A decade full of events that shaped the future of Turkey is being left behind today as both society and politics evolve hand in hand through each substantial development. Since the early 2010s, Turkish society has witnessed a series of political events, from Gezi Park incidents to a bloody coup attempt, from facing a refugee influx to transitioning to a different governing system, all of which not only influenced the evolution of the public but were also produced by the same evolution. Acknowledging this decadelong transformation within both society and politics, experts said that 2019 became the end of an era with its own unique developments, such as the local polls with surprising results, the change in the opposition's rhetoric and the solidarity over the cross-border operations, all of which signaled new dynamics in the socio-politics of Turkey.
Acknowledging that the past 17 years were marked by enhanced freedoms and transformations in the legal and social realms, Nebi Miş, a political analyst for SETA, expressed that despite all of these developments, the country has remained in "turbulence" since 2012.
It has been 17 years since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power. Although the almost two-decade rule of the party has become primarily known for its improvements to the country, especially the increase in wealth, the last few years have been also marked by a series of events that shook the country to the core, leaving a clear mark on both the people and politics.
Miş said this "turbulence" started with the Gezi Park events, which were followed by the Dec. 17-25, 2013 incidents carried out by prosecutors and police members linked to the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) as a unique coup attempt, the Oct. 6-7, 2014 incidents in which PKK terror group supporters took violent actions that killed 31 people, the war of ditches that was, again, initiated by the PKK, and lastly, the July 15, 2016 FETÖ coup attempt.
PKK and FETÖ are two of the terrorist groups that Turkey has been fighting against for years through domestic and cross-border counterterrorism operations.
Underlining that apart from the domestic turbulence, there have also been major definitive events outside of the country, Miş said that the shifts in the global economy, such as moving from a liberal stance to a more nationalist one, as well as the rising xenophobia, have become some of the major issues that affected Turkey's socio-political circumstances.
"Turkey, as a country surrendered by the conflicts, not only prevented war from entering the country but also had to deal with its domestic turbulences," he said, indicating that all these developments caused a shift in the perspective of the public toward the political events that can be clearly referred to as "fatigue."
Istanbul elections signaled change in Turkish politics
Yet, despite all of this "fatigue," in Miş's opinion, the middle class of the country has still, somehow, managed to flourish and increase its demands, a fact that came up in the local polls.
The local elections, especially the do-over polls in Istanbul, were one of the biggest political events of the past year. Millions of Turkish voters cast their votes nationwide on March 31 in local elections to choose mayors, city council members, mukhtars (neighborhood officials), and members of elder councils for the next five years.
On March 31, the turnout was 83.88%, 6 percentage points lower than the previous local elections of March 30, 2014. The results in March were canceled after the AK Party and its coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), appealed to the Supreme Election Council (YSK), citing irregularities and contradictions in legal measures, leading to the annulment of the mayoral certificate of the main opposition Republican People's Party's (CHP) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu, who won with 48.8% of the vote, according to the YSK. As a result, people had to return to the polls once again in July to revote for the Istanbul candidates.
"With the renewed Istanbul elections, we have learned that the feeling of being victimized has emerged within society and that one should never obstinate with the public," said Adil Gür, A&G Research Company's general manager.
"The people are against an intervention into the elections, even an indirect one," he added.
In the do-over elections, İmamoğlu received 54.03% of the vote while his opponent, People's Alliance candidate Binali Yıldırım, received 45.09%.
Recalling that in the renewed elections, there was a difference of 800,000 votes between the candidates, Gür listed two main reasons behind such a difference.
"The main reasons were, first, to not yield to the public, and second, the statements coming from (PKK leader Abdullah) Öcalan's brother a couple of days before the elections," Gür said, referring to Öcalan's call for Kurdish voters to not support the opposition parties. According to Gür, the statement stirred resentment among nationalist, conservative circles, which lead to the change in the votes in districts like Fatih and Beykoz, where the voters are mostly known for their conservative tendencies.
The vote difference between the two candidates was 777,581, significantly higher than the 13,729 announced after the March 31 elections. İmamoğlu led the race in 28 out of Istanbul's 39 districts, greatly improving from the 16 districts he won in the canceled elections. İmamoğlu increased his votes by nearly 530,000 compared to the previous election, while Yıldırım shed 235,000.
"The renewal of the (Istanbul) elections added even more drama to the already dramatic events," said Ahmet Kasım Han, a professor at Altınbaş University, referring to the complex nature of Turkish politics.In Han's opinion, the Istanbul elections had one major result: it ended all the discussions about the trustworthiness of elections in Turkey."It proved that all the previous arguments about the reliability of the many previous elections were pointless. It has been revealed that all these elections were actually taking place in a healthy environment in the way they should be handled," Han explained.
Competition came back to politics
"A new perception toward the AK Party has emerged and been fueled by the opposition, especially by making a political tool out of economic developments," Miş stated, adding that opposition parties achieved success in the polls thanks to a consolidation of various groups based on an anti-AK Party stance rather than the success of a singular party. Still, he underlined that although the opposition parties may seem to have gained success in Turkey's major cities, it is crucial to remember that when it comes to the overall results, the AK Party received almost 50% of the votes.
Miş further underlined that the opposition has finally figured out the tactics of the ruling party that have led it to win elections over and over again, which can be seen in the shift in the opposition's campaign rhetoric.
Another important result of the Istanbul elections, according to Han, was the emergence of the idea that the opposition parties also have a chance if they follow the right path."We have seen that if the opposition pursues proper policies with proper candidates, there can be competitive politics in Turkey," he stated, adding that the motivation of the opposition parties also increased as a result of the polls. Han further expressed that the "frustration" the supporters of the opposition parties have been feeling for quite some time has also been reduced, which decreased the level of polarization within the country."The claims regarding polarization being on the rise in the country have mostly been eliminated," he highlighted, adding that this is an important step for the continuation of the social contract.
The 2019 local elections became a scene for the CHP to make a shift in its tone as a leftist party. The first move of the party was to show candidates coming from moderate, and even rightist, circles in provinces like Istanbul and Ankara with an attempt to grab the vote of a wider group. The party has also partnered with political parties with strong conservative and/or nationalist values, such as the Good Party (IP) and the Felicity Party (SP). All of these changes shifted the party's overall discourse and put it into a more moderate line. The party also did not focus on anti-Erdoğan rhetoric as it used to, but instead, focused its attention on issues such as the economy.
"Losing elections over and over again forces the opposition parties to shift their rhetoric," Miş said. However, in his opinion, this was not the only reason behind the change in the opposition's political discourse, as the transition to a presidential system has also been quite influential.
On June 24, 2018, Turkey officially switched its administrative structure through an election and embraced the presidential system, leaving the parliamentary system behind. Although it was a new system for the country and there was ambiguity among the public regarding how it would function exactly, the government, especially the AK Party and Erdoğan, dedicated the whole of 2019 to the explanation of the benefits of the system and became quite successful in it.
"The new system requires parties to receive more than 50% of the vote to become the ruling party, which means that the political parties now have to grasp more moderate stances that would address larger sections of the society," he said, indicating that the opposition realized this new necessity and evolved itself in accordance with that.
Miş emphasized that now, there is a difference emerging between the central ruling party and some of the local ruling parties, which means that the opposition parties will finally be able to be tested by the public.
"The test for the opposition parties starts now. They will no longer be able to make politics as the opposition as they were before (now that they have won major provinces). Now, the people will be able to see them and evaluate their performance," he said.
More prosperity brings more demands
The AK Party era has been marked with changes in the economy, from structural reforms to the privatization process, as well as major innovations in sectors such as energy and communication. Thanks to these reforms, poverty has been reduced remarkably in the country. As a result, according to the World Bank data, Turkey is currently the 18th largest economy in the world. It is also an active member of the G20. Turkey's economy has always been an integral part of the global system; however, in the last couple of years, the Turkish lira has been heavily affected by global economic developments, combined with the crisis surrounding the country, causing a shock to the country's economy.
Regarding the improvements in Turkey's social and economic standards, Gür said that the country's situation before the AK Party government is well known, referring to the difficulties of the previous era.
"The ones who are under 35 years old do not remember the difficult days of the country. These young people have been born and raised in the AK Party era," Gür said, indicating that the ones who were born in 2000 voted in the latest local elections, which also affected the election results.
Another crucial mark of the AK Party era is the rapid urbanization which has been accelerated with domestic migration from smaller provinces to the bigger ones. Between 2007-2018, a total of 27,906,368 people migrated domestically, mostly toward provinces such as Istanbul, Ankara, Adana and Gaziantep. The urbanization was also fueled by economic developments. Today, 75% of Turkey is urbanized, compared to only 25% in 1950.
This rapid urbanization and economic developments led to the emergence of a large, strong middle class in Turkey, which consists of families that own personal commodities such as houses and cars, as well as having high education levels. As the conditions of this large middle class improved, their demands from the country's governance also shifted accordingly.
In Gür's opinion, human nature necessitates people to want more no matter how much they receive and thus the expectations increase every day.
"The wealth conditions have been improved, this is true. However, people quickly get used to the new conditions and thus demand more," he said.
Giving an example, Gür expressed that whereas people were previously demanding clean roads free from garbage, they now want to have socio-cultural influence since the roads are clean.
Turkey has a population of more than 82 million, 67.8% of which is the working-age population between the age of 15-64. This young and dynamic population has been heavily involved in educational activities in recent years, as the government supports higher education by increasing the number of universities across the country and removing the tuition fees from all state universities. Currently, there are 130 state universities and 72 foundation universities in Turkey, enabling every province in the country to have a university of its own. In just one year, about 8 million students have attended these universities.
Youth do not remember difficult past
Gür said the younger Turkish population "suppose that nothing has changed since they were born. They assume that the country has always been like this." According to Gür's research on the issue, people admit when asked that the wealth conditions have improved during the AK Party era. However, they also express that their conditions were better two or three years ago, which can be interpreted as the result of higher expectations.
Despite all the aforementioned discrepancies, the society has found a middle ground when it comes to issues related to the national interests, as almost all segments of society have taken a positive stance toward siding with their country against any threats.
As far as the people's solidarity is concerned, Gür said that when it comes to the issues of national security and pride, the ideological differences disappear and everyone unites over one cause.
"Not only when it comes to Syria but also as far as the topics such as developments in the Eastern Mediterranean and the purchase of S-400 missiles are concerned, there are no more leftists or rightists in the country. Everyone unites," he underlined, indicating that when it comes to national interest-related topics, the public polls usually show 80% support. Everything related to the improvement of the country as a whole receives support from people in all circles, he said.
"I have never had any doubts about Turkish society's ability to unite on issues of national importance. So, it is not news to me (to see that people are united about these operations)," Han said on the issue.Touching upon some qualities of Turkish society, such as a cultural consciousness as well as a long state tradition, Han emphasized that these qualities trigger the society to act in solidarity.
"If this solidarity was lacking, it would be alarming for our society," he said, indicating, however, it should be acknowledged that being united does not mean every sect of society has the same motivations."Yes, society as a whole supported these political moves. Yet, different societal groups had different motivations for lending their support," Han said.
According to Miş, with all these developments, a new political sphere has emerged in Turkey alongside a new sociology.
Reminding that this is the end of a long decade, Miş said that he expects 2020 to be the beginning of a period that will see both societal and political recovery.