31st May 2023


Post-election: Turkey's problems are more than just Erdoğan

  • Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has jailed 100,000 of his own people to stay in power (Photo: Wikipedia)
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Throughout its history, Turkey has never been a democracy and a country where rule of law is upheld.

From the last period of the Ottoman Empire to the present, what we have witnessed in Turkey is a kind of democratisation which can be described as a series of ups and downs, without ever achieving its intended goal.

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  • Bülent Keneş is an exiled Turkish journalist who has lived in Stockholm since August 2016

Undoubtedly, there can be multiple explanations for this situation.

However, the reality revealed by the presidential and parliamentary elections held on Sunday (14 May) has once more proved that there is a very low demand in Turkey for democracy, rule of law, transparency, accountability, human rights and freedoms.

This observation applies even to some elements of the opposition.

And so, we are witnessing a political environment where the unlimited supply of Islamist, nationalist, racist and far-right populist rhetoric, and the higher demand for it among the majority of people, is increasing day by day, making it more difficult to back liberal democratic values, norms and institutions.

Extensive elaboration on president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's problematic relationship with democracy, which he regards as a "tramway to be disembarked at when a suitable station arrives," is unnecessary.

The consequences of downward democratic trends have become evident in various international indices that assess Turkey's democracy, justice, human rights and freedom of expression.

Over the past decade, we have witnessed that corruption, oppression, lawlessness, arbitrariness, human rights violations, favouritism/nepotism, and media monopolisation hold little or no significance for especially nationalist conservative masses in my country.

For them, culture war matters the most.

What is particularly noteworthy is the resilience of these masses, which have embraced Erdoğan's populist rhetoric, to remain indifferent to significant economic challenges directly affecting their lives, such as skyrocketing inflation, the depreciation of the Turkish lira, widespread unemployment, and profound financial hardship.

Despite enduring the most devastating period for the Turkish economy in recent years, with people struggling to access basic food items and having lived through the largest earthquake disaster in modern history that devastated 11 cities and the government's poor response to earthquakes, these people's political preference remains unaltered, necessitating in-depth socio-psychological analyses.

Gaining an understanding of the subjective reasons behind this detachment from their own objective interests (a kind of alienation) may assist in comprehending why the problem in Turkey runs deeper than Erdoğan himself.

Perhaps the root cause of this problem needs to be sought in Turkey's failure to become a unified nation, as the country was built upon the remnants of an empire.

The Republic couldn't crown itself with the norms of democracy and the rule of law even after 100 years since its establishment; it failed to create a pluralist democratic nation that sees diversities as richness and respects democratic values.

As a result, the masses consisting of disconnected and even hostile segments of society living in different realms couldn't develop a consciousness of democracy, a culture of peaceful coexistence, and a demand for the rule of law.

Instead of embracing freedoms and democratic values, Turkey has been influenced by primitive identity politics such as racism, nationalism, Kemalism, Islamism, and even by sectarian sentiments, shaping the direction its people have adopted.

These segments fail to converge on minimum democratic values. Thus, elections have turned into a zero-sum game. While opposition is seen as an enemy, elections have become a battleground for sharp identity manifestations.

The recent elections have once again revealed that approximately 70 percent of the Turkish population consists of conservative nationalists who show little interest in democracy, the rule of law, universal rights and freedoms.

Their priorities do not include positioning Turkey as a member of the civilised democratic world or working towards an open society.

Instead, their actions are guided by emotions fuelled by discriminatory identities, deep-rooted fears, and a sense of insecurity towards "others" or marginalised segments of society.

While the extensive propaganda carried out through media channels under the direct control of Erdoğan has undoubtedly played a role in shaping these attitudes, it should not be seen as the sole explanation for the outcome.

Over the past decade, Turkey has witnessed the investigation of more than two million of its people on terrorism charges, over 600,000 individuals detained, and a staggering 100,000 people imprisoned.

The scale of this repression has forced tens of thousands of individuals, including myself, to seek refuge in exile.

As a Turkish journalist living in exile, I have come to realise that the problem in Turkey extends far beyond the corrupt regime of Erdoğan. 

Hopes raised

Nevertheless, closely following the election campaign and the day of voting, my initial pessimism began to fade away as hope took hold.

The emergence of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (leader of the main opposition party CHP), a Kurdish Alawite Muslim, stirred a deep sense of anticipation for change within me, as (formally) a Sunni Muslim Turk.

I believed, with all my heart, that this pivotal moment could mark a turning point in world political history — a powerful testament to the peaceful and democratic removal of a corrupt despot.

It held the promise of inspiring nations grappling with similar struggles.

However, my hopes were shattered on Sunday. The opportunity to close the doors of the hell of autocracy slipped through our grasp.

It was a devastating blow, leaving me haunted by the fear that the upcoming second round of elections on 28 May may not provide the same chance for Turkey's minority liberal democrats to accomplish what needs to be done.

A cloud of pessimism now seeps into the depths of my soul, with the realisation that I might have lost my country again.

The haunting thought lingers: Will it ever be reclaimed, or is it lost forever in the depths of despair?

Author bio

Bülent Keneş is an exiled Turkish journalist who lives in Stockholm since August 2016. He was previously founding editor-in-chief of the prestigious English daily, Today’s Zaman, in Turkey.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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