August 3, 2014

How happy the one blessed by Erdoğan in Turkey

Mustafa Demir*

In mid-July the Turkish prime minister invited public figures to a meeting where he publicized his “presidency vision.” With this invitation he indirectly requested that these celebrities come and endorse his candidacy for the presidency. Although the majority of those invited put in an appearance, others preferred not to come. Why did Erdogan put on such an event and invite those famous figures? Obviously, Erdoğan wants people to make their colors clear.

He is creating a division and sending a message that says “Either you are for me or against me.” He imparts this message regularly to every segment of Turkish society. Recently, he even threatened Cabinet ministers who have kept their silence during his smear campaign against the Hizmet movement. It is clear to everyone that being labeled as “against him” is dangerous. Erdoğan's language indicates that those who are “against him” will be prevented from exercising their right to participate in the public and economic spheres of Turkey. There is a price to be paid by those who “do not respect the government of this nation,” as he stated during the Gezi protests, when he warned entertainment and media figures showing support to the Gezi movement to “mind their step.” Quite probably, it was the fear induced by such threats that made the majority of these media figures show up at Erdoğan's invitation and salute him this time.

In February of this year Ömer Şener and I wrote in openDemocracy that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has been “securitizing” all segments of society that remain beyond its control or are still resisting government attempts to gain control of all factions; that is, the government is defining all individuals and groups who resist its direct control as a “security threat.” We noted the government's presentation of the Hizmet movement as a scapegoat for every problem, while the government's hostility “extends to any civic movement's questioning of steps taken by the government, though few others receive as much media coverage in Turkey. To suppress Hizmet, the government has started a determined smear campaign aimed at the eyes and ears of the public, using threats and unfounded claims, supported by pro-government media outlets, and slowly turning the movement into a scapegoat for every negative development in the country.”

This policy of securitization is familiar to long-term observers of Turkish politics. It particularly resembles the early years of the Kemalist regime, which was also very much a “one-man show.” In those years Kemal Atatürk was Turkey, and Turkey was Kemal Atatürk. This means that he was the ultimate decision maker in foreign, security and domestic politics. He had the power to bypass all the republican institutions whose establishment he had led. Parliament and the Cabinet were mere formalities. The military, Parliament, and the Cabinet were totally under his control. Those seen as beyond his control were denounced as traitors or threats to his project of a “modern” Turkey. The military campaign against the Kurds in Dersim was a good example of this tactic. Atatürk also regularly threw parties, inviting public figures and hosting them publicly for dinner. Anyone who aspired to be a public figure or to have influence in society needed to gain his permission or “blessing” by attending such events at his invitation. Those singers, writers, poets and others who had been “blessed” by him played a crucial role in the cultural sphere of the republic. However, this policy necessarily produced millions of flatterers, toadies and lickspittles.

What we are seeing from Erdoğan, now in his third term, is no different. A great many commentators have noted that since 2011 the AKP under the leadership of Erdoğan has become increasingly authoritarian. This was easily discernible during the Gezi Park protests in summer 2013. In sharp contrast to his first and second terms, in this term the prime minister himself has become very intolerant of any opposition. Erdoğan, apparently seeing himself as the sole representative of the state (the ultimate decision maker in every sphere), in the face of any adversity or unexpected event immediately tries to find an enemy to blame. This is intended to help him keep his supporters. Thus, he characterized the Gezi protests as an international plot against his leadership and against the booming Turkish economy.

What differentiates Erdoğan from Atatürk is his language and the people whom he addresses. Erdoğan appeals to religious and conservative people, who comprise a slight majority in Turkey. These people have always seen the Kemalists ruling over them as a major threat to their existence; Erdoğan appeared as an alternative to this Kemalist model and persuaded religious and conservative groups that he is the only alternative to a Kemalist regime. Thus, he can label groups that resist this patronizing behavior -- such as the Hizmet movement -- as threats. Indeed, he hints that the very existence and survival of these groups depends on his being in power. Therefore, last week's invitation of these public figures and celebrities was a clear message to them that if they want to survive under Erdogan's rule, they need to win his blessing. Thus, politics is a dirty game that requires those who hold the power to practice and show their power over different factions.

In conclusion, in the “new” Turkey, those who want to survive need to have Erdoğan's blessing. Also, in the “new” Turkey, those granted Erdoğan's blessing can hope to benefit from his support and be secure and protected against his rage. Thus, in the lead-up to the forthcoming presidential election we are very likely to witness intense competition among those who seek Erdoğan's blessing.

*Ph.D. candidate in politics and international relations at the International Institute of Social Studies in Keele University

Published on Today's Zaman, 02 August 2014, Saturday