June 26, 2018
Everybody knew this was a landmark election, the last exit on the road to authoritarian rule. With continuing state of emergency, a failing economy, extreme polarization and a chain of foreign and security policy disasters, Government’s only chance to stay in power was Justice and Development Party (JDP) supporters restating their adulation of President Erdogan and it worked. Anyway, through the constitutional referendum of April 16, 2016 they had already replaced Turkey’s parliamentary system with another, at the center of which is very strong leadership. JDP’s election slogan “strong parliament, strong leader” designed to mask its elimination of separation of powers was a glaring contradiction but the party faithful couldn’t care less. Thus, President Erdogan and the JDP won but democracy is indisputably more than the ballot box.
The election campaign was carried out under far from equal conditions. Everything favored the ruling JDP. In the end, however, though by a very slim margin they lost the majority in parliament. It should be mentioned that the JDP had commanded absolute majority in the Turkish parliament since 2002, the exception being the four-month period between June 2015 and November 2015 elections. However, being eight seats short of absolute majority in the new 600-member parliament would not be a problem because, as in the past, the Nationalist Movement Party (NMP) is likely to continue standing shoulder to shoulder with the JDP at critical junctures. In brief, JDP supporters have reaffirmed their unquestionable preference for President Erdogan over institutional democracy.
It may be worth recalling that there is a total of 535 members in the U.S. Congress, 100 in the U.S. Senate and 435 in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The election was a test for democracy’s survival in Turkey. Beyond that, however, there was something just as fundamental: the question of Turkey’s attachment to Ataturk’s legacy. Ataturk was our hero at Gallipoli. When decades and decades of decadent Ottoman rule ended with total surrender to the victors of the First World War, he was the one to raise the flag, lead the War of Independence, lay the foundations of the Republic and launch a new, secular and progressist Turkey. Ungrateful reactionaries have always remained defiant of he represents to this very day. In recent years, with the upsurge of jihadism in the region they have become more vocal. They have attacked Ataturk, his legacy, his statutes and the government which constantly glorifies Ottoman sultans has remained mute. Sadly, this may continue to be the case. Some years ago a JDP member of the parliament even said that the Republic, meaning the Ataturk era, was “an intermission” and it was over. However, any student of history could her and her likes not to jump to conclusions so fast. In Turkey, leaders and parties have come and gone but Gallipoli and the rise of modern Turkey under Ataturk’s leadership remain prominently in the annals of not only Turkish but also world history. Striking similarities between the War of Independence against the victors of the First World War and the Afrin operation has been nothing but a delusion.
Turkey’s biggest problem remains extreme polarization. For the last decade the JDP has done nothing to heal it. On the contrary, it has seen polarization as an investment to stay in power. On this, they were right. Nonetheless, polarization is a disease and the principal cause of social and national decay as shown by many conflicts which have started from within across the Miserable East. It needs to be healed and healed fast. History has always and always given credit to those who unite. This is going to be the major test for the new regime.
Will Turkey’s democracy continue to decline under the new “presidential system”? Yes, it would. What about economic, foreign and security policies? Who knows. We have a short memory and do not have the habit of drawing a balance sheet of election promises and actual performance. So, one must wait and see.
While criticizing the JDP for its democratic record of the last decade it would be fair also to look at the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (RPP) and its leader Kemal Kılıcdaroglu. He has been party chairman for eight years and his rule has been anything but democratic. During those eight years Turkey has had election after election and the RPP has consistently been a loser. Last Sunday, all they could get was less than 23 % of the vote while their presidential candidate Muharrem Ince got more than 30%. Yet today, Mr. Kılıcdaroğlu had the nerve to suggest that he intends to “continue fighting”. Continue fighting for what? In all likelihood for continued failure. For the JDP, his staying as party leader will be an election victory bonus. The greatest service he can do to his country, his party and to himself is to send in his long-awaited resignation and thus give the Party that very last opportunity to re-energize itself. His desperate cling to leadership will only be another blow to Turkey’s dwindling democracy.