Turkey: Social unrest and the crisis of representation

Turkey: Social unrest and the crisis of representation

Saide Kuzeyli - Burak Cop
One of the recurring comments regarding the Gezi Park protests that kicked off on May 31 and which escalated into a mass rally for an astonishing period of three weeks, literally spreading throughout the nation, has been that the opposition’s rather weak and inadequate standing has fuelled the defiance of the masses and helped support the intensity of the   spontaneous uprising.  It is obviously possible to frame this explanation as being rather too cliché and maybe even too simplistic.  

However, it does not necessarily mean that if a notion is defined as a cliché, it should also prove to be untrue. 

Let’s be candid and realistic: From the perspective of the average voter in Turkey nowadays, it is an accepted fact that neither the existing three opposition parties that have formal groups within the parliament, nor the prevailing opposition forces active outside of the parliament  can boast of the power to end Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) ruling party status.  The unequal stature of the competition in the political environment further cultivates the image of the AKP as a ruling force “without any alternatives.”

Or may we say that it used to be so, as the parameters of politics seem to have been transformed radically since May 31.  

In fact this acute perception of having no proper alternatives to the ruling party and the consequent feelings of being trapped within this realm has been instrumental in the nationwide civil disobedience of the millions of ordinary citizens, who have been disenchanted with the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, resulting in the masses acting spontaneously and in an unorganized manner.
As the reader will duly note, we have already stated that the cliché serves its purpose, but we need to further strengthen our standing as to why it makes sense. The main problem in essence, is the crisis of representation.

One of the dimensions of this particular political crisis manifests itself as the inability of the political opposition, consciously or inadvertently to represent the grievances of the society at large.
Other causes may be summed up as the government’s evident failure to represent diverse classes, cultures and interest groups of the society and the parliament’s transformation into a state of dysfunctionality. 

Let us start with this last observation. We do not have a functioning and independent legislative body right now in Turkey. One may easily argue that legislative power exists in appearance only. This problem may not be solely linked to AKP; however, it has turned into an even larger issue, as the system of checks and balances of the democratic process has been further crippled during the reign of AKP.

The fate of parliamentary motions clearly has demonstrated that the Turkish Parliament has practically ceased to be independent of the executive body and that it can no longer fulfil its task of reviewing and balancing the executive effectively.

Throughout 2012 and during the first half of 2013, of the 216 motions that have been put to vote by the three opposition parties represented in parliament, all have been rejected, while those by the AKP have all been accepted.

The legislative function undertaken by the Parliament is not realized as an independent legislative force of action: It fulfils the legislative needs of the ruling party (of Tayyip Erdoğan’s, in fact) by functioning as an intermediary or a secretariat. It is as if the members of the parliament raise their hands without consciousness. Occasionally some laughable incidents occur, when the MPs raise and lower their hands almost automatically. These deputies, who supposedly should be representing the heterogeneous and diverse sections of the society, in reality are far from demonstrating this competency. 

A new incident is a testament to this finding. MPs were casting their votes for an omnibus bill in a parliamentary session on July 7. When the opposition party voted favourably for a resolution, the AKP members – as they always do – rejected it automatically. However, the resolution was in fact proposed by the AKP. The act of casting votes without any consciousness then has led the AKP members to reject their own proposal.

The parliament’s readiness to embrace the role of acting as the administrative clerk or the notary of the executive naturally means the opposition party is not able to block legislation of bills which they oppose. 

In 2012, the “4+4+4 bill” – an attempt to “reform” the educational system – was met by rigorous resistance from the main opposition party Republican People’s Party (CHP), as the party utilized all loopholes provided by the internal statutes of the parliament in an attempt to obstruct the bill, although they could only do this for a couple of days.

In the end, AKP deputies handled this tactic by resorting to physical assaults, and the bill was “passed” by a lower committee in a chaotic atmosphere as MPs manhandled each other. 

The fact that the ruling government has failed to represent the diverse classes, cultures and interests of society and, furthermore, does not show any signs of adhering to inclusive policies, is one of the dimensions of the crisis of representation.

One may easily conclude that the AKP is not only unwilling to represent the diverse groups within society, but on the contrary, is trying to supress them.

More than half of the 4,000 respondents (58.1 per cent) in a public opinion survey for KONDA on June 6-7, said they were at Gezi Park “because my civil liberties have been restricted.”

On the other hand, there were numerous activists who justified their opposition by citing other reasons such as opposition to the AKP and its policies, a negative attitude toward the state apparatus and a reaction against the rhetoric and general conduct of Erdoğan.  

Those who came up with these corollaries are in fact opponents of the ruling party/state, and therefore it may not prove to be meaningful to criticize the AKP rule for not representing these groups.
However, those who have declared “I am here because my civil liberties have been restricted” may not be opposing the ruling power and may not necessarily be their staunch adversary. As a matter of fact, 2 percent of those at the Park voted for AKP in recent elections. 

The alienation of such a vast crowd of citizens who are not wholly strong opponents (or not so fervent antagonists) of the ruling party, puts into perspective the AKP’s legitimacy and the crisis of representation.

The third and the final dimension of the crisis of representation is the weakness and the incompetence of the opposition. 

KONDA’s public opinion survey provides amazing data within this context. For every five activists, one person, despite being a potential voter, did not go to the polls or cast a blank vote in the last elections. Less than half of the Gezi activists, 41 percent, voted for the main opposition party. At the time of the survey, almost one-fifth of the participants who were asked the question “What would you do if the elections were held today?” responded “I would not vote,” while nearly 30 percent noted that they were still undecided.

The rather pathetic picture regarding the CHP has been that only a scant 31 percent have stated that they would vote for the CHP. Remembering that the percentage of those who indicated that they had voted for the CHP was 41 percent just two years ago, the CHP, like the AKP, seems to be among the losers of the Gezi rebellion. 

At this juncture, two points should be kept in mind.  

The KONDA survey was conducted with the activists in the Park and may not complately reflect the inclinations of the rest of Turkey and even İstanbul. The second point is that since the survey was conducted relatively early vis-à-vis the elections, many more developments may be expected to occur until then.  

But even so, the main opposition party’s apparent loss of popularity, at a time when the riots were in their first week, is quite thought-provoking.

The truth of the matter is that the crisis of representation of the opposition in Turkey cannot be solely attributed to the CHP.

Some 93.6 percent of all those who were asked the question “Why are you at the Park, which identity did you associate yourself with when you came to the Park?” responded “As an ordinary citizen,” while only 6.4 percent of them said they participated in the movement due to an affiliation with a particular group or an organization. Ultimately, this highlights the fact that all opposition within and outside of the parliament should focus on this challenge and give it a hard thought.

No matter what, it seems clear that the June uprising will somewhat accelerate the descent of the AKP.
The course of the AKP from here on in is evident, and this direction is downwards. The velocity and the duration of this process are, however, unknown. 

The fact that several areas of concern such as the growth rate came in below target in 2012, the increase in interest rates as a reaction to the end of the FED’s expansionist monetary policies, rising exchange rates, plummeting exports and a rise in unemployment will leave their mark on 2013 and particularly on 2014, creating a destabilizing effect on the AKP.

If we merge the aforementioned picture with the probable social and economic consequences of Erdoğan’s rhetoric, which he seems to be embracing with ever-growing fervour since the uprising of the masses, and which has become alarmingly more polarized, disintegrative and based on conspiracy theories, the bottom line is that it will create a multiplier effect.

The bourgeoisie that has amassed wealth with the support of the AKP is among the several stakeholders that will be negatively affected by the rise of interest rates, as they carry an enormous debt burden on their backs.

Within this context, the reality that wealthy businessmen aligned with the AKP also need an environment of peace and stability has been highlighted by Professor Aydın Uğur.

Uğur in his piece published in the daily Radikal (July 3) reminds us how the Conservative Party in Britain purged Margaret Thatcher when it was apparent that she was a liability.

The probability rate that the year 2014 may become Erdoğan’s final year in the political arena will increase, as he is perceived more and more as too costly by his domestic and global supporters.