Interview with Prof. Dr. Tarık Şengül on May 14 elections: The fall of Erdoğan started with Gezi protests
Chairman of the Political Sciences and Public Administration Department of Middle East Technical University (METU) Prof. Dr. Tarık Şengül, answered questions of BirGün analysing the socio-political situation of Turkey before the May 14 elections.
May 14 could be a historic turning point for Turkey. Just 2 days before the May 14 elections, Prof. Dr. Tarık Şengül from METU, answered questions of Doğan Tılıç.
- The polls and many analysts and international media consider President Erdogan's defeat as certain. Do you think they are generating an expectation that does not correspond to the real prospect?
First of all, there is an issue that needs to be clarified. The political atmosphere that has dominated Turkey for a while makes it difficult for people to openly voice their political party preferences. That's why it's not easy to trust opinion polls that ask about political preferences.
Having said this, however, it is beyond any doubt that AKP and Erdoğan have been anxious regarding the election outcome. Actually, this has been the case after the last local election which ended with a massive defeat for Erdogan as AKP lost İstanbul and other major cities to RPP. Actually, decline of AKP has started with the Gezi Protest which showed that AKP and Erdoğan are not as strong as once it is assumed. So it would not be a surprise if Erdoğan would lose to Kılıçdaroğlu on Sunday. If the result is other way around, one would have to explain this result with the failure of the opposition rather than the success of Erdoğan.
- The polarization of Turkish society has been on the rise since 10 years ago, when it became clearly evident with the Gezi protests. What do you think is the main element of division in society: right-left, rural-urban, secularism-religiosity? Or are all these factors indivisibly linked?
Turkey is a country divided along many fault lines. However, there are important differences between the objective determination and working of fault lines and the subjective dimension that indicates how they are perceived by the society. Economic inequalities which point to class dynamics have grown much more recently. But there are other fault lines as well. There are also new ones like the one built around refugee question. Historically, religious-secular division and ethnic identity have been highly strong fault lines at social and political levels. You can objectively identify those identity-based polarizations. However how for instance voters at the moment perceive them is a different matter.
The electorate is not homogeneous. Let's look at the voters who will vote for the opposition. Voters clustered around different opposition parties highlights different fault lines in their perceptions of the AKP. For CHP voters, this is more like the destruction of secularism by AKP. For HDP voters, the problem becomes clear as AKP’s negativity towards the Kurdish issue. İYİ Party voters hold the AKP responsible for misusing nationalism and sometimes religious values. Perhaps the only common theme which brings these people together is the pilling up economic problems. Interestingly this issue has been taken hardly a class issue. Rather, it is associated with the increasing corruption and one-man regime pointing to Erdoğan himself.
- Do you see the creation of two large blocs of parties contesting the elections as a clear sign of this division?
I think what brings this diverse parties together around Millet İttifakı is exactly this last issue. Almost all of them including their social base believe that one man regime is the one to blame at whatever goes wrong in Turkey. That's why the cementing priority for all parties is to put an end to Erdoğan and AKP rule. It is believed that when this is achieved, all other problems will either disappear or become solvable in the future.
- Especially in the opposition alliance, there are internal ideological divisions, and the main element of cohesion is the opposition to Erdogan. Do you see the collaboration of these parties continuing after the elections in the form of a coalition government with ministers from various forces? Or the divisions are so deep that could make it difficult to keep a stable government program?
There are two internal problems that await the Nation Alliance parties if they win the election. The first is how they will share ministries. The second problem is more structural in nature. It is unclear how they will overcome the problems arising from the different definition of fault lines. But an even deeper problem is how to solve economic problems. As I mentioned before it is believed that economic problems are outcome of the one-man regime. No one emphasizes that neoliberal economic framework is itself a problem. Rather, opposition declares to work closely with the centers that formulate those policies.
A future like this wouldn't surprise me. When the accumulated problems in the economy remain unresolved, it is quite possible that the problems I mentioned at the beginning will also come to the surface. The government's power sharing and the ideological priorities of the parties in the government will cause things to go even worse at the point where things went wrong. On the other hand, when you bring up such a point today, let me tell you the answer you will get right away. "Let's get rid of this Erdogan regime first, and then we'll think about all this".
- If I am not wrong, Erdogan and AKP won all elections (except june 2015) with absolute majority from 2002 to 2015. Erdogan won the presidential referendum in 2017 and presidential elections in 2014 and 2018. Now, he may face his first defeat. Some analysts consider 2013 and the Gezi protest marked the beginning of Erdogan's decline. Do you agree?
In the last 10 years, three important developments have had an important role in the (relative) decline of Erdoğan and AKP. Externally, the Gezi resistance showed that the AKP is not as strong as it was thought and can be defeated. The second was the AKP-Gulen split, which can be considered an internal crack. We can say that these two different developments have seriously weakened the AKP and showed its effect in the elections in June 2015. After a partial recovery in November 2015 elections, the third blow AKP received was the defeat of Erdoğan in the local elections in Istanbul. Because the AKP itself said that” who rules Istanbul would rule Turkey”. Istanbul defeat in the local election left a deep wound in Erdogan's charismatic leadership. That is why Ekrem İmamoğlu is not simply perceived by the masses as the mayor of Istanbul but a national leader in waiting.
- Which are the main factors that can mark these elections and how people vote? The economic situation? The uneasiness about the management of the earthquake? The weariness of part of the population after 20 years of AKP governments?
- Do you think the growing oppression or authoritarianism (freedom of press and opinion, control of Universities, lack of independence of Justice? Are these topics that can move a majority of the population to vote against Erdogan? Or is the economic situation the main drive behind how people vote?
As I mentioned, all these problems affect the voting behavior of the people. However, at the end of the day, all the negativities are attributed to Erdogan and his desire to rule as one man. The Erdogan/One-man regime has somehow become an (empty) signifier of all other problems. The increasing authoritarianism, the negativities in the field of law, the increase in cost of housing, rents and food prices and the great destruction experienced in the earthquake are all due to the same reason. One-man mode! This currently represents the common feeling among those who want a change in power.
- Do you think there is a risk that, in the event of a narrow loss in the presidential election, President Erdogan could challenge the election result and provoke a rerun, like in the Istanbul elections?
It happened in Istanbul. The closeness of the votes between the two parties allowed to this decision to rerun. So this is a possibility now if there will be a small margin in favour of opposition. However, Istanbul was a local election. A repetition of an election at the national level may become a little more controversial.
- Is there a risk that the transition of power will not be completely peaceful, as was seen in the United States or Brazil?
Isn't it bad enough that this question even comes to mind?