6/16/2019 1 Comment
Just over a week ago I wrote an op-ed which was published in Haaretz. It was about the Istanbul mayoral election, which was initially won by the opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, but, after government pressure, was ruled invalid by Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council.
My piece was critical about the excitement that Imamoglu has elicited among some of his supporters. My concern was not because of the candidate Imamoglu or his policies, but rather the dangers of placing too much hope on one political figure. I noted that hope in politics and politicians usually ends in disappointment, and the suspension of critical faculties to blindly support a politician is not something positive at all.
Turkey, like other countries in the Middle East has been dominated by patriarchal father figures who oppress the political landscape and continue to do so. This includes the country’s founder and principle state-builder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was this political legacy that my piece was also criticising. How can one bemoan the patriarchal nature of politics in a country including the government and president, but stay silent about such trends within the opposition?
I came in for a bit of criticism. I expected that. I even looked forward to it. Some people had really good points. One argued that I mistook personality cults with electoral cults. Another contended that personality identification is part of the way politics is conducted in Turkey. Another countered that in order for me to talk about the inevitability of disappointment and even failure, I needed to define what success in politics actually looks like. Some said that my analysis was too early, and others noted that I should really have focused on the personality cult of Erdogan and the hysteria of some of his supporters.
Initially I intended this post to address these important points. However, I’m afraid that will have to wait because I feel compelled to write a few words on some of the other comments I received on Twitter. I really have to stress the point that intellectual integrity is worth more than a like and a follow.
One individual, I guess you could call him a respected observer of Turkey who is associated with think tanks and policy centres, took me completely out of context. Posting a link to my article, he tweeted (and I quote him quoting me), ““Could Imamoglu be the next Khomeini?” was not a take I expected today.”
This was a complete and probably intentional misinterpretation of my article. Sure, I mentioned Khomeini, but I also mentioned Barack Obama and Tony Blair. I only briefly discuss the Khomeini in the context of charismatic figures who have dominated Middle Eastern politics. But then I move on to discuss how personalities have dominated Turkish politics, the rise of Imamoglu and how placing politicians on a pedestal is a recipe for disappointment as it encourages inefficiency, ineffective leadership and, amongst other things, running an effective office and protecting democratic institutions.
Don’t take my word for it. I have pasted the article below in its entirety so you can see how I was deliberately misinterpreted.
However, you might disagree with me and actually think that the interpretation was correct. Instead, you might want to say, so what? Misinterpretation is all part of the game when debating. Or maybe you think that everyone has the right to voice an opinion even if it is wrong or entirely incorrect. Fair points, and I would have brushed this aside were not for the shameful and inappropriate use quotation marks.
Instead of being paraphrased I was quoted as saying “Could Imamoglu be the next Khomeini?” But these were not my words. They were not the words of the Haaretz social media account either. A second-year undergraduate wouldn’t get away with such intellectual dishonesty, and it is certainly unacceptable by anyone who wishes to associate themselves with respected institutions. I don't care if its Twitter.
Another prominent commentator, columnist and self-proclaimed “advocate for liberal tolerant Middle East” tweeted that my article was “shameless and outrageous” and even “not an article, but a hit job”.
This is worth addressing because as you can see below, my article is no such thing. Nowhere do I criticise Imamoglu or his policies because, quite frankly, I think the candidate Imamoglu is very respectable and his policies sound. I do, however, criticise the celebrity rock star like status in which some of his supporters hold him. Either this commentator doesn't know what a hit job is, or (perhaps more likely) she didn’t actually read my article.
In other words, please READ something because you comment. It is not enough to go by what other people say.
Thank you to everyone who actually read my piece, commented and criticised. Love legitimate criticism because my mind is never 100 per cent made up about anything. Plus, praise is boring.
For those of you who couldn’t get passed the paywall, hope you enjoy.
And for the record, I think that Imamoglu will win the Istanbul rerun. The opposition candidate has managed to create a political brand based around a personal story (which is what effective branding is all about) – the humble underdog calling for mutual respect and efficiency and against all odds managed to win only to have his electoral victory snatched away from him after just 17 days in office. By supporting Imamoglu, voters can become part of his story. Very effective. Also, Imamoglu has an excellent campaign slogan “Her sey cok Guzel olacak”, which means (roughly) “everything is going to be alright”, and although certainly not having equal publicity, this time thanks to public fund-raising, Imamoglu’s campaign has been more prominent. Put all this together and barring irregularities, the opposition candidate should win (again).
In Istanbul, Turkey’s anti-Erdogan opposition is becoming a dangerous cult
Simon A. Waldman, Haaretz, June 5, 2019
Walking along a central Istanbul thoroughfare, I soon found myself being pushed and shoved by a crowd. People were rushing to take selfies with a man in a navy suit walking to my left.
It turned out that he wasn’t an actor or a television celebrity, as I had initially assumed. He was none other than Ekrem Imamoglu, the Turkish opposition politician who served just 17 days as Istanbul mayor before his narrow election victory was snatched away from him. Bowing to government pressure, the Supreme Electoral Council ordered a re-run. However, in Turkey, Imamoglu’s popularity continues to soar.
Turkish democracy has taken quite a hit. Following the attempted coup of 2016, the country’s firebrand president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, managed to accumulate unprecedented power.
During the two-year post-coup state of emergency, he purged state institutions of enemies, closed down media outlets and ushered in constitutional reforms to give him even more centralized power through a referendum that was not considered free or fair by international observers. Meanwhile, Kurdish-oriented parties have had their leaders arrested under dubious terrorism-related charges and their local politicians removed from office.
So, the excitement elicited by the 48-year-old soft-spoken Imamoglu is certainly understandable. By speaking the language of democracy, mutual respect and focusing on political reform, Imamoglu managed to defeat President Erdogan’s preferred candidate for Istanbul mayor, former prime minister Binali Yildirim.
Already, there is talk about Imamoglu one day running against Erdogan for president.
However, pinning so much hope on a single individual is dangerous. The controversial, not to say racist, British politician Enoch Powell once said, "All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure."
How true this is of many a political figure - from those whose lives were cut short such as Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy or Yitzhak Rabin, to those who inspired hope only to later disappoint, like Tony Blair or Barack Obama.
In much of the world, not least the Middle East, charismatic figures, from Egypt’s Gamel Abdel Nasser to King Hussein of Jordan, fostered cults of personalities which enabled them to manipulate constitutions and reign in on dissent.
But the public face of personalities can be deceptive. Before the 1979 Iranian revolution, for example, many saw the exiled Ruhollah Khomeini as a pious and gentle Gandhi-like figure. Little did they know the violence that he was both capable and willing to use in order to hijack the revolution and transform Iran into the Islamic Republic.
Indeed, larger-than-life personalities in the region have a good record of trampling over institutions and dominating the state. Alas, Turkey is no exception.
The history of Turkish politics reads like a list of leaders who each sought to dominate the state in order to leave their stamp on the political landscape.
The country’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, led a comprehensive secular and modernist state-building exercise. Following Ataturk was Ismet Inonu, Adnan Menderes, Bulent Ecevit, Turgut Ozal, Suleyman Demirel and Tansu Ciller, just to name a few. Turkey’s most recent domineering political figure is Erdogan, co-founder of the ruling Justice and Development Party, who follows an Islamically inspired worldview and wants to raise a "pious generation" while pushing nationalist sentiment too.
It is in this context that one must understand the rise of Imamoglu and the danger that his over-hyped campaign represents. On the trail, his rallies have often been emotionally-charged affairs, and every "event" is documented, transmitted and amplified to his 2.5 million Twitter followers.
Excitement has reached such levels that passionate crowds have mobbed the politician’s campaign bus and children signalled hearts and blew flurries of kisses. After the decision to rerun the election, videos circulated of old ladies throwing the politician teary eyed hugs.
Imamoglu’s popularity is more akin to a rock star or even a cult leader than that of a politician.
Ahead of the election re-run, Imamoglu’s election material bears Imamoglu’s facial profile with white, black and red backgrounds, clearly inspired by Obama. Instead of "Yes, we can" the posters read, "Her sey cok guzel olacak" - which roughly translates to "Everything will be alright," a sentence Imamoglu borrowed from a fawning young supporter.
But politicians are not idols. At best, placing a political figure on a high pedestal is a recipe for disappointment. It also encourages inefficiency and ineffective leadership as it distracts from the real task of running an effective office and protecting democratic institutions. It also feeds over confidence and complacency rather than humility and respect for outside opinion.
At worst, idolizing politicians risks the suspension of a voter’s critical faculties in order to lend support to an individual who is, at worst, nefarious - or is just as fallible as the rest of us.
If anything, a good dose of skepticism, if not contempt, is needed to balance the over-produced hype those wishing to enter political office. That goes for Imamoglu, Erdogan - or anyone else for that matter.
This article was originally published in Haaretz on 5 June 2019 and can be accessed here
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