Turkish party politics a quagmire of contradictions

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Published May 8, 2023


London - On Sunday May 14, over 60 million eligible voters will have the chance to go to the polls in Türkiye in the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections, probably one of the most important elections in recent history given the country’s strategic geopolitical location, juxtapositioned between Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and its perennial spats with the US, UK and the EU over a number of political, trade and socio-cultural issues.

In recent years Türkiye has also been forging a rapprochement with Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), using its soft power of largely trade and investment and increasing its presence in the rising continent.

Türkiye was the first country to recognize the new government in conflict-torn Somalia followed by a visit from the President to Mogadishu.

Summa Group, the Turkish contractor, is fast building an infrastructure footprint in SSA to compete with Chinese counterparts. In Dakar, Senegal for instance, it built the Abdou Diouf International Conference Centre and the Stade du Senegal, the country’s state-of-the-art 50000 seater football stadium, whose entire electricity needs including two training grounds, are powered by renewable solar energy.

The presidential race could not be starker, pitting the incumbent 69-year-old Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Justice and Development Party, who has ruled a country which boasts Nato’s second largest army, for two decades – first as prime minister then as president, and the softly spoken former civil servant 74-year-old Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is heading a six-party Alliance led by his Republican People’s Party.

Given Türkiye’s young demographic – the median age of the population is about 31 years – and the fact that this election is supposedly going to be decided by the bevy of young voters, the parties would have opted for leaders with a much younger profile.

I strongly believe that political leaders in a democracy should not rule for more than 10 years. Maggie Thatcher, Tony Blair, Angela Merkel all ruled for more than a decade. Erdogan is no exception.

In a Westminster-style first-past-the-post system, there is no time limit in terms of time in office.

After he transformed Türkiye to a presidential system, he is subject to a two-term limit. If he wins the 2023 election, then it would be his last term in office.

The temptation is always there to change the constitution and assume the soubriquet of ‘President for Life’ as it has happened in several African countries.

That is highly unlikely in Türkiye. Whether you love him or hate him, Erdogan is one of a kind. The polls might suggest that the race will be close, but it would be foolhardy to write off Erdogan, once a former football administrator, political prisoner, yes a liberal social reformer, environmentalist and mayor of Istanbul, who has dominated Turkish politics for more than two decades.

Erdogan is a political enigma. His critics both at home and abroad never fail to mention his rising authoritarianism peppered by his near-obsessive contempt of his former partner, the mysterious cult-like Gulen Fetullah who is exiled in America, after the bloodiest coup attempt in Türkiye’s modern history on July 15, 2016, which spectacularly failed.

Some on the looney fringe even alleged that he planned the putsch against himself.

The western media are salivating at the prospect of an Erdogan defeat. The media in the Global South should not fall for the same trick.

The Turkish people can decide who they want as their rulers unencumbered by the self-entitled shenanigans of the western media.

“Türkiye’s Elections Won’t Be Free or Fair. But the opposition could still win,” declared the supposedly influential Foreign Policy magazine in the US.

Newspapers and TV channels are speculating about voter suppression and fraud, political violence and the spectre of Erdogan refusing to accept the result especially if Kemal Kilicdaroglu wins by the narrowest margin.

Erdogan is on record stating that he would accept the result.

Turkish party politics can be a quagmire of contradictions. Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party is slated as a centre left social democratic party.

Yet in Türkiye it is also considered a Kemalist party.

One thing Ataturk, the father of the nation, was not, is a social democrat.

To its shame, this very party with others on both sides of the political spectrum, colluded with the Turkish army to oust a democratically elected Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan in 1997, whose ‘Islamist’ Welfare Party was in coalition with Tansu Ciller’s centre right True Path Party.

There is no doubt that Erdogan is the bogeyman of the West and their supporters at home. The West has a chauvinistic near colonial mindset when it comes to dealing with Türkiye.

They despise a strong Turkish leader who is prepared to stand up to their interests. It is steeped, subliminally in their psyche, in the history of the Ottoman Empire, one of the most successful ones in history, and to boot a Muslim one and the bane of European countries.

Not surprisingly, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, the axis countries coalesced in Istanbul like vultures carving a niche of influence, and branding Türkiye as the “Sick Man of Europe,’ a label which will probably never be jettisoned by the West.

This despite the fact that Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) and his army compatriots restored Turkish pride by defeating Greece in the War of Independence a year later, only to shackle itself for a century to the nefarious provisions of the Treaty of Lausanne, which expires on 23 July 2023.

Erdogan dared to continue his relations with Vladimir Putin acting as an honest broker between Moscow and Kyiv; played a crucial role in getting the two sides to restart grain exports to dependent developing states especially in the Middle East and SSA; threatened to buy air defence missiles and jet fighters from Russia after the US played hardball in supplying an equivalent US system; refused (together with Hungary) to endorse Swedish membership application to NATO after Stockholm refused to ban the public burning of the Quran outside the Turkish embassy under the guise of freedom of speech and protest – the list goes on.

It is as if the West is bent on proving that Türkiye remains the “Sick Man of Europe,’ which is rather ironic given that Europe has effectively impeded Ankara’s progress towards membership of the EU on the grounds that it is a Muslim country.

Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was unequivocal that Türkiye would never become an EU member because it is a “Christian club.”

Leading up to the attempted coup, Erdogan was the most successful democratic politician in the world winning a spate of general elections and referenda, in his first decade or so in office oft with handsome margins.

Istanbulians will never forget his greening and depolluting of the city during his time as mayor, only to be forced out of office and jailed for four months by the army because he dared read a poem from a book which the generals took exception to.

Yes, he made several mistakes. He could have acted more decisively in responding to the devastating earthquake in south east Türkiye in February.

His appointment of his son-in-law as the Minister of Finance smacked of nepotism and clearly a conflict of interest.

His paranoia post the coup attempt disintegrated into a very undemocratic clampdown on any one or institution with the tiniest whiff of dissent or suspicion.

The choice is between ‘better the devil you know’ and ‘the new devil on the block’ who sings the tune of “freedom and justice” tempered by the political masters in Washington, Berlin and London.

They conveniently forget that it was Erdogan the strong man of Turkish politics who successfully and finally confined the army to the barracks to serve the democratically-elected civilian government of the day instead of the other way round.

Türkiye used to be the butt of jokes relating to the 10-year Cycle of military coups, the last of which was in 1980.

Colleagues in Türkiye talk of a photo finish in the two round presidential election. Erdogan seems to be prepared for the possibility of defeat.

He has been wooing the 3.5 million diaspora Turks living largely in Europe especially in Germany, most of whom have already cast their vote.

My colleague, a non-Muslim Turk who supports the President, predicts a winning margin of between one to two percent: “Erdogan has a lot of unfinished business and projects.

So, he cannot leave just yet.”

Parker is an economist and writer, who is based in London

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