On Sunday 24 June, I will be glued to my TV screen to watch two historical events. The first, and by far the most important, is England’s match against Panama for the group stage of the 2018 World Cup. The second, and perhaps the reason why you are reading this post, is the results of the parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey.
I have been commissioned to write a commentary for a leading newspaper and scheduled to make a TV news appearance to analyse the election results, so much of my thoughts will be expressed soon enough. However, I was recently asked by a journalism student whether I consider Turkey a democracy. My answer was negative.
On paper Turkey may look like a democracy, but in practice it is far from it. Every democratic system, whether parliamentary or presidential, contains a flaw or two whether they be the voting system, the constitutional boundaries or the role of institutions or executive branches. However, Turkey’s system (before and especially after the constitutional changes of 2017), is an amalgam of the various deficiencies that can be found in different democratic systems. The end result is a structure that resembles a democracy, but isn’t one and just doesn’t make the grade. Checks and balances? Eroded. Fundamental freedoms? Violated. Freedom of expression? Curtailed. Tyranny of the majority? Institutionalised. Civil society? embattled.
Even the electoral process is unfair, and, at times, unfree.
The elections are taking place under a state of emergency. This is the second election to be held under such restrictive conditions which have been in place for almost two years. How can Turkey be called a democracy when last year’s referendum to fundamentally transform the political system in order to entrench the rule and power of the incumbent president take place under a state of emergency? How can it be a democracy when the leaders of the third largest political party are arrested and imprisoned while still on trial without remand, in what is clearly politically motivated charges? Ahead of Sunday’s polls, the liberal and Kurdish oriented People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is experiencing real difficulties to campaign through violence and intimidation. Meanwhile, The HDP’s Presidential candidate, selahattin demirtas, is behind bars under trumped up charges of terrorism.
In Turkey, the resources of the state are intermeshed with that of the ruling party and are used for campaign purposes. After years of co-option and censorship, the media is overwhelming sympathetic to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP. Some have counted that around 90 per cent of media outlets are now pro-government. Meanwhile the state broadcaster, TRT, has devoted, by some counts, almost ten times more coverage to President Erdogan than to his challengers. Go to any Turkish city and you will see at least three gigantic AKP and Erdogan posters located in key arteries of the population centre for every backstreet opposition billboard.
Turkey’s 10 per cent parliamentary threshold is a stain on its so-called democracy. This restriction was deliberately designed to prevent Kurdish political party representation. Indeed, if the HDP wins less than 10 per cent of the popular vote, the ruling AKP will be the winner of around 80 seats, all but guaranteeing their parliamentary majority. No wonder the HDP is constantly bullied and intimidated.
The OSCE which monitors elections in Turkey releases an interim report during the election process and another after the voting is complete. Over the years each report has been more damning than the next, but yet its criticisms and recommendations go unheeded. Turkey’s election board has been filled with government allies and the safety of ballots is in severe doubt in some parts of the country, mostly in areas where the aforementioned 10 per cent threshold becomes critical. To make matters worse, ballots without an official seal will be considered valid and safeguards against fraud are not strong enough. Many doubt the elections will be free and fair. And if enough of the population doesn’t believe that the process is transparent, then there is a serious problem.
The opposition has to be congratulated for competing in such an environment, let alone giving President Erdogan and the AKP a run for their money. Some commentators have gone so far as to raise the prospect of a governmental defeat. This is unlikely. Erdogan will probably win the presidency in either the first or second round. It would be a bonus for President Erdogan to have an AKP majority in parliament, but not essential. The new constitution was conceived to give the President enough authority to get things done without parliament causing too much trouble. And what it can do – refuse to authorise the budget and reject presidential decrees, Erdogan will overcome through backroom deals and manoeuvres with a handful of key parliamentary deputies whose support will be required to swing a vote.
Still, the opposition parties and candidates have done well in the circumstances, especially in a system designed to keep them in opposition.
With upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, one would think that Turkey is awash with excitement and fervour. But the election season has been a rather subdued affair. Turks seem to be suffering from election fatigue. Let’s not forget that this is the sixth big vote in Turkey in just four years. The campaign period also coincides with the holy month of Ramazan – Erdogan apparently ordered electioneering to be somewhat calmer. Hmmm.
Let’s not forget just how high the stakes are. If incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wins the presidential race, with the new constitution in place it would mean he will be an elected autocrat with unprecedented power. And if his Justice and Development Party (AKP) gain a majority in parliament, Erdogan will be able to use his powers to their maximum potential. Indeed, this is an election that is worth campaigning for, regardless of which party you sympathise with. Although there is now a little bit of a buzz after the holiday period and ahead of polling day, compared to previous elections, it still remains the pretty calm affair.
The candidate and party which seems to be suffering from the most amount of election fatigue is that President Erdogan and his AKP. No doubt, they will almost certainly win, but the AKP needs to fight in order to get 50 per cent of the vote so that it may dominate parliament to rubber stamp the will of the President. Meanwhile, Erdogan will win the presidency but would prefer to do it in the first round rather than in a second round two weeks later. Yet, Erdogan is looking tired and his campaign lacklustre. Some of his rallies have been visibly empty and his tongue lashings against opponents and the international conspiracies against Turkey is less venomous than previous years. The billboard campaign of both Erdogan and the AKP appear duller by the day. Apparently, CHP Presidential candidate Muharrem Ince scored higher ratings than Erdogan not only on television, but also on the internet. No doubt because Erdogan and what he stands for is clear, the other candidates who lack media exposure are, therefore, more interesting especially when they mock Erdogan’s lack of university degree and his use of teleprompter which has been hit by system failure.
This leads to the question, is Erdogan’s popularity waning. Has the man who has dominated Turkish politics for the last 15 years, lost his shine?
Many have described Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a charismatic leader so it is worth consulting Max Weber, one of the three founding fathers of modern sociology, about this matter.
In looking at the world around him in turn of the last century, Weber characterised the nature of societal order and political authority. In other words, why do people obey? Why do we abide by laws rather than rebel or resist? Often this comes down to the question of power – people with more power control us. But the use or threat of force cannot be used all the time. More often than not, people obey political elites because they respect authority, meaning that they recognise that those in power have legitimacy to rule.
Weber was interested in different types of authority in political societies and identified three. The first is rational-legal authority, which in basic terms means the presence of rules, laws, institutions and bureaucracies that govern based on consensus, not unlike modern democracies. Secondly, there is traditional authority which is when leaders base their legitimacy on past traditions of patrimony, often this would take the form of a monarchy. Finally, and here comes the interesting bit, Weber identified the phenomenon of Charismatic authority.
The term “charisma” is religious in origin, Greek for “divine gift”. Put another way, an individual with a god-like quality or aura. That’s the origin of the word, but Charisma is also a word we use colloquially. We know what it means, but it’s hard to define. We use it to describe celebrities, board room managers, politicians and popular people. For example, George Clooney, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Adolf Hitler, Will Smith and Barack Obama have all been described as charismatic.
A few things I am sure you have noted from the above list. One, all of the aforementioned are men. Two, it lumps together the good with the evil, the profound with the superficial. Thirdly, charisma is in the eye of the beholder. For example, Obama may be charismatic for me, but not to you. Ditto Steve Jobs and Adolph Hitler.
Nevertheless, with all the problems associated with the term charisma, Weber still noted the preponderance of charismatic leaders in some countries. They often emerge in a society which has experienced turmoil or an existential crisis. In this context, an individual appears, perhaps from the ranks of the military or a religious group who has exceptional organisational and oratory skills and manages to unite a society and head them towards a particular direction or vision. This is the basis for his (rarely her) authority. That’s right, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is an almost ideal example.
But in some respects so is Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He emerged at a time when Turkey was experiencing one of its worst economic crises in its history, there was uncertainty about the future direction of Turkey, and from the perspective of the pious and conservative population, a sense of victimhood. In this context Erdogan rose to the fore offering Turkey, or at least the demographic of Turkish society he represented as well as disenchanted liberals and capitalists, a vision of a “New Turkey”, one in which a pious generation would arise. This new Turkey would be economically prosperous, technologically and infrastructural advanced and a world leader. Women could wear headscarves to university and the organs of the state would represent and work for the real Turkish majority, those from the socially conservative Anatolian heartland and the urban poor while also benefitting the economic elite.
But that was then and the excitement of the Erdogan years of the past 10-15 years is waning. Weber predicted this would be the case in societies where charismatic authority is the source of legitimacy. Charismatic appeal is only temporary. Indeed, the rhetoric of Erdogan has been heard before. The vision is clear as is the direction. It is no longer novel and what is real can be mundane. Mega projects? The third bridge is open and so is the Marmaray. Despite all the hype, they turned out to be pretty lacklustre (some would say failures). Kanal Istanbul and the third airport now seem less exciting. Yes, Erdogan may get his new powers and promise a stronger Turkey, but what he will do is already known. Simply put, more of the same.
Weber argues that at this stage, a process begins which he called the routinization of charisma. This is when charismatic authority shifts to either traditional or legal-rational authority, a result of the need to maintain power and is often facilitated by the group around the charismatic leader. Sometimes this is achieved by building monuments and creating new rituals. To some extent we have seen this routinisation process begin with the narrative and commemoration of the “martyrs” of the attempt coup of 16 July 2016.
Regardless, what is clear is that although Erdogan and the AKP will no doubt win the forthcoming elections, we are entering a period of the routinization of Erdogan’s charisma, the process of which will dominate the work of Erdogan and the AKP and be institutionalised through the new powers of the constitution. Not much to get excited about, even if you support him.
As close observers of Turkey already know, the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was very much tied with the economic performance of the country. The 2001 economic crisis was a significant factor for the electoral success of Erdogan and the AKP in 2002. Their ability to maintain growth ensured their longevity.
Bearing this in mind some have insinuated that with Turkey’s economy on the ropes with the devaluation of the lira against all major currencies, Turkey’s current account deficit, inflation, the lack of independence of the central bank and the President’s unconventional instance that low interest rates reduce inflation, could lead to the opposition doing well in the polls. Some say perhaps they might even win if not the Presidential elections, then at least prevent the AKP from having a majority in parliament.
But at this exact moment Turkey is not in recession or financial crisis, but rather on the proposes of one. There are dark clouds on the horizon but they are not quite on top of us yet. Therefore, the extent to which economic uncertainty will be detrimental to Erdogan and the AKP depends on the success of their political campaigns as well as those of the opposition. A couple of weeks ago I touched on an important component of electoral campaigns, political branding. But now, allow me to discuss the importance of the political slogan.
In simple terms, a slogan is an effective, easily identifiable and repeatable refrain or motto which encapsulates the message or ideology of the candidate and/or political party. Just like a brand it is supposed to capture an emotional and intellectual connection with voters and accompany them into the voting booth. It can be chanted at campaign rallies, feature on billboards and uttered by politicians in a speech.
There have been some excellent political slogans over the years. Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 “Labour isn’t working” managed to capture widespread public discontent with Britain’s ruling Labour party’s inability to get to grips with the recession. Barack Obama’s “Yes we can” was simple, uplifting and catchy. Love it or hate it Donald J. Trump’s “America First” was effective, albeit terrifying for the student of history. Perhaps the greatest of all time was the slogan of the American Revolution, “No taxation without representation”, a rallying cry against British imperial rule during the 18th century and currently used by residents of DC who strangely find themselves constitutionally without congressional representation. My personal all-time favourite slogan is “Up Yours, Delores!”. Not affiliated to a particular party per se, it was first featured in a 1990 British tabloid newspaper headline. The phrase was then chanted at demonstrations in reaction to the French politician Jacques Delores’ advocating the ECU, the precursor to the Euro.
A couple of weeks ago, President Erdogan handed the opposition a slogan on a silver platter when he stated that all the Turkish people had to do was say “tamam” and he would step down, in this context “tamam” meant “enough”. And sure enough, millions of Turks were tweeting #Tamam.
The good news for the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the dominant party of the National Alliance (CHP, IYI, SP, DP) and its presidential candidate Muharrem Ince is that they used a variation of “tamam” in their slogans – “Artik tamam” meaning “enough already” is an obvious allusion to the hashtag. The CHP’s other slogan, “Millet icin geliyoruz!” roughly meaning “we are coming for the nation” is also a play on the Erdogan speech where he says all the nation has to do is say enough. Another CHP and Ince slogan is the rhyming “Turkiye’ye guvence Muharrem İnce”, roughly translating to "Muharrem İnce, an assurance to Turkey".
Quite catchy with clear messages, the CHP’s slogans have so far been ok, not bad, pretty good. But they are not exactly wow either. Although certainly an improvement on the CHP’s lame June 2015 election slogan, “Milletce alkisliyoruz" meaning “we clap as a nation”, the CHP’s 2018 message does not hit hard enough, especially not on the economy. A really good political slogan finds the incumbents’ weak spot and presses it hard and relentlessly until something gives way.
A good example of this is another all-time great, Bill Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid”. Coined by James Carville, one of the best politically campaigners of the modern era, the Clinton slogan was able to beat the incumbent US President George Bush Snr in the 1992 elections. The fact that Clinton won was remarkable as he defeated an incumbent US president who was basking in the glory of the successful Gulf War. In 1991 Bush enjoyed a whopping 90% approval rating. However, having found Bush’s weak spot, the recession of the previous year, Clinton was relentless on economic issues until slowly but surely Bush’s popularity all but evaporated. With this in mind the CHP’s slogans, quite frankly, need to be better, especially on the economic downturn on the horizon.
Now let’s evaluate the slogans of the current ruling party and president, the dominant forces of the People’s Alliance, a coalition between the AKP, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the smaller Great Unity Party (BBP).
So far, the AKP’s election slogans, just like its campaign in general, have not exactly been thrilling. “Vakit Turkiye vakti” roughly translating as “the time is Turkey’s time” is somewhat effective in that it relates to the time conscious period of the holy month Ramadan when Muslims fast during the day and break bread at sundown. The use of religious motifs in AKP electioneering is not new. Back in November 2015, one of the AKP’s main slogans was “Haydi Bismillah", a common religious refrain in Turkey. The AKP’s other current slogan is “Guclu Meclis, Guclu Hukumet, Guclu Turkiye” meaning “Strong parliament, strong government, strong Turkey” which echoes President Erdogan’s ambitions to transform Turkey’s political system.
But this message has already been made, especially during last year’s constitutional referendum. The slogan is therefore rather dull. Not only did the AKP already win the constitutional referendum, but the slogan also recycles the June 2015 AKP phraze “İstikrara oy verin" (vote for stability). Back then, the AKP only won just under 41 per cent of the popular vote, something which the AKP will hate to repeat this time round. The stability card in my opinion, is quite desperate, almost as needy as the November 2015 election re-run slogan of “İlk gunku askla" which roughly translates to “with the same love of the first day”, as if the people’s relationship with the AKP was one of a married couple trying to rekindle the magic of times past. Erdogan and the AKP needs to up their game if they want to win their majority in parliament and the presidential run-off in the first round.
Let’s have a look at Meral Aksener and the IYI Party, part of the National Alliance. The slogan "Türkiye ve milletimiz iyi olacak", which roughly translates to “Turkey and our nation will be good” is certainly cheesy, but it’s not terribly bad either. It suffers the same problem as the CHP in that it does not hit hard enough about the economy, the soft underbelly of Erdogan and the AKP. However, the underlying message is one of positivity, and it has the potential to make the voter link their patriotic views of Turkey with the party whose very name means “good” when it’s time to cast a vote.
The best political slogan in this race is that of the HDP, “Senle degisir”, meaning “it changes with you”. It is a very empowering phrase and encapsulate the liberal and democratic spirit of the HDP. It is also clever as words can be put in front of the slogan, for example, “one man rule, it changes with you” or “everything, changes with you”. This is not unlike the 2014 election slogan of Selahattin Demirtas, "Bir Cumhurbaskani Dusunun" meaning “imagine a president…” a phrase left open ended so that another word or two may be added such as “who unites”, “brings peace”, “doesn’t discriminate”, etc. Obamaesque, no doubt. Also for the 2018 election there’s the rhyming “Yurttas, Yoldas, Arkadas Demirtas” (countryman, comrade, friend, Demirtas). This is also quite effective too. The problem of the HDP and Demirtas is not their slogans or branding, but their ability to campaign which is severely crippled due to security constraints and politically motivated attacks against this largely Kurdish party. Yet the HDP might just get past the 10 per cent threshold if they continue to do and say the right things.
As the campaigning continues I’m sure you will notice that some slogans will be dropped and others adopted. It is always interesting to observe what catches on and how the nature of campaigning evolves during an election cycle. I’m sure some new slogans will be ringing in our ears over the next few years. I can’t wait to hear them.
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