Background: Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) recently held it sixteenth anniversary congress. The opportunity was used by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to narrate the ‘story this far’. As is often the case, the president utilized the tripartite form, first highlighting how he (and by implication all AKP followers) had suffered under the previous rule of the secularists. This is a recurrent theme in Erdoğan’s political rhetoric. Then he went on to paint the larger canvas, giving a historical account highlighting how the Turkish nation won the heroic battle in Manzikert against the infidels in 1071. After thanking God several times for his guidance, he emphasized how the AKP alone was able to manifest the religious-national character of the eternal Turkish nation. In between these grand themes, Erdoğan’s speech highlighted the economic and material well-being that Turkey has experienced during the AKP era: thousands of new hospitals, hundreds of new universities built all around the country, and new railroads and bridges.
While this is the positive aspect of the AKP’s rhetoric, the accompanying, increasingly polarizing list of internal enemies represents the negative way of building a mass following. Yet, together these two different tactics are still enormously effective recipes for ensuring AKP’s electoral hegemony. The challengers – seculars, leftists, Kurds, minor conservative parties – are struggling to find a space for challenging this hegemony, to make a credible demonstration that there is an alternative, that Turkey’s national story, or historical mission, can be expressed differently from the way that the AKP narrates it.
Power has been defined as context shaping: the capacity of actors to redefine the parameters of what is socially, politically and economically possible for others. This definition emphasizes power relations in which structures, institutions and organizations are shaped by human action in such a way as to alter the parameters of subsequent actions. From this perspective, the macro-level of high politics conducted in government institutions and the grassroots level where various social actors constantly reproduce the practices and ideology that together constitute the external reality for each of us, are directly linked.
Power is effectively used when the macro-level has an ability to reproduce its interpretation of reality in the grassroots level. The fifteen years of the rule of the AKP has definitely ‘shaped the context’ in Turkey in this sense. It has become increasingly difficult for other actors to produce alternative, oppositional agendas. This means that all those anticipating and hoping for a social movement powerful enough to challenge the AKP rule need to carefully think through the classical dilemma of structures and agency in contemporary Turkey: after fifteen years of Islamic-conservative state transformation, it is increasingly difficult to unmake the ideological-material powerbase that keeps the AKP in power. The state transformation project has not only changed the circumstances within which any opposition group needs to operate; it has also, to a large extent, started to change the very language that can be used while addressing the most essential socio-political issues.
Implications: One of the most explicit indications of the AKP’s ability to redefine the sociopolitical horizons is the worrisome lack of Western-inclined forces in Turkey. As is well known, the AKP came to power with promises of fulfilling the country’s historical vocation to become a full-member of the Western world by accomplishing Turkey’s EU membership. Today, many of those who in recent years have published analyses about the ‘Europeanization’ of Turkey have moved on to describe how Erdogan’s Turkey is a typical example of illiberal authoritarianism that challenges the liberal ‘word order.’ During the years 2002–2010, the ‘Europeanization’ was exclusively identified with the AKP; the assumption of Western observers was that all other constituencies in Turkey could or should be ignored. Partly as a result of this, there are now very few socio-political groupings left in Turkey with any credible European vocation. The concept of ‘Europe’ is now more or less emptied both as an anchor for domestic democratization and as a foreign policy priority.
During the honeymoon era between the West and the AKP regime, Turkey’s liberal and Kemalist intellectuals positioned themselves in directly opposite camps. During one conversation in Ankara in 2012 when an unnamed young, European scholar told to a prominent, Turkish liberal columnist about his forthcoming book about Kemalist intellectuals, the liberal intellectual smiled a bit arrogantly, and expressed surprise that that the foreign scholar had managed to found any such creature.
In those days, it was still possible for various opposition groups to assume they had an opportunity to advance their own agendas. Many Turkish liberals rather naively thought they could domesticate the AKP’s Islamists, and make use of them for their own agenda: to first destroy the ‘Kemalist state’ and then establish pluralist liberal democracy. At the same time, the Kemalist intellectuals – whose historical duty, by definition, should have been the protection of Atatürk’s ideological Western-orientation, have instead spent their energy on further petrifying the so-called ulusalcı (neo-nationalist), inward-looking, anti-Western interpretation of Kemalism.
The anti-Western neo-nationalism of these Kemalists is of course not so different from the West-bashing that the AKP leadership has engaged in during the last five years. And yet, the breathing space for any opposition under the AKP has become so limited that some of the Kemalist intellectuals and liberals – once separated by an irreconcilable gap – are now desperately gathering under the banner of country’ s last remaining independent daily, the Cumhuriyet. Thus, one can observe how Erol Manisalı, the leading ‘neo-nationalist’ Kemalist and Ahmet İnsel, the eminent French-speaking liberal scholar, have their portraits side by side in the photo gallery depicting Cumhuriyet’s columnists.
The AKP’s ability to narrow the socio-political agenda and redefine what is possible for other actors has thus led to a situation where these vocally antithetical intellectual circles are helplessly trying to continue their columns in the last opposition bastion. But when reading İnsel’s and Manisali’s columns side by side, one would think that nothing has really changed in Turkey – although writing for the same paper, and with portraits side by side, their discourse is just as far from each other’s as it ever was in the 1990s or early 2000s. What has changed, perhaps permanently, is the political space where opposition intellectuals could still convincingly pretend that they have the luxury to leave the liberal-Kemalist divide unsettled.
The liberal circles both in Turkey and abroad do have a valid point in claiming that Kemalist tradition, especially in its current neo-nationalist version, is hopelessly incapable to provide any meaningful answers to Turkey’s social wounds, especially the Kurdish question. Further, there has recently been very little signs that a more European-oriented, liberal trend could emerge within the neo-nationalist ranks. Having that said, as has been argued here previously (Turkey Analyst, December 1, 2016), all credible mass political movements in Turkey are going to be nationalist – the liberals have to accept this, notwithstanding how much it contradicts their dearest convictions.
Further, Manisalı and other writers in the secular-nationalist camp do have a very precise understanding how the AKP’s Islamic-conservative and authoritarian power is maintained and reproduced. These writers have underlined that the AKP’s political Islam is most explicit in its ability to gradually replace democratic civil society organizations with Islamist organizations. By manipulating Islamic networks and brotherhoods, the AKP has been able to transform society; the education system with the “İmam Hatip” religious schools, and media and business sectors with Islamic media and corporations. Manisalı convincingly argues that this has led to a situation where any social and political action outside the religious-based institutions and networks has become completely marginal and meaningless.
Conclusions: This does not mean that there is no political opposition. Quite the contrary, there are millions of Turkey’s citizens who disagree, partly or completely, with the political agenda and practices of the AKP government. However, the politicization of religion and of values powerfully contributes to maintaining AKP’s powerbase; indeed, this has proved to be a winning recipe since the Turkish military introduced the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, the smaller opposition constituencies – leftists and liberals – are pushed, as has always been the case, to their own niches. The two larger opposition constituencies – Turkish secular nationalists and Kurds – are stuck with their eternal quarrel over the definition of the ‘national’. The small groups of liberal actors that can be found in each of these constituencies are incapable of overcoming the zero-sum game mechanism that determines the Turkish mass politics before every election.
The Kemalist circles are arguably excessively nationalist. However, they, unlike the liberals, at least have a relatively coherent constituency and ideology for mass mobilization. They also have a very clear analysis of what is wrong in Turkey. From this perspective, the liberal voices who are often courted by Western media and politicians are hopelessly isolated in Turkish society with their calls for democratization and pluralism. The liberals cannot hope to succeed in building a democratic society without a direct backing from some type of nationalist-inclined mass movement.
Toni Alaranta is a Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
Picture credit: By VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons accessed on September 1, 2017