The post-Kemalist consensus in Turkey

Published 07.07.2014 00:46

With Prime Minister Erdoğan looking at a first-round victory in the upcoming presidential race and no end of the AK Party rule in sight, Turkey’s secularists grapple with political disempowerment and a deepening crisis of faith in electoral democracy

The prolonged (and admittedly nerve-wrecking) wait for the presidential contenders in Turkey came to an end last week as the ruling AK Party officially nominated Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for president. Earlier, a number of opposition parties including the Republican People's Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) had co-sponsored a presidential bid by Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, a conservative academic who served as Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) from 2004 until a few months ago.

Meanwhile, the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) endorsed co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş. Just one month of the historic vote, pollsters report that Erdoğan leads İhsanoğlu by a comfortable margin ranging from 12 points (pro-opposition SONAR) and 19 points (pro-government GENAR) and project a first-round win for the Prime Minister. The three-way contest for the presidency, which features two conservatives and a Kurd, effectively declares the end of an era in Turkish politics as the country's secularists, who have been eagerly counting the days to the government's downfall at least since last year's Gezi Park protests, face a deepening crisis of faith in electoral democracy with nothing to do but sit on the sidelines.

"Things will never be the same" was the most popular motto in the impromptu tent city at Gezi Park in Istanbul's downtown area just a year ago, but a presidential election pitting conservatives and Kurds against each other was hardly what they had in mind. Surely enough, a multitude of groups with competing agendas took to the streets during the Gezi Park protests, but what arguably the most interesting aspect of the revolts was that they marked the first time that the secularist anger, which had been building up over the years with each election defeat along the way, manifested itself in clear daylight. Although the CHP leadership paid lip service to the people's struggle for freedom at public events and Parliament speeches, opposition figures quickly turned away from the urban youth to go back to "business as usual" and rub shoulders with the movers and shakers in the Turkish capital's backrooms as secularists continued to complain in coffeehouses and bars about the opposition signing free agents to run on their behalf in key mayoral races in the March 30 local elections and finally picking a known Islamist over secularist figures as their presidential candidate. On Aug. 10, when Erdoğan will ostensibly score a big win, the opposition leadership will have a few questions to answer.

The 2014 presidential vote, however, has a broader meaning for the nation as it coincides with the prospect of bringing the PKK's violent campaign to an end. Together, the conservatives and the Kurds have the potential to form Turkey's post-Kemalist consensus and dominate national politics for years to come. Having failed to make their peace with the Republic's victims in due time, the secularists remain both unwilling and unable to engage the emerging order at home and in the broader Middle East. The secularist anger, which we witnessed during the Gezi Park protests and in the faces of armed militia on the streets of Okmeydanı, will grow each passing year and possibly emerge as the greatest threat to Turkish democracy – a risk that the new order's masterminds must address through electoral reform and allocating greater power to local governments.

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