Politics at its lowest

Politics at its lowest

This Sunday, millions of Turks will go to ballots to vote for their next president. This will be the first time that the presidency, the top post in the republic, will be elected by popular vote. In this sense, the upcoming elections could be seen as a sign of maturation for Turkey’s almost 140-year-old democratic experience, which goes back to the first Ottoman Parliament in 1876. Unfortunately, though, the presidential race has only unveiled how immature our political culture really is.

Why? Well, this has been one of the most vulgar, disrespectful and hateful campaigns Turkey has ever seen. Stupid conspiracy theories, lies, libel, and insults have dominated the scene.

There is no single actor fully responsible for this disgrace, but Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and his hard-core supporters certainly share a big part of the blame. Since the early days of the campaign, Erdoğan has chosen to denigrate his opponents, especially the joint candidate of the two main opposition parties, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu. He kept called him “monşer” (mon cher), a term imported from French used to make fun of the well-educated, Westernized elite. He twisted İhsanoğlu’s words, such as depicting his stance on Israel-Palestine as “non-partisanship,” although İhsanoğlu never said or meant this, but only advocated a more diplomatic, and diplomatically effective, support for Palestine rather than ideological brouhaha. Erdoğan also took issue with the fact that İhsanoğlu was born in Cairo, despite the fact that he himself routinely declares Egypt as one of Turkey’s brotherly nations.

The pro-Erdoğan media was often worse, depicting İhsanoğlu as a puppet for all the conspirators of the world, from the “interest rate lobby” to Zionists. Pro-Erdoğan propagandists on Twitter took the cheapest shots ever, such as arguing that the “bread” symbol he uses is in fact a secret code for his covert links to Christianity. (A Twitter feed with almost 200,000 followers published a staged photo of İhsanoğlu as Jesus posing with bread and wine.)

In return, some of the anti-Erdoğan press was hardly any better, calling him, and even his family, “thieves.” This was a reference to the corruption investigation of last December, but neither Erdoğan nor anyone else deserves to be called as such, unless they are sentenced in a court. 

Yet Erdoğan, as the head of the executive and the greatest power holder, bears more responsibility than anyone else. Unfortunately, though, he uses his authority not to calm his opponents down and diffuse tension in society. He rather pumps up the tension, in order to consolidate the Sunni-conservative majority behind his confrontational line.

Erdoğan’s recent take on Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition, was a case in point. He called on Kılıçdaroğlu in a rally, saying, “I am a Sunni, and you are an Alevi, Kılıçdaroğlu. Why don’t you say that aloud?” This was a clear line of sectarianism, which is in fact a very dangerous game to play, especially at a time when Turkey’s south and southeastern neighbors are being torn apart in sectarian civil war.

My worry is that with all this divisive rhetoric, Erdoğan will be able to win the war (i.e., the election), but he will not be able to win the peace. Turkey, in other words, will enter into a new era of political and social tension, with a vicious cycle between authoritarian rule and agitated opposition. I hope I will prove to be too pessimistic.