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On Sunday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a second term as president of Turkey. He secured more than 50 percent of the vote, avoiding the need for a runoff. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost ground in the parliamentary election, but Erdogan will keep his majority in parliament thanks to a strong showing by his allies, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Muharrem Ince, the leading opposition contender and the candidate of the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP), received over 30 percent of the vote. That represents the best result for a social democrat in Turkey in over 40 years. After the official Anadolu news agency announced the results, Ince said that the election had not been fair but that he accepted that Erdogan had won.
Even though Erdogan secured enough votes to avoid a second round, the campaign has revealed Turkey’s future leaders. For the first time since he came to power 15 years ago, as prime minister, Erdogan has had to cope with challengers who represent rising societal trends: social democracy and the nationalist right. As well as Ince’s challenge from the left, Erdogan faced Meral Aksener, the leader of the right-wing nationalist Good Party. Aksener should have been in a better position than Ince, since two-thirds of Turks identify as pious, nationalist, and conservative, and less than one-third identifies as of the left, as social democrats, or as socialists. But a change may be in the making.
Parties of the right have long dominated Turkish politics. A social democratic party has triumphed in only one election and that was 40 years ago, in 1977. The right has gained mass support by recasting class conflict as culture war. People who, in other countries, would form the base of support for center-left parties—peasants, workers, and those in the lower middle class—have rallied to populist conservatives who appeal to their religion and their resentment of the urban elite. Many of the well-to-do have a Westernized outlook, which has made it easy for conservatives to dress up class conflict as a cultural and religious confrontation. Erdogan is only the latest—albeit the most successful—conservative leader to pose as the defender of the ordinary people against the “refined,” wealthy city dwellers.
Before Ince, the left played into the conservatives’ hands by adopting elitist manners and treating the pious masses as reactionaries. It is telling that, when the social democrats won their only victory, they had a leader who was not contemptuous of the pious. Back then, they carried Turkey’s conservative bastions.
Ince seems to have learned from that history. His formative years came in the 1970s when, as a teenager, he joined the CHP. (Back then, the party was officially “democratic leftist.”) He hails from a small town and he describes himself as the “revolutionary son of a conservative family,” but he is also a pious Sunni Muslim who attends Friday prayers. He has no issue with the headscarf or with parents who send their children to Islamic schools. He avoided the word “secularism” in his campaign appearances. All this denied Erdogan the ability to vilify him as a representative of the urban elite. Ince instead turned the class weapon against Erdogan, who he said represented the wealthy, while he was “one of the people.”
Ince also broke new ground by reaching out to the Kurds, a constituency that Turkey’s social democrats have a history of alienating with their nationalism. In a campaign appearance in the country’s main Kurdish city, Diyarbakir, Ince promised to “respect” the Kurds. He intimated that he opposes the government’s oppressive methods by saying that parliament must solve the problem, and he stated that he is in favor of education in Kurdish.
Ince’s support for the Kurds predates the campaign. Back in 2016, he took a principled, democratic stance when the Turkish parliament voted to lift the immunity of its members, a move that was intended to pave the way for the prosecution of parliamentarians from the pro-Kurdish, left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP), including the party’s leader, Selahattin Demirtas. (Demirtas was arrested in late 2016 and charged with supporting separatist militants. He remains in prison.) Ince even broke with his party on the issue. After the CHP’s leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, instructed his members to support the bill, Ince warned that the move would seriously impair Turkey’s democracy. On the day of the vote, to display his opposition, he joined Demirtas and his colleagues at their table in the garden of the parliament. After launching his presidential campaign, Ince’s first action was to visit Demirtas, who was the HDP’s presidential candidate, in prison.
Aksener, the other main opposition candidate is reviled by the Kurds. Aksener was interior minister in a conservative government in the mid-1990s, when the security agencies carried out a dirty war in the Kurdish regions, during which they assassinated Kurdish politicians, intellectuals, and businessmen. Her ruthlessness earned her the nickname Iron Lady.
In 2016, Aksener left the far-right MHP to form her own party, the Good Party, but she stuck to the anti-Kurdish nationalism of her old allies. She vowed to solve the Kurdish problem in six months, presumably by using more ruthless counterinsurgency methods.
Aksener’s nationalism differs little from that espoused by Erdogan in recent years, and it is in tune with the majority of Turks. But her conservative economic program—also a replica of Erdogan’s policies—proved less so. She did not address the growing yearning for social justice and lower income equality. The working class is growing restive. Wages are low and stagnant. Income inequality has increased during the AKP’s years in power. And the government has used the state of emergency to ban several attempted strikes. Although Erdogan claims to represent the people against the wealthy elite, the elite has, in fact, been the main beneficiary of his policies.
Dissatisfaction with growing class differences helped Ince, rather than Aksener, emerge as the principal challenger to Erdogan. Yet Ince is a reformist, not a revolutionary. He reassured the central bank that it would remain independent. He came across as a social democrat in the Keynesian mold; he called for income redistribution and a productive economy that creates jobs. That message struck a chord. Turkey’s economic model is mostly geared toward consumption, which has been financed by an influx of foreign capital, while industrial investment has remained low. That approach has reached a dead end, and polls show that a majority of Turks want economic policies that give priority to job creation.
Yet even though Ince’s rise reflects a changing society, he is a lone rider in one crucial respect: his support for the Kurds. Other Turkish social democrats have refused to consider forming a progressive front with the moderate Kurdish left, which would have offered a counterweight to the right-wing nationalist alliance of the AKP and the MHP. Instead, the social democratic CHP allied with Aksener’s Good Party for the parliamentary election.
Ince’s strong showing indicates that he succeeded in winning over Kurds while retaining the support of nationalist social democrats. Even though there will not be a second round, the emergence of a social democrat who understands that social democracy needs to transcend cultural and ethnic divisions if it is to challenge the right’s monopoly on power is likely to have a major influence on future elections.
Turkish democracy needs a strong social democratic alternative to nationalism. If the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, which boosts the nationalist right, ends up overshadowing social and class issues, authoritarianism will live on, even in a post-Erdogan Turkey.