From the green sun of PASOK to the yellow bulb of the AKP: The answer will be given by the people

 

Municipality elections in Turkey: the triumph of a
successful project of social engineering

 

Vangelis Kechriotis

 

The day before yesterday (30/3/2014), Turks went to the polls to cast their votes for municipality elections in the midst of a major scandal involving allegations of corruption and embezzlement in the upper echelons of the government. These accusations are largely based on leaked recordings of telephone conversations, though the gravest is a recording of a top-secret meeting between high officials discussing whether or not it would be a good idea to stage a fake attack on Turkey to provide a pretext for invading Syria. For all these reasons, the elections became a plebiscite for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and its controversial leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Yet there was no doubt that both would retain their popular support, at levels even higher than those seen in the last municipal elections. Throughout the past three months of protracted electoral campaigning in Turkey, I kept thinking of how all this reminded me of what happened in Greece 25 years ago. It is now time for some comparison and reflection. Let me explain.

In June 1989, after months of revelations regarding embezzlement and favouritism involving the ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and even Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou himself, the liberal, right-wing New Democracy party won the elections with 44.2 per cent of the vote. Nevertheless,  PASOK, which had been in power for the past eight years, managed to score a decent 39.15 per cent. Despite its victory, the opposition party did not manage to get a majority in the parliament. The outcome was a coalition government with the left, which brought the protracted post-civil war period to an end. Although, PASOK supporters perceived this as an unethical and opportunistic betrayal, their political opponents both on the left and on the right saw this as the only chance to cleanse Greece’s political life of the corruption and the nepotism that had dominated throughout the entire 1980s.  After all, it was a timely decision that coincided with the fall of the communist regimes and the end of the Cold War a few months later. Papandreou and five ministers were put on trial. Nevertheless, after three years of legal proceedings, a second coalition government, again with the participation of PASOK, and the death of one minister and the public abasement of others, PASOK triumphantly returned to power in 1993, with Papandreou, who was weakened by health problems and an operation he had undergone when the scandals had broken out and which, it was said, allowed his political opponents to achieve such a blow against his government.

The question that many asked back then, was how was it possible for Papandreou to survive politically and physically and return to power, despite all the public ridicule, compounded by his love affair with a much younger air hostess who would soon become his wife, and the collapse of his credibility due to allegations that he had received bribes in diaper boxes. Everybody knew that PASOK had mobilised populist rhetoric in politics, culture and education. Nobody doubted the personal appeal of its founder and leader, who combined the prestige of an American economics professor with the charisma of a popular revolutionary leader. Moreover, the period between 1989 and 1992, which was perceived by many as a postmodern coup, galvanised the cohesion of the party, which had suffered greatly after so many years in power, and eventually undermined the credibility of its opponents. This was a country where the left had suffered deeply at the hands of the royalist right. Thus, it seemed unthinkable that the old culprits could now fraternise with their victims. After all, people could not forget that it was the first PASOK cabinet that had dismissed the older state discourse on the civil war, previously described as terrorism and banditry, and offered rehabilitation to the resistance fighters of the Communist Party.

And this was not the full extent of what Andreas Papandreou had managed to do. He had also given voice to a large segment of Greek society, mostly petit bourgeois but also the peasantry, who now enjoyed not only full civic rights (this had already been introduced by the earlier Karamanlis government), but also a feeling that they were the ones who decided the county’s fate. They also enjoyed better salaries, a higher quality of public health and education services and a welfare state that the country had never seen before (and which the current Greek government is demolishing under the pressure of the Troika). All this was also complemented by an anti-imperialist, nationalist discourse that made Papandreou look like a hero among his voters, although Greece never left NATO or the European Community (later European Union), as he had threatened.  All this is indicative of what can be described as a successful project of social engineering. In other words, those who voted for Papandreou in 1989, the diehard 40 per cent, were not aspiring for a better Greece, as had been the case with the 48 per cent of 1981. These were mostly people who had cherished the benefits they received from the changes of the previous eight years. Moreover, their ideology had been shaped by the rhetoric and hegemonic language of politicians who looked very much like them, and who, unlike Papandreou himself and a core group around him, reached prominence thanks to the latter’s inspiring leadership.

The story of the AKP and its newest triumph shares very similar qualities. Although this party came to power with a modest 33 per cent of the vote, it won the last general elections in 2011 with 50 per cent, a level it almost maintained in these elections, as well. The question that has to be asked is why, despite the brutal crackdown on last summer’s Gezi Park protests, the corruption allegations, the bans on social media and the government’s irresponsible policy towards Syria, Erdoğan’s popularity remains so high. I believe that what Turkey witnessed in the last 12 years was a process of social engineering similar to that which Greece underwent two-and-a-half decades ago. A masculine prime minister employing rhetorical bravado against the European Union and Israel has been a source of inspiration for the traumatised national sentiments of many Turks. No matter that eventually, in reality, Turkey maintains good relations with both.

Nevertheless, it is not only populism and emotional manipulation that has kept the AKP in power. Turkey has become a much richer country and, although this new wealth is not equally distributed, there are many who got rich and many more who hope to become so. A whole new middle class has emerged. For the first time, social security became compulsory and an effective health care system to which everyone has access was created. Millions of people who were banned from the public domain and were not even allowed access to education because of the headscarves were given back their lost dignity. One of the AKP posters for these elections featured a covered woman and bore the slogan “Don’t consider words, consider actions”. Indeed, as the leaked recordings illustrated, the response of the AKP’s voters to the huge level of corruption in the government and the prime minister’s personal intervention in the press was, for the most part, “I don’t care, as long as we also profit”. On the other side of the political spectrum, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), despite their gaping ideological divisions and the legacy of violence between far-left and far-right militants in the 1970s, have now become closer than ever before, to such an extent that CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu addressed his supporters with the salute of the gray wolves, the militia of the MHP, whereas MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli saluted a crowd with the sign of victory, used by the left, on a similar occasion. There were many who were appalled by this opportunistic rapprochement.

Democracy has its rules. It can turn into a nightmare for those who do not have access to power or wealth. But, in the end, it is the majority that decides. Today, we went to the polling station where my wife cast her vote. It was a visual feast. As I do not have the right to vote myself, I spent 20 minutes watching the people around me. I saw a woman wearing a fancy “Armanda” (a local brand) headscarf, a very elegant dress and high heels distributing the ballot papers along with the AKP candidates for the neighbourhood. I saw two women from our apartment, a mother and daughter, wearing Fenerbahce tee-shirts -- a symbol of resistance against the government, since this football club’s manager was jailed in recent years. I saw such a diverse array of people that I was tempted to guess who they would be voting for based on their headscarves, moustaches, elegance, etc. I realised that this was hopeless when I saw the gentleman who collects the garbage in our building arriving to cast his vote well dressed and with a large smile on his face. I will never know who he voted for. The smile on his face was enough to make me hope that, even if I do not share their joy, there are people who will see their dreams come true, whatever they may be. As Turkey faces such dark days, it is good to know that there are happy people in this country. 

In Greece, PASOK managed to retain power for one more decade, until 2004. This, however, was made possible only after its founder and leader had to step down due to poor health, replaced by a new leadership that followed a less populist and more reformist path. Eventually, it took a huge economic crisis and a less competent and controversial Papandreou, Andreas’ son George, to lead to the party’s collapse. It remains to be seen whether Erdoğan’s temporary survival, in the long run, will be for the benefit of his party and his country, at a time when an economic crisis is looming on the horizon.

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  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 12 (04.2014)