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Taksim Square

The overbearing face of nationalism in Turkey

By Jessica Toale

Ahead of last month’s election, colourful flags of vying political parties filled the streets and neighbourhoods of Istanbul, alongside the usual throng of traffic. During the month I spent there, none were more prominent than those bearing the face of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party.

Unsurprisingly, Erdogan was re-elected President and his AK Party, in coalition with the right-wing nationalist MHP party, hold a majority in the Turkish Parliament. Following the result of a narrowly won referendum to change the constitution last year, he is returned with greatly enhanced powers including the power to directly appoint public officials and intervene in the legal system. He will abolish the position of Prime Minister and assume the powers himself and could now be in office until 2029.

Erdogan, who has already been in power for 15 years, is typical of the type of leader and burgeoning illiberal democracy we have witnessed rise around the world. From a promising start — building a strong relationship with the EU, presiding over a strong economy and making investments in healthcare, education and infrastructure — Erdogan’s policies and approach have changed markedly and he now largely divides opinion.

Erdogan has undeniably sought to concentrate power in his hands and has presided over a regime that has systematically jailed more journalists and critics than any other nation. He has moved away from Europe, made the state less secular, condemned LGBTI activism and has proposed a rolling back of constitutional equal rights for women. He has put a break on the Kurdish peace process by reviving military entanglements in Kurdish dominated areas in Turkey and in Syria, and most recently appointed his son-in-law as Turkey’s chief economist. For all of these reasons and more, he was described as a ‘fascist’ by opposition MP Selin Sayek Boke.

Around the world we are seeing this worrying rise in strong man politics and aggravated nationalism alongside political parties ready to leverage and exacerbate this sentiment with populist policies.

Turkey’s example gives us cause for concern as it provides an example to buoy other anti-democratic leaders. Turkey’s strategic importance to the UK and EU also make it hard to respond to this illiberal turn. For many years it has been the factory of Europe and is a NATO ally, with the second biggest army in the alliance. Turkey is also a key first line responder to the Syrian refugee crisis, having borne the brunt of crisis, absorbing more than 3 million refugees and contributing to a significant reduction in the flow of refugees from Turkey into the EU.

Despite this, there is some cause for hope and some important lessons for our own democracies at home.

What was extraordinary about this election is that despite 90% of national news outlets being pro-government, conducting the election under a state of emergency, and with a number of critics — and even one of the candidates — in jail, Erdogan still only won just over half of the votes.

On one hand this may be because political positions in Turkey tend to be entrenched along religious, socio-economic, religious and geographical lines — or as one friend put it, “people don’t change their minds.”

On the other, turnout in the election was 87% — figures we can only dream of in the UK — and social media may have played a large role in enabling non-AK Party political parties to reach their audiences. Turkey is proud of its high social media usage, with more individuals on Facebook than the UK. While this can contribute to greater entrenchment of positioning, it is also positive that these forms of communication are still free and open. Whilst there was a slight swing towards the nationalist MHP party, this enabled major opposition candidate Muharrem Ince and his CHP party to win more than 30% of the vote. This was largely located in the Aegean coastal provinces that tend to be more outward facing centres for business and tourism. The Kurdish HDP party also exceeded expectations and crossed the 10% threshold rule to become the third largest party in Parliament.

There is a strongly resurgent civil society, particularly in Istanbul. The spirit of the Gezi Park protestors is still live, if below the surface. There are volunteer groups who support fair election. There is a strong culture of entrepreneurship, some of Europe’s biggest tech incubators in Turkish universities and tax incentives to support investment and business growth. The government is also interested in supporting its civil servants to better engage with civil society and encourage social entrepreneurship.

Young people in Turkey are generally outward looking. A recent British Council study ‘Next Generation’ found that young people in Turkey seek good quality education, secure employment, the opportunity for overseas travel and to develop good relationships with their neighbourhoods and communities.

And finally, Erdogan will be President through Turkey’s centenary in 2023, so it falls to him to meet the expectations of Turkey’s Vision 2023 — which includes commitments for Turkey to become one of 10 biggest economies in the world, attract 50 million tourists a year, and join EU. These will be significant challenges as things stand now. Recent economic downturn has seen a significant devaluation of the lira and increases in prices and debt levels for household and business. Prices for goods in the Grand Bazaar are noticeably higher as vendors buy wholesale and pay their rent in dollars and euros but sell in lira. And tourism has been muted since the 2016 coup. The economy is likely to be the defining issue for his Presidency.

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‘Thank you Sisli’ post-election banner

It is likely that Erdogan will continue down his chosen path, mounting more uncertainty of Turkey’s future economic and social stability. It is a given that in this context we must condemn attempts to undermine democratic institutions, but it is also in all of our interest as well as that of Turkey’s to encourage these positive signs of hope — supporting civil society, entrepreneurs and opportunity for trade and investment.

Beyond that all nations need to work to provide an antidote to the illiberal democracies and their leaders who we see are strengthened. We need to uphold and ensure that rights are respected and equally shared at home, we need to stand up against individuals that seek to erode our institutions and processes, enflame anger and prejudices and seek to divide for their own aims. We must work with our closest allies and encourage others to act similarly and not provide example to leaders in countries were there are little checks on executive power.

It will be hard, especially when the scales appear to have tilted beyond repair, but we owe it to the people who continue to fight for a better future in their own countries and to our friends and family at home.

By Jessica Toale (Fabian IPG member and former group convener)

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