and structurally marginalized in politics.
The most notable change in the “new” CHP after the Baykal era comes from the emergence of a dynamic new cadre of young elites that sprung up from media and academic circles. Dour faced political figures who emanate from the administration have become less visible, while a happier, fresher generation of modernists has surfaced. This new generation tends to reduce class differences, poverty, and mechanisms of cultural domination to a problem of conflicting lifestyles. They are exceedingly multiculturalist, populist, and pragmatic. Their resumes are thick; they are competent and ingenious. They are cynical enough not to carry any of their party’s historical colonial baggage whatsoever. These new “organic” cadres do not produce any positive notion of democratic coexistence. Instead, they tend to stumble awkwardly over issues of inequality, freedom, and peaceful conflict resolution. They can only go as far as to assign such crucial topics as the teaching of one’s native language at public schools to educators and the public display of religiosity to social scientists, in order to have those experts resolve such issues.
Instead of recognizing the political stakeholders involved with these issues and including them in their political negotiations, which would entail a re-allocation of sovereignty, these new cadres approach these issues technocratically, disregarding the political importance of these stakeholders and their grievances. As a result, they put themselves in the position of sole arbitrators—as in the old days—with the power to define, imagine, and limit the debate on the “common good” in their own terms. We can expect that these young, bright cadres would assign racism to psychologists, the economic crisis to (neo)liberal economists, and gentrification to architects and engineers, while the job of governing would be left to technocrats. In a similar vein, when the Alevi community asked for a legal framework to have Cem houses recognized by state authorities and the abrogation of compulsory religious education, the AKP responded by saying, “We should ask the directorate of religious affairs”—an institution created to supervise the Sunni community in Turkey.
In terms of the CHP’s electoral efforts, it was expected that the AKP’s base, whose material circumstances have improved and who have also benefitted from an increase in status due to the governments clientelistic policies, would become “enlightened” solely on the basis of published leaks exposing endemic corruption at the highest echelons of the government. If this is true, then those voting for the CHP should have been similarly enlightened by the systematic oppression of Kurds, Alevis, and other minorities for the past one hundred years by the state. So much information has been accessible for the past thirty years regarding systemic state violence, assassinations, degradation, and forced evictions of villages that establishment parties such as the CHP should have long ago been alienated from an electorate that would have declared “this is not our war.” This, however, is not how ideology works. The semantic worlds we inhabit do not allow for a change of worldview and values simply resulting from the disclosure of thievery and sinister motifs. If one claims that those voting for the AKP are “uncultured, ignorant rednecks” in order to explain their indifference to the corruption and killings (such as those related to the Roboski massacre, the Gezi uprising and the Soma massacre, as recently discussed by Emrah Yildiz), then the educated urban middle classes that tend to vote for the CHP should also have stopped supporting a party that has been treating Kurds and religious people as inferior, ignoring the injustices and the contempt suffered by others while cynically enjoying the benefits of their privileged status. The cynicism of the new elites works differently: discerning that they do not have a lot to expect from impoverished religious citizens and the Kurdish community in terms of electoral support, some figures from the CHP have proposed that the “authentic” middle classes should be supported in having more children.
This all comes down to the realization that the issue is not how to make the heartless become more empathetic or how to educate the ignorant. We have to acknowledge that we are facing two different semantic worlds endowing their subjects with different cultural codes and different ways of experiencing and knowing the world, constituting parallel symbolic universes. It seems that the social subjects who live in these different symbolic universes have differing material and symbolic interests, as well as different emotional stakes and expectations. Without understanding these “others,” without witnessing the lives of these “others,” without changing their material conditions, without asking “those others” themselves instead of delegating these questions to academics and social scientists, emancipatory politics cannot succeed, as the election results have demonstrated. More importantly, before trying to change and convert “them,” the CHP needs to examine its own positions, perceptions, and reflexes, and to transform itself profoundly, rather than falling back into wishful fantasies of “what could have been.” Only then, perhaps, “life can be a festival.”
The AKP’s Rationale: Accomplishment, Improvement, and Performance
In order to look at the issues of polarization and authoritarianism analytically, this notion of parallel societies or public spheres, implying two different forms of governance and two different forms of socially constructed subjectivity, can be useful. Without getting to the bottom of these two different forms of administrative rationality and societal subjectivity, we will not be able to truly understand this struggle, along with the authoritarianism and polarization that are currently ongoing, nor will we be able to discern the mechanisms with which these can be combatted. The CHP’s politics of disclosure finds only a slight variation in the forms of critique presented by liberal intellectuals towards the third Erdoğan government. Their evaluation is as follows: all forms of participation in the democratic process have been blocked; freedom of expression, as well as the independence of the judiciary, has been contravened; the executive, judiciary, and legislative branches, as well as the fourth estate, have all been co-opted under the rule of one person. They interpret these developments as a profound crisis of legitimacy for the AKP government, a body politic that has gone insane with disorderly practices and arbitrary management. These intellectuals use the lens of liberal principles and criteria alone to evaluate the government’s legitimacy.
But AKP supporters do not gauge political legitimacy (only) by these parameters and criteria. It is quite the opposite: rather than assessing performance through procedural standards, they look at market standards, such as output, stability, performance, and service, together with the populist discourse that brings those elements together as one logic. Instead of focusing on the independence of the judiciary, ability to participate in the democratic process, and an abstract notion of equality, they concentrate their attention on the concrete fulfillment of their needs and requests through the tangible redistribution of material and symbolic resources, resulting in the creation of the pious-client citizen and the betterment of his/her fortune. The AKP’s rationale for governing does not follow legal and regulatory compliance; rather, it conforms with the inverse rationality, as Nükhet Sirman has put it so succinctly: rules have to follow the deeds. Laws are a tactical means; “good” and enterprising management come first—this is the primary directive of the AKP, its basic code of operation. (Within this code, “hizmet”—that is, service in the sense of duty or vocation—alludes simultaneously to a cultural sense of servicing Islam and/or Turkishness, as well as the materialistic-utilitarian sense of capital accumulation, such as building highways, schools, and hospitals and providing social welfare).
These social needs have been strategically detected, filtered, and partially satisfied in a top-down manner that turns the citizen into a client whose level of satisfaction is the benchmark criteria, rather than democratic participation and representation. This is exemplified in the way the government had dealt with demands by the Kurdish political movement. Instead of considering more democratization and more just representation of Kurdish aspirations in the political arena (for example, by simply lowering the ten percent national electoral threshold to allow for a more pluralistic representation in the parliament), the AKP government sees its mission as favoring to certain “reasonable” demands of certain Kurdish citizens in order to better their lot through infrastructure projects and an increase in social welfare support, thus increasing their status relatively (at least compared to the previous regime) while also capturing their hearts. This is the reason why impoverished Kurds living in big cities continue to support the AKP.
The main supporters of the current government—mostly shopkeepers, small-scale manufacturers, and workers in precarious sectors with a low level of education—focus on the extent to which their daily needs and demands have been taken into consideration and met, rather than looking at the democratic procedures involved, the legality of the actions taken, or whether or not corruption was involved. The same supporters of the government remember very well the times before the AKP came to power, and that the laws and regulations of that era were the results of a very different mindset, the expressions of another social class. The bureaucracy of that state, with its corresponding media and judiciary, were under the control of this other class. In these preceding decades, corruption also used to be endemic, along with countless extra-legal executions; current supporters of the AKP have not forgotten how much they used to be ostracized and degraded. Let me emphasize this one more time: when we are talking about polarization, we are actually talking about two differing rationalities, two ways of experiencing the world, two divergent forms of subjectivity, two different affective economies, and finally, two different sources of legitimacy. In this context, it is imperative to draw attention to the political perspective of the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP) as a way to overcome the stranglehold of this dichotomy.
From Revelation to Construction: The Possibility of Alternative Politics
The singular subjectivity of the HDP/BDP can be described by the confluence of the struggle for equality and freedom under the universal maxim “to claim my right is my prerogative,” and the concrete historical experience of social exclusion and deprivation of this right. While referencing similar precedents, the HDP/BDP counters the expectation to renounce its memory and abdicate its rights in the name of a fake social peace. Instead, the movement puts its voice and body unwaveringly into the public arena, and claiming the ground to mutually defend the rights of all. From the vantage point of sovereign codes, experiences, and ways of knowing, this voice may sound like “much ado about nothing.” Nevertheless, the HDP today is endeavoring to make its demands resonate on universal grounds while rendering them negotiable, and also to take other marginalized demands seriously by inviting the aggregation of the multitude on a wider basis.
In this respect, the HDP/BDP sets itself radically apart from the CHP’s notion of state neutrality borrowed from liberalism—a neutrality that normalizes inequality under the guise of meritocracy—along with its understanding of legitimate government guided solely by notions of representational democracy and judiciary independence. It also sets itself apart from the AKP’s rationality of improvement guided by the service- and profit-based developmentalism institutionalized in the body of the corporate-state regime. The AKP relies on tools borrowed from marketing research and polling to gauge customer satisfaction in order to address the current needs of society and to fashion itself a regime based on the partial satisfaction of those needs and desires. The HDP/BDP project, on the other hand, takes its legitimacy neither from the rule of law nor from clientelism. In so doing, the HDP project aims to not only democratize and common-ize the very process through which needs and demands are defined, but also to transform the very conditions of possibility that feed into the always already political production of these definitions. With the ultimate goal of denaturalizing the very definitions of need and demand, per Ceren Özselçuk’s formulation, the HDP’s governmental rationality radically departs from those of the AKP and CHP. In other words, the critical difference resides in the fact that the HDP project does not derive its political legitimacy from the abstract legal notion of equality—itself predicated upon the rendition of material and symbolic inequalities invisible in legal liberalism. Rather, the HDP aims at rendering visible the constitutive link between inequality and liberation, because the possibility of liberation for those materially and symbolically dispossessed is itself structurally conditioned. According to this logic of abstract legal liberalism, then, renouncing liberty is taken to mean renouncing equality as well. As is the case with other colonized and dispossessed peoples, Kurds too continue their political struggle for liberation by stating time and time again that not being equal amounts to not being free, and not being free amounts to not being equal.
The concept of democratic autonomy, encapsulating this alternative political project, does not follow a strategy of coopting the levers of the state, nor does it define itself by transforming public space into personal property. Its strategy is to convert the basic mechanisms of the state and to break the central administration into its most localized forms. In other words, this strategy aims to miniaturize the state machinery so that sovereignty can be transferred to local units, insomuch as these localized units of sovereignty can be democratized and opened up to the voices systemically silenced so far. As a consequence, the people who have been deskilled politically and reduced to clients can participate in the political process. The aim is to abolish the differentiation between the governor and the governed, the served and the servant, by rendering governance radically democratic so as to allow the construction of mechanisms for self-rule. Alongside the transformation of the state, democratic autonomy aims at shrinking the destructive scope of developmentalist capitalism and transforming regimes of property on the ground. As an alternative to that capitalism, it aims at experimenting with and helping to build various solidarity-based community economies, with communal use value rather than the surplus value of profit as determining its logic of maximization. The calling is towards localization as a movement of scale in the governmental order of things. It is a calling that aims at breaking the elite-held monopoly over formal and public political arenas and common-izing them. Such a project is aware that the transformations charged with the task of the common-ization of politics and the building of infrastructures for alternative economies cannot yield its harvest over a day or two. Yet it still remains, in the face of it all, a call for everyone to work patiently against the structural conditions that deny equality and emancipation to all.
This democratic perspective imagined by the HDP (and also the BDP) exceeds conventional definitions of political action, charting out territory well beyond the ballot box. In so doing, it invites everyone to partake in this utopian scenario and contribute collectively towards bringing it to life and transforming our lives with it. The main point of this endeavor is not a finality, nor is it its promise of a “happy ending.” It is rather the attempt to propose a roadmap, through notions such as localism and pertinence, and a means to get there, via direct participation. Given this larger project, the recent elections should be not approached as illustrating a true defeat, but rather a symbolic defeat. If a new life is to be made possible through freedom and equality, it will not be via revelations about a government’s illegal activity or the periodic casting of votes, but through a grassroots movement that carries these ideas through all circumstances so that they can permeate our lives.
[This article was translated from Turkish by Alp Klanten. The original version can be found here.]
 Personal correspondence with Ceren Özselçuk.
 Etienne Balibar, Equaliberty: Political Essays, trans. James Ingram (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 99-131.