Long live ‘the man of the nation’


The new Turkish President’s legacy of political language


Vangelis Kechriotis


The elections on Sunday turned out, as was expected, to be a triumph for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Since he never quit his office as prime minister, for a short time Erdoğan will hold the extraordinary power of the two supreme offices. That, after all, was the far-reaching vision of a politician who managed within twelve years to radically transform Turkish politics. It is not my purpose to make predictions for the future. After all, what happens in the broader region, which is also being rapidly transformed, makes this task rather impossible. Neither do I intend to dwell upon the reasons that led to this triumph, which has been and will be substantiated by political analysts. I simply wish to share some thoughts on the legacy of the political language that Erdoğan’s tenure as prime minister leaves to his successors and the society at large. 

Politics always demands stamina, the capacity to constantly verbally attack others and defend yourself, occasionally slandering as long as it does not have legal repercussions; in short, morality, decency, and even aesthetics often suffer, especially during electoral campaigns. I have no doubt that several examples in Turkey's past can verify this assumption.  Nevertheless, three instances during this last campaign particularly infuriated anti-AKP public opinion and sent shockwaves through the rest of the world. The great protagonist in all three of them is the new President of Turkey. 

First instance: In a meeting in Izmir, Erdoğan, in the context of narrating how much easier it is in Turkey today to express ethnic or religious identity, addressed his political opponents with rhetorical questions as to why the opposition CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu does not openly accept that he is an Alevi, why the presidential candidate for the pro-Kurdish HDP party Selahattin Demirtaş does not accept he is a Zaza, a branch of the Kurdish nation using the Zazaki dialect, and why the common candidate for CHP and MHP, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu does not accept that he is an Egyptian.  At a more personal level, Erdoğan’s attempt has been to defame his two opponents: Demirtaş among the Kurds by claiming that he is not even a real Kurd and İhsanoğlu among the secular Kemalist opposition by claiming that he is of a dubious background. Indeed, this renowned, religious-minded and conservative historian, who had been elected the head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, is the son of a dissident figure during the Turkish War of Independence, who hated Atatürk and had to leave Turkey to live the rest of his life in Egypt. The CHP and MHP agreed on this candidate apparently to antagonize Erdoğan’s appeal to his audience’s religiosity.  However, at a more conceptual level, the AKP candidate’s use of sectarian language evokes a principle that while during the 12 years of AKP administration seemed to be an increasingly powerful election strategy, has now become Turkey’s dominant political culture. Although a unitary state, Turkey’s society is a deeply divided one. This is not news to anyone. However, whereas in the past divisions were mostly of an ideological character, right vs. left, Kemalists vs. Islamists, Erdoğan’s social engineering has turned these divisions into sectarian ones, i.e. Sunni vs. Alevis. Kurds are clearly a separate case, since in the past they were not even recognized as a separate population. Yet, after their official recognition by his government, Erdoğan apparently has been using the same strategy to create division even among them. This ‘divide and rule’ policy has turned Turkey into a conglomeration of demographic continents, each continent living in a separate reality and suspecting the others. For the new president of the Turkish Republic dominating over one continent, the majority Sunni population is enough. He addresses them not only as Turks but also as Sunnis, reminding them that he is there for them and that anything his opponents hold against him, corruption, nepotism or authoritarianism, is secondary. He is the leader of the Sunni community who is going to protect them against the inhabitants of the other continents and, of course, the outside world. In other words, Erdoğan has galvanized loyalty relying on religious confession, fear and otherization within the country.

Second instance:  A couple of days later during a live interview, Erdoğan, as he was referring to his political enemies’ attempts to defame him, said that they have accused him of being a Georgian, and ‘even something much uglier than that, I beg your pardon, of being an Armenian’.  Regardless of how promptly his entourage stepped in to explain that he did not mean to insult the Armenians, the language used by someone who aspired to be the president of all Turkish citizens, 70,000 Armenians included, does not leave any doubts. It is not the first time either. Three years ago, again during a live interview, he said something similar apologizing for the use of the term ‘Rum’, the term used for the Greeks of Turkey, as if it were an insult. Whether he really feels that these are such horrible denominations or not, he knows that such language increases his popularity among his audience and taps on their traditional nationalistic emotions, reiterating the most banal and traumatic otherization in Turkish society: the one between Muslims and non-Muslims. This comes precisely on time to dissolve any resentment triggered by his letter of sympathy for the Armenians on April 24th, which was considered by many as a breakthrough in the traditional official policy of denying the Genocide, as well as the superficial impression created by the return of land property and buildings that belonged to non-Muslims and that had been illegally confiscated. After all, many of these properties were immediately sold by the non-Muslim foundations with no little profit to one of the many popular contractors to be transformed to hotels and shopping malls. If one adds the messages conveyed by some of Erdoğan’s talks against Israel during the current war in Gaza, which made the local Jewish population shiver— once, addressing the US, he asked meaningfully : `And what do they know about Hitler?΄ — one gets a full picture of the Republic’s new president’s language of otherization against non-Muslims. Interestingly, considering relations with Greece and Armenia, and even Israel, despite the multiple diplomatic breakdowns, one gets the impression that whatever he says has no other practical result apart from boosting Muslim pride and humiliating the total of less than 100.000 non-Muslims in this country.

Third instance: Three days before he was elected, during a meeting  Erdoğan slammed journalist Amberin Zaman with the words ‘you should know your place, shameless woman’. Zaman, who for fifteen years has been the correspondent for the Economist and writes for the daily Taraf,  in the course of a live interview with Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (one in which other  journalists participated as well), had made a rather casual comment to the effect that in Muslim societies the religious community (cemaat) has priority over the individual, something that has an impact on democracy. Erdoğan’s words were the peak of a lynching campaign that had been launched by the pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak who made a headline out of Zaman’s words. This is not the first time that Erdoğan has personally attacked journalists during pre-elections speeches. Few years ago he had slammed Nuray Mert, saying that ‘she is dishonest’ (namert), playing with her family name which means honest (mert). Mert had noticed that the broad highways the AKP government had built in the Kurdish-populated areas in the southeast did not aim at improving the life of the people but rather at facilitating the movements of the army. Not before too long, Nuray Mert who used to write at Milliyet, formerly the admiralship of Doğan Holding, the only press company that consistently criticizes the government, found herself jobless. Milliyet, in the meantime, was sold to one of Erdoğan’s favorite businessmen Erdoğan Demirören. Since then half a dozen journalists, many among them doyens of journalism in Turkey, have been fired. Their critical comments against Erdoğan have something to do with such decisions. After all, among the scores of audiotapes that were leaked to the internet after the notorious December 17th's corruption operation against individuals related to the government, there was one that became a cult phenomenon in Turkish social media, knnown as ‘Alo Fatih’, and featuring a discussion between the then Prime Minister and the manager of Habertürk Fatih Saraç. The former demanded that they remove from their site a piece of news which described accusations by the opposition leader Devlet Bahçeli against Erdoğan. The answer of the manager was ‘Certainly, Sir’.

This is the legacy of the political language that Prime Minister Erdoğan bequeaths to generations of Turkish citizens who by a majority of 52% elected him to be their new President. After all, the main message of his electoral campaign relied on his depiction as “the man of the nation”. More importantly, there is no doubt that these are snapshots of a new era in a new Turkey where this language will dominate completely and which a large part of its population has confirmed that they are supporting and even enjoying.




  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 16 (08.2014)