Dr Basheer M. Nafi

Sunday, 29 November 2015

I do not recall a single election in any democratic country during the past ten years that created so much media discourse and aroused so much debate around the world as the recent poll in Turkey did; the exception may be Barack Obama’s first bid to be president. The difference, of course, was that the 2008 US presidential election was a historic vote on whether or not the US was likely to have an American of African origins in the White House while racism was still rife across US society. In Turkey, it was not an issue of black nominee versus white, nor was there a new party or one with an odd political agenda. The election focused on whether the Justice and Development Party could win, given that it had thus far won in every single national or local election and in every referendum since 2002. So, the question was whether it could rise again after its minor slip in this year’s June election and could once again form a government on its own.

However, the debate over the November poll took a mostly different path. Instead of finding the result of the June election surprising – because despite the defeat incurred by the Justice and Development Party (JDP) it continued to possess the biggest parliamentary bloc – those who wanted it to be defeated again were taken aback by its success in the second election this year that brought it back to government on its own.

The problem with the rhetoric about Turkey, in which liberals and secularists, Arabs, Westerners and Turks, and nationalists and mystics are engaged, is that it has largely been a product of wishful thinking. It was not a realistic discourse that stood on solid ground with proper knowledge of the history and politics of the country and the mood and inclinations of its people. As such, it was not surprising at all for the Economist, the most influential weekly within Western political and financial circles, to use its lead article on the eve of the elections to call on the Turkish people not to vote for the JDP. Such a problematic approach is not confined to Turkey. Since the 3 July 2013 coup in Egypt, and what followed the decision by Ennahda Party to give up governance in Tunisia, many commentators and experts have rushed to adopt the “end of political Islam” discourse.

When the June election in Turkey revealed that the JDP could not maintain the level it achieved in 2011, it seemed as if that thesis had absolute proof.

How could certain political forces achieve in 2011 and 2012 around 50 per cent of the votes, as the JDP did, or slightly less in the case of Ennahda Party and Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, and then reach the end of their political life in 2015? The question, of course, does not pertain to the lack of logic and sensibility in such assumptions but in allowing wishful thinking to overwhelm solid facts.

Most of what the scholars and sensible commentators who specialize in Turkish affairs wrote after the November election was accurate. In June, the Turkish people wanted to send a clear warning message to the ruling party after the JDP was afflicted with sloth and some of its leaders and ministers were smeared with corruption allegations; in fact, it seemed that the party was carelessly overconfident about winning another electoral majority. However, it looks as if the people only wanted to send a warning to the JDP but not prevent it from governing alone. During the five months that separated the two elections, Turkish voters witnessed the uselessness of the coalition government and sensed the danger likely to be posed by a future coalition. They still remember the experiences they had with coalition governments during the 1990s. The Turks could also see the damage inflicted upon the country’s economy and its role regionally and internationally by the anxiety and loss of political confidence.

Not only did the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) return, after a rather short-sighted reckoning, to terrorism, but Turkey’s US ally was also no longer much bothered about Ankara’s sensitivities over Syria, especially with regard to the provision of military aid to the PKK branch within its troubled neighbor.

In the early November election, therefore, the voters decided that the Justice and Development Party had heard and listened to the June electoral message and that it was necessary to maintain stability within the country and preserve its role and standing.

Such a reading of the situation, and all the attendant details, are accurate to a large extent. However, there is still something beyond all of this. What was clear during the November election was not only that the JDP achieved a major victory and that its share of the votes was restored to the level of fifty per cent of the electorate as in 2011, but also that the major losers were the two nationalist Turkish and Kurdish parties: the Turkish Nationalist Movement Party and the PKK-linked Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party. Together, the two parties lost about five million votes compared to what they obtained in the June poll.

This loss is quite significant, first because it indicates that the unexpected popular support both parties received during the June election appears to have been purely a protest vote against the JDP, and second because the Turkish people soon realized the potential danger posed to the state and the country’s unity and stability by the extremist nationalist visions of both parties. This is not just a Turkish lesson. It should by now be understood that the people’s mood across the region is not inclined toward supporting the agendas of radical and nationalist forces; such agendas are deemed to be threatening and potentially divisive. The mood is, in fact, more inclined toward building bigger blocs that go beyond narrow nationalist or ethnic dreams.

The second lesson derived from the November election in Turkey is that none of the opposition parties is qualified to replace the JDP. By winning in 63 out of the 81 Turkish provinces, the party proved once again that it is the only party that represents all Turks and speaks for the plurality of Turkish ethnicities and cultures; it is the only political force that is capable of occupying the center, or the backbone, of the republic. This is a solid reality and has very much to do with the collapse of the political center of the Turkish Republic since the mid-1970s and throughout the 1990s, as well as with the cultural and socio-political changes that have taken place within Turkish society during the past half century. The recent elections are not the only pointer to this fact. It is difficult to comprehend the sweeping success made by the JDP in the 2002 election, only one year after its creation, without taking these changes into consideration.

In one way or another, this is also what precipitated in the conscience of the Turkish majority. In a society where one of the supplications made after each congregational prayer has, for many centuries, been “O God Save the Religion and the State”, the JDP emerged rapidly as the sole political force capable of safeguarding the Turkish center.

Ultimately, and no matter what, the major victory in the November election places a heavy burden on the shoulders of the next Justice and Development Party government; a burden that has to do with reform and the Kurdish problem as much as it has to do with regional and neighborhood crises. In the democratic system, though, there exists no political party that enjoys sanctity or permanent immunity. If the JDP manages to meet the challenges facing Turkey with competence and wisdom, it may well achieve another victory towards the end of 2019. Should it fail, the people will bring it down, even if a convincing alternative is not then available.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/articles/europe/22538-turkeys-justice-and-development-party-deserved-its-win-even-if-many-are-unhappy.