Setback for populism in Turkey

Sheila Osmanovic on Erdogan’s Ottomisation programme, repression of dissent and an opposition victory

We are driving early at 4.30 am on a warm, damp April dawn on the empty Istanbul motorway route that takes us to the new state-of-the-art airport. We are welcomed by a grandiose, four-minaret mosque glamorously pitched right at the fore front approach to the glittering lights spreading miles behind it. Spaced at a massive 15.5 million square feet lies the world’s largest New Istanbul airport, a truly amazing superstructure. As we approach, large posters appear everywhere: side by side portraits of Ataturk (founder of modern Turkey) were those of Erdogan, a great novelty to whoever is acquainted with Turkish political iconoclasm.

The aim is clear: Erdogan is not content just to be the man worthy of praise for the new airport – he aspires to become the only other Turkish president that may have his framed photo on Turkish official walls. Erdogan is reported to have revived the Turkish tulip Festival held in the refurbished Ottoman parks and Palaces all over Istanbul, as well as commercially breeding the native Turkish tulip again after 125 years. He takes further credit for rebuilding long forgotten museums, archives, hammams, mosques, gardens, palaces, beaches, promenades as well as fabulous road infrastructures and a very efficient public transport system all around the country.

The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has been overwhelmingly sponsoring the Ottoman revival not only in Turkey but also in the Balkans and Central Asia, even in Cuba by building the ever first mosque there. Erdogan’s favourite Ottoman sultan is Abdulhamid II – the Sultan most hated in Western realms for his Pan-Islamistic Renaissance, restoration of the Halifat and the famous motivational comments that led the Ottomans to the 1915 Gallipoli victory, which every Turk considers an ultimate patriotic milestone that saved the land from the Western Imperialists.

Hence, AK Party promotes the general populist thesis that external forces are working to tear Turkey apart now as they tried to a century ago. This belief, which is not undocumented in the history records, runs deep to the point that the undemocratic cancellations of regional elections were not met with widespread street opposition. The aversion to Western Imperialism runs deep, so when the Government brutally attacks the Kurds in Idlib, violently crushes free speech and stifles democracy through persecutions of journalists, writers and academics, the public is complacent and some members of the opposition complicit.

But, hot on the heels of the recent jailing of 240 people as alleged traitors in the failed coup, Erdogan suffered a heavy blow. His AK Party incumbent lost the rerun mayoral election in Istanbul. Erdogan had urged the re-election confident of victory. The decisive win by Ekrem İmamoğlu, the Republican People’s Party (CHP)’s Kurd Alevi mayoral candidate defied accusations he was a tool of traitors to win through with 54% of the vote. This is the first major setback for the populist leader in almost two decades. How it will play out for the regime over the next period is uncertain.

AK Party supporters maintain the narrative that Turkish stability is under attack from inside and outside the country. Most of the Turkish population acquiesce in the allegations of the Western support to ‘terrorist’ organisations such as the traditional Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the newer Gullen Movement, or in Turkish transcription ‘Fetullah Terrorist Organization’ (FETÖ), in seeking to undermine Turkish independence. Likewise, the recent failed coups are seen as Western efforts to destabilise Turkey, establish a Kurdish state in Anatolia, divide Syria and Iraq and open the Turkey front to wage another regional war to rob the people of their resources.

The AK Party government faces ongoing controversy over the economy and the defence industry. Erdogan is drawing on internal borrowing, a low savings rate, a reduction in government expenditure with a focus on value-added areas to increase the country’s export volume and long-term production capacity to create two million new jobs by 2021. In the defence strategy, Turkey cut a deal with Russia to purchase advanced S-400 missiles, cancelling the USA F-35 warplane programme. The United States administration criticised Turkey and demanded it sides with NATO and cancels its deal with Russia. This strategy is also facilitating the opposition to side with the Government so that Devlet Bahceli, head of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), praised the Government over the “done deal” for Turkey. The rising tide of global populism seems to have seeped into daily Turkish politics, deeply dividing the country.

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