Supporters of the Nationalist Movement Party attend an election rally for Turkey's June 7 parliamentary election, in Istanbul, Turkey May 31, 2015.
Osman Orsal / Reuters

In Turkey, election season is seldom quiet. Minivans draped in party colors and mounted with speakers blare party anthems and electrifying sound bites from candidates’ speeches. At mass rallies, politicians holler accusations, oaths, invectives, and promises at the top of their lungs. By the end of last year’s bruising municipal election campaign, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then prime minister and now president, had lost his voice doing just that. Yet even then, sounding as if he had inhaled a birthday party’s worth of helium balloons, he famously refused to stop talking.

The run-up to the country’s hotly contested June 7 parliamentary elections has been no different. At a recent rally in Istanbul, his 41st in three weeks, Ahmet Davutoglu, who succeeded Erdogan as prime minister and head of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), fulminated against alleged coup plots by foreign and domestic powers, the army’s execution of a Turkish leader in 1961, and the recent death sentence against Egypt’s deposed president, Mohamed Morsi. “If we have to be martyrs for our people and our God,” railed Davutoglu, “we won’t hesitate for a moment.” Recorded from a distance of at least 200 yards, his voice, badly strained but magnified by piles of state-of-the-art sound equipment, regularly topped 100 decibels.

Even at his most Erdoganesque, however, the prime minister has not managed to top the undisputed king of the political primal scream, Devlet Bahceli. Time and time again this spring, the 67-year-old Bahceli, who has led his Nationalist Movement Party to half a dozen consecutive defeats at the polls, has made an overexcited Howard Dean sound like a purring kitten.

There is, of course, plenty for Turkish politicians to get riled up about in 2015. With Erdogan intimating that he will cement his grip on the government if his AKP wins enough seats in parliament, concerns are growing about the health of the country’s democracy. Tensions are brewing in the Kurdish-majority southeast. A decisive crackdown against the Gulen movement, an Islamic sect at odds with the government, appears to be in the offing. After a decade of record growth, the economy has started to hobble.

But the tenor of this and other recent election campaigns speaks to another, deeper truth—that although Turkey has shed the legacy of decades of army tutelage, an authoritarian strain thrives in its political culture. At public events, politicians often resemble field generals, rousing constituencies into battle instead of debating or marketing policies. Discipline is so ingrained that candidates never seem to stray more than an inch from the party line. Leadership challenges are mounted only under extraordinary conditions. The last party head to tender his resignation, Deniz Baykal of the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP), did so not after a string of election defeats but after a leaked video showed him frolicking with a female staffer. 

A police officer stands guard during the election rally of Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul, Turkey, June 2, 2015.
A police officer stands guard during the election rally of Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul, Turkey, June 2, 2015.
Murad Sezer / Reuters
There are key exceptions. The clerkish Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who succeeded Baykal in 2010, has repeatedly appealed for more calm in Turkish politics and tried to shed his party’s image as a secularist monolith. Selahattin Demirtas, the 42-year-old co-leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), has led a spirited, positive campaign, refraining from belligerent rhetoric, engaging with individual voters, and easing his party’s transformation into a magnet for Erdogan opponents, liberals, leftists and feminists. Yet even the HDP’s commitment to pluralism has its limits. Among the party’s core Kurdish constituency, criticism of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), remains taboo.

One reason for the democracy deficit in most Turkish parties, Ali Carkoglu, a professor of international relations at Koc University, told me, is Turkey’s ten percent electoral threshold, the highest of any country. “Because of the threshold, parties have to enforce some kind of straitjacket on their dissidents,” explained Carkoglu. “A political party becomes a forced coalition, not a natural one.”

Paradoxically, this does not seem to apply to the HDP, which has opened its doors to a wider range of political actors to have a stab at passing the threshold and entering parliament. According to most polls, support for the party hovers just around the ten percent mark.

Today, however, what sets the tone of Turkey’s political debate more than anything else, the threshold included, is the personality of one man, Erdogan. Inside his party, the president brooks no dissent. Outside it, he thrives on polarization. Ever since the 2013 Gezi Park protests, which he portrayed as an attempt to unseat him, the Turkish leader has kept his constituency intact by mobilizing it against a swelling array of real and fictional enemies, including the Gulenists, the “interest rate lobby” and, most recently, The New York Times.

“You either support Erdogan or not,” Umut Azak, a lecturer at Okan University told me. “It’s impossible to be indifferent to him.” With the rhetoric having grown so divisive and violent, she added, “politicians don’t talk to each other anymore, we don’t see any more arguments over issues. It’s all leaders and masses.”

It does not have to be. In the 1970s, before a military junta imposed the ten percent threshold to keep Islamists and Kurds from entering parliament, according to Carkoglu, “parties would have inner struggles, competition, politicians still talked to each other.” They were capable of doing so in the 1990s. In today’s atmosphere, however, no party leader other than Demirtas has even bothered to call for a live TV debate. The last such debate anyone here seems to remember took place thirteen years ago and featured Baykal, the former CHP head, seated opposite a smiling, relaxed ex–Istanbul mayor named Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was remarkably, refreshingly civil. 

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  • PIOTR ZALEWSKI is an Istanbul-based freelance writer who has written for Time, Foreign Policy, and The National, among other publications.
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