The room was quaint, and smelled of roses. A glass cabinet filled with china adorned the side wall and a pink rug rested on the middle of the floor. It was a striking contrast to the image of Turkey one gets from the media, though to me the most striking part about it was the barrage of biscuits that kept flowing through the open doorway. It was the day after the November elections, and I was sitting in a living room with teyzes—the Turkish word for “aunt” used to describe all women over the age of 50. These women spoke no English, but with my little Turkish I could make out their resounding approval of the previous night’s events.
As a university teacher in a conservative city, I inhabit two different worlds; like American campuses, Turkish institutes of higher education—or at least their faculty—often hold different opinions from the communities in which they reside. The realm of teyze living rooms and Çorum cafes largely brim with support for the 13-year reign of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, although with varying degrees of enthusiasm. At the university, however, most who spoke openly were not open to the idea of his new term.
Earlier in the year, Turkey’s June elections showed that a growing number of citizens were becoming lackluster about his leadership; no party won a conclusive majority, making it the first time that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost single-party rule since taking office in the early 2000s. It seemed he would not be able to get his “completely new constitution”—one that gave the office of the presidency, and thus himself, more power—after all.
|Justice and Development Party (AKP)||Republican People’s Party (CHP)||Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)||People’s Democratic Party (HDP)|
|Seats—November 2015||317 (+22.87%)||134 (+1.52%)||40 (-50%)||59 (-26.25%)|
|Party Platform||Islamist origin; spearheaded by Erdogan; socially conservative||Party of Atatürk; vehemently secular; socially liberal||Nationalistic; anti-Kurdish; emphasizes idea of unitary Turkish state||Kurdish-centric; egalitarian; supports minority rights|
Instead, the Kurdish-oriented People’s Democratic Party (HDP) crossed the necessary 10 percent threshold for parliamentary representation with 13 percent of the vote. The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) received 16.5 percent, and the AKP’s main opposition—the Republican People’s Party (CHP)—held firm with 25 percent. This did not bode well for Turkey’s president.
A revote was announced for November. In the interim, Turkey endured the deadliest terror attack in its history, which killed 102 people at an HDP peace rally, political conflict in Syria’s civil war, and an influx of refugees. It also paused peace talks with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a terrorist group vying for an independent Kurdish state in the southeast. Erdogan claimed repeatedly that because the HDP and PKK both draw support from Kurds in the region, the HDP is beholden to the PKK—even though the HDP rejects such aims and violence. On election day, people went to the polls exhausted and battered, having witnessed Turkish blood spilled over the streets of Ankara and a battle raged endlessly between the PKK and government forces.
In November, the AKP commanded 49.5 percent of the vote—a decisive majority. The HDP barely surfaced above the 10 percent threshold, while the MHP lost 40 of the 80 parliamentary seats it secured in June. Erdogan’s campaign claimed it was the only one that could bring stability from composite threats, and for that it won the election. Single-party government was restored.
But was it really that simple? What explains the appeal of this leader who has dominated Turkish politics for the past decade? Why did people stray from his rule in June? And what brought them back? The answers speak to something deep in the Turkish consciousness, and indicate where Turkey might head in both the near and distant future.
In order to find out, I interviewed several friends in Çorum about their thoughts on Erdogan and the direction of Turkey. Small, conservative cities like this one have been the electoral backbone of the AKP and thus reveal more than their size might suggest.
“We will be the leader of this area in 10 years,” one of my friends—a sales manager at a factory—asserted matter-of-factly. “What constitutes ‘this area’?” I inquired, looking to see how wide he envisioned the stretch of Turkish influence. “The Middle East and Turkic countries.”
When asked why he supported Erdogan, he replied that Turkey’s current president is the only one equipped to manage the country. Presumably, then, he is thought to be the only one who can bring Turkey to its rightful place at the forefront of the region. But with his restrictions on journalists, and notorious hostility toward those who do not agree with him, one wonders if he has no rivals only because he has kept it that way.
“Erdogan has done great things for the economy,” he stated. “When I was younger, it was very bad. There was no electricity, no heating. Now we have these things.”
He is not the only one to share the sentiment; another friend, currently unemployed, also believes that Erdogan has boosted the nation’s wealth.
“We have more food now, and our common needs are being met,” he said. He also praised Erdogan’s efforts to streamline bureaucracy; he believes that the decision to equalize retirement and healthcare makes Turkey as a whole run much smoother. Education is now free, and “people are grateful for improvements on roads, airports, and universities.”
Despite these changes, he did not vote for Erdogan in the last election. He was a supporter up until two years ago, when he came to believe that the then-prime minister’s actions regarding the Turkish-Kurdish issue were severing the country. He now votes for the MHP, albeit reluctantly. To him, the Turkish nationalists are the best worst option.
CHP supporters, who are furthest ideologically from Erdogan, also have acknowledged this economic growth. It is hard to deny, as per capita income in Turkey has tripled in less than a decade. Therefore, even those who would never conceive of voting for Erdogan concede that wealth has expanded. The problem then becomes where it is most concentrated.
“They keep getting richer,” the friend of my unemployed friend said, referring to politicians. He is a farmer, and supporter of the AKP, although he did not vote in the last election. It is important to note that abstaining in this manner is rare in Turkish politics; both elections in 2015 had over an 85 percent voter turnout. Referencing his nation’s leaders, this friend remorsefully asserted, “They claim to be for Islam, but they’re not true Muslims.” “What would make them true Muslims?” I asked. “They are hiding in ideology so they can make profits…they need to have ethics.”
Corruption issues came to a head in late 2013, when police confiscated $17.5 million in alleged cash bribes from various AKP-affiliated businesspeople and government officials. Four cabinet members resigned amidst public outrage, though they were never brought to trial—the AKP’s majority in parliament spared them of this fate.
“Turkey’s identity is rooted in its role as a powerful bridge between East and West. At once both and neither, it is paradoxically united by this unique division of continents. Swedes may call themselves Europeans and Jordanians may call themselves Arabs, but Turks do not have an umbrella term aside from nationality.”
However, most people believe that such bribery and wheeling and dealing extend to Turkey generally and are not exclusively Erdogan’s problem. The pro-Erdogan sales manager echoed the universality of the issue. “Supporters are always making money. There are no rules applied for bribery, and this happens with all the parties…political appointments are all personal favors.”
“What about restrictions to the press?” I asked him, curious if he felt freedom of speech was a right. “Do you think it’s problematic that this bribery wouldn’t be able to safely make it to the front page?” He inhaled deeply and looked to the side, eyes downcast in contemplation. “I believe that there should be freedoms, but I cannot trust journalists. Because of that I can’t say 100 percent that Erdogan is wrong. They may not be killing people directly, but when government secrets are involved, some of them are killing people by writing.”
Another Erdogan supporter, an owner of a jewelry store in Çorum, shared in the distrust of media. “They [media groups] were too powerful,” he asserted, “and the owners of newspapers could take down anyone. It led to a corrupt system. Erdogan is trying to clean this up.” To him, while freedom of speech may be desirable, its realities make it impossible to maintain.
“Erdogan is a bully,” said a friend, in response to a question about the press. “That’s why I don’t like him.” Related to the idea that he extends power beyond right or prudence, another friend lamented, “Erdogan wants to be a monarch. His mind is related to the Middle East; the rulers there think they can dominate anything they want.”
Turkey’s identity is rooted in its role as a powerful bridge between East and West. At once both and neither, it is paradoxically united by this unique division of continents. Swedes may call themselves Europeans and Jordanians may call themselves Arabs, but Turks do not have an umbrella term aside from nationality. Ever since the founding of its republic, Turkey has asked itself upon which side of the East-West balance they would like to fall. Atatürk, Turkey’s modern founder, weighed the scale toward Europe, but Erdogan—according to both his supporters and his opponents—is veering elsewhere.
“Atatürk did good things for us, but he reset everything in the new republic,” one of the staunch supporters of Erdogan stated. “We turned our back on our culture and tried to be a European country entirely.”
I was in shock after hearing this. In its lackluster devotion to the founder of the republic, this comment was borderline sacrilegious in Turkey. Secular idolization of Atatürk has been a mainstay since the nation’s beginnings; his picture adorns every office, restaurant, and waiting room, it is illegal to say anything bad about him, and, tantamount to this devotion, is not rare to see his signature tattooed on hands and arms. It is almost as if he were still here.
Despite its rich Ottoman history, Turkey has only existed as a republic since 1923. This means that while Gatsby was sipping martinis and looking over his dock, Atatürk was gazing over the Anatolian plains of Ankara and setting the foundations for the reformed nation. At this point, all generations have grown up with his transformations, thus one cannot understand modern Turkey without first understanding its founder.
What Atatürk wanted most of all was to make Turkey a venerable power in the eyes of the world. He would do this by modeling the secular governments he saw in Europe. He abolished religious law, banned the fez (Ottoman-style hat), instituted a Latin script for the Turkish language, and changed the Islamic calendar to the Gregorian one.
Image: A depiction of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of Turkey, on a flag in Ankara.
“Atatürk was the greatest man in the world,” the sales manager said—the uncritical assessment a more common sentiment to hear. “Some people say that he’s bad because he gave up land from the Ottoman Empire, but that is not true. He did the best that could be done for Turkey.”
His party, the CHP, perhaps did more than Atatürk intended. In the 1980s, the CHP took Atatürk’s westernization to mean that the hijab should be banned from the public sector. It was not just a restriction on employees, but on anyone who entered a public buildings—including universities.
“My sister had perfect scores, but she couldn’t go to university,” the farmer said. “Just because she wore the hijab, she couldn’t get scholarships and couldn’t attend.”
The jeweler had a similar experience. “When I was in military service, my mother couldn’t come to the ceremony because she wore the hijab and it took place at a state-owned building. Other military men would spit and make fun of women with the headscarf…it was not a good time for us.”
Women who wore the hijab were also banned from entering the CHP. That is, until the AKP emerged as a burgeoning force and caused the CHP to change its policy in response. Therefore, as a question of alternatives, the CHP does not seem to be an option among the staunchly religious. “It is not democracy,” the jeweler stated. “Everyone should respect each other.”
It is interesting to see this dichotomy of freedom. Both sides see the other as “antidemocratic” and use the language of democracy to describe their aspirations for Turkey. On the one hand, there is the idea that religion and modernity are in direct opposition to each other, justifying the suppression of religious acts. On the other is the idea that religion can justify political actions, whether those acts are religious or not. They are both seeking “freedom from” something, and use the political realm as a way of achieving those ends.
“We need more education,” the sales manager remarked, “so that people cannot be used by politicians. They need to think. There is just so much we don’t know.” The need for better education was a theme among everyone I spoke to—not just university professors. “This problem causes a separation in the people,” he said. “They do not learn to respect each other.”
“Despite its rich Ottoman history, Turkey has only existed as a republic since 1923. This means that while Gatsby was sipping martinis and looking over his dock, Atatürk was gazing over the Anatolian plains of Ankara and setting the foundations for the reformed nation.”
At first glance, Turkey’s political divide might seem alien to Western eyes—and in many ways it is. No matter how egregious some conservatives believe Obama’s constitutional transgressions to be, no one has been fired and arrested for making him into a meme. And despite our very real challenges with terrorism, we do not have an aspiring caliphate in our southern neighbor (the Islamic State, or ISIS), nor a terrorist organization in a decades-long conflict within our borders (the PKK). However, after speaking extensively with friends and colleagues, the underlying sentiments appear more similar than different; people from all sides of the political divide believe that the country has become entrenched in strife, and they are looking for a way out.
What this “way out” would entail is still hotly contested. Despite the widespread desire to heal the fragmentation within the country, whether the parties at hand have the strength and willingness to do so is another question. The country is not enduring polarization simply, but a vortex of competing forces; among them are the major divisions between those who are religious and secular, conservative and liberal, Kurds and Turks, and rich and poor. We do not know what the future will look like for Turkey, but if Erdogan remains in power, perhaps the jeweler is right. Maybe 30 years from now Erdogan will be more important than Atatürk. By the end of this term, he will have been in power for about just as long.
Image: People in Turkey gather on Taksim Square for a peaceful protest in mid-June 2013 contesting widespread government abuse.
Hannah Arrighi is a U.S. Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Çorum, Turkey. She graduated from Bowdoin College with a major in government and legal studies, concentrating in political theory. A lover of travel and espresso, she also minored in Italian language and lived in Bologna for five months. In addition to studying the political world from an academic perspective, she has also worked with think tanks and on several campaigns. Opinions are her own and do not reflect the views of the Fulbright Commission. Follow her on Twitter.