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Populism Through Uprooted Truths

The resiliency of Erdogan and the AKP, Part II

In part one of this paper, I elaborated the conditions for Erdoğan’s and the Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s successes in Turkey. I adopted Arendt’s discussion of the degradation of factual truth into opinion in modern societies and defined post-truth politics as based on a floating political space where the factual truths are admixed with nontruths, lies, and opinions. In this paper, I define and show how what I call “uprooter rhetoric” sustains this floating political space in the case of Erdoğan and the AKP, creating the necessary conditions for their constantly shifting alliances and explaining their resiliency since 2002. It is this adaptation to post-truth politics that explains their resiliency since 2002. Below I outline specific events that demonstrate this phenomenon.

The AKP’s and Erdoğan’s rule in Turkey since 2002 can be understood as three different periods: (1) From their first electoral win in November 2002 until the Gezi Park protests in late May 2013; (2) from the brutal oppression of the peaceful Gezi Park protests in June 2013 until June 2015 general elections; and (3) from the beginning of the PKK’s uprising in the Southeastern Turkey in July 2015 until today. For each period, I will briefly describe their allies, enemies, populist discourse, ideology and uprooter rhetoric that most clearly represent the interplay between the floating political space of uprooted truths and the resilience of Erdoğan and the AKP that helped them to prevail by establishing diverse alliances. As I am specifically interested in the relationship between uprooter rhetoric, post-truth politics, and the party’s resiliency, some of the allies and enemies that I describe for certain periods may overemphasize or exclude some groups which, I think, do not play a significant role in this particular phenomenon. The same is true for populist discourse, ideology and uprooter rhetoric for each period. The most salient feature of each period is that that a significant break occurs, usually following a single event, which transformed and reshaped the Erdoğan’s and his party’s allies, enemies, populist discourse, ideology and uprooter rhetoric.

Before engaging in outlining specific events that occurred during the AKP’s rule, here I will define the phenomenon of “uprooter rhetoric.” Uprooter rhetoric is a discursive mechanism which is used by contemporary populist movements, governments and parties in order to create a floating political space in which the factual truths, nontruths, lies and opinions are admixed and no longer distinguishable. It attempts to delegitimize the value, sense and effect of the factual truths over wide-society by not attacking the truthfulness of such claims, but rather by rendering the search for truth meaningless and irrelevant. This is done by populist governments through proposing fake or irrelevant agendas in order to stop the discussion and distract wide-society with other things, benefiting from true or false historical examples in order to reveal that their opponents’ claims of factual truth should be considered as illegitimate or arguing that those factual truths are biased as they are proposed by liars, traitors or ‘public enemies’. It is a dynamic and fluid mechanism which is adopted by populist governments in order to not only sustain their movement’s momentum and their supporters’ belonging to certain causes, but also constantly divide and destroy new possibilities for opposition regroupings by their adversaries. Therefore, populist governments do not have a single uprooter rhetoric throughout their rule, but rather their uprooter rhetoric is transformed in order to find new ways of dividing their opponents and consolidating their movements’ momentum. This rhetoric constitutes the basis of contemporary populist resilience that allows populist governments to rule their countries against various internal and external challenges. Here, I will show how it has been used by the AKP since 2002 in order to sustain their rule.

Good old days(!): November 2002 – May 2013

The first ten years or so of the AKP government are often characterized as liberal, pluralist and western-oriented. Those years saw the supremacy of ‘political Islam’, which was also conceived as an alternative form of ideology during the Arab Spring for other Muslim majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa. According to this approach, the AKP showed that Islam and democracy could be reconciled in a western liberal way. Individual liberties and religious freedoms were increasingly being respected and sustained in Turkey (e.g. the headscarf debate during late 2000s). Yet, I think that this liberal understanding of the period is very misleading. Today it is told and retold by the AKP’s old allies — liberals, Gülenists, and Western countries (i.e. the US, Germany, France etc.) — as a form of excuse for collaborating with the AKP during those years. What brought all these groups together was the AKP’s populist politics against Kemalists, seculars and political and military élites, who represent the previous establishment. This populist alliance could be established particularly because they all hated this previous Kemalist establishment. It was most visible during the 2010 referendum, which completely handed the judicial system to the AKP and their allies, who at the time were the Gülenists. The AKP’s and their allies’ populist discourse ‘it’s not enough, but yes!’ (yetmez ama evet!) was chanted all around the country during the referendum campaign as a way of coming to terms with the ‘Kemalist, anti-democratic, elitist past.’ It was not enough because there were lots more to do in order to punish and control the old establishment. They said yes because this could, according to them, for the first time create a democratic and pluralist country.

During this period, the opponents against this ‘democratic, pluralist and liberal’ political Islam movement were stigmatized as coup plotters and military supporters. Show trials called Ergenekon and Balyoz were used to silence all opponents for years. Among the victims of this rhetoric, there were military generals and officials — including the former chief of the General Staff İlker Başbuğ — journalists (Ahmet Şık, Nedim Şener etc.), NGOs and civil society groups and leaders (Türkan Saylan, Tuncay Özkan etc.). Groundless nonfactual charges by ‘secret witnesses’ prevailed. The populist alliance could succeed by denouncing all these social and political actors through their uprooter rhetoric: they are all coup plotters! It was no longer possible to distinguish the factual truth from nontruths, lies and opinions. One did not need to present facts in order to show that they were coup plotters. The military and Kemalist élite had long had this tradition of ‘controlling democracy’ as a Kemalist principle. Thus, whoever wanted to bring about democracy and freedom should have stood against this Kemalist élite. This silence vis-à-vis nonfactual charges was even the case for those who were not part of this alliance, and in fact against this alliance. This populist ‘witch hunt’ left thousands of individuals incarcerated, unemployed and dead. This was made possible by the floating political space of uprooted truths that was created and sustained by the interplay between their uprooter rhetoric and populist discourse during those years. Therefore, at some point the parts of this alliance might have thought that ‘we have cleansed Turkey from these anti-democratic parasites for good.’ They were constantly congratulating the AKP and each other for solving the century-long problems of Turkish democracy. Yet, they were soon to be disillusioned. The disillusionment was first revealed by the urban youth of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. They had been teenagers during these ‘good old days.’ As they grew up, they had a single worry about their future: the authoritarian Islamism of the-then Prime Minister Erdoğan.

Beginning of the disillusionment: June 2013 – June 2015

Yes, the issue was not ‘three or five trees’, as the-then Prime Minister Erdoğan rightly said. It was the increasingly authoritarian one-man rule that pushed, according to the Interior Ministry, more than three million people to the streets all around the country. These individuals, mostly urban youth, experienced first-hand how the secular roots of Turkish society were being destroyed by the populist alliance of the AKP, Gülenists and Western countries. They were being told what to drink (obviously not alcohol) and wear (no miniskirts), whom to live with (girls and boys should not live together according to the-then Prime Minister Erdoğan) and that the founders of their country were all drunkards (meaning the first President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his Prime Minister Ismet Inönü). They also had seen that their cities were turning into ‘concrete’ due to urban development projects of the AKP and their newly formed ‘pious Muslim business elite.’ They had nowhere to breathe anymore. When they took to the streets on May 31, 2013 to protest the project of building a shopping mall at the Gezi Park in Taksim Square two slogans were very prominent: ‘we are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal!’ (Mustafa Kemal’in askerleriyiz!), and ‘everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance!’ ( her yer Taksim, her yer direniş!).

The response by the ‘liberal, pluralist and democratic’ AKP government was brutal. A wave of police terror, to whom the-then Prime Minister Erdoğan proudly said he ‘gave all orders’, resulted in several casualties and thousands of injuries. The populist alliance started to break. Western countries and Gülenists were slowly leaving the alliance by denouncing the police violence and increasing authoritarianism of the AKP. Yet, the AKP found a way to sustain their rule: continuing the ‘peace process’ with the PKK, which they had started a couple of years before, and even escalating it. This helped them to collaborate with Kurdish nationalists, who although were present in the Gezi park protests in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, refrained from organizing significant protests in Kurdish majority Southeastern cities. By this move, the AKP could also retain some liberals and Western countries on their side by showing that they were still committed to the democratization of Turkey. They stigmatized the protesters as ‘only three or five looters’ (sadece üç-beş çapulcu) and tried to show that democratization process was well under way. This alliance between Kurdish nationalists and the AKP was at its peak on February 28, 2015 when the HDP officials and the AKP officials read on livestream ‘the Dolmabahçe agreement’ that announced the reconciliation between the PKK and the AKP to stop the decades long armed-conflict.

Old enemies, so-called coup plotters, were pardoned and all charges against them were dismissed after the break of the previous alliance between the AKP, liberals, Gülenists and Western countries. Now the enemies were Gezi protesters – or Çapulcu as Erdoğan called them -, ‘the interest lobby’ which tried to harm Turkish economy and Gülenists who revealed the mafia type corruption organization of the AKP officials, including several ministers and Erdoğan himself. The government became increasingly authoritarian. Authoritarian Islamism replaced political Islam. What these ‘new parasites’ were doing was to ‘sabotage our unity, peace and prosperity.’ They did not want to stop the war with the PKK and ‘the cries of mothers.’ This became the new uprooter rhetoric of the AKP government. There was no direct denial of police violence or corruption charges against them. In fact, this indifference vis-à-vis such charges is what distinguishes the new era of populist post-truth politics from previous authoritarian and totalitarian examples. Yes, in some cases populist politics still uses lies and nontruths to confront factual truths. Yet what is most important to succeed in this new era is that populist politicians and parties uproot the factual truths from their ground and create a floating political space such that the search for the factual truth is no longer relevant. They are confounded with nontruths, opinions and lies. Their aim is not removing all factual truths from the political space as it was the case in the 20th century’s totalitarian regimes. They rather uproot them in order to create a regime of total confusion. Therefore, it is not very surprising that one AKP officer, rather than denying corruption allegations, said that ‘revealing corruption is against the freedom of committing sin.’ The AKP claims to be conducting the democratization and peace processes, that is giving a voice to the people and solving the decades long Kurdish issue; then one does not need to focus on the subtle differences between factual truths, nontruths, opinions and lies. What we need, they claim, is peace and unity, and whoever opposes this should not be tolerated. By calling everyone who raises these issues saboteurs of the unity, peace and prosperity of the country, the AKP uprooted the factual truths again in a successful way. The important thing was to stay united and together, not to unearth inimical corruption or police violence charges by exposing factual truths. Thus, the AKP, with the help of their previous and current allies, created a political space in which opposition could be silenced as sabotagers of the democratization process. This alliance between the AKP, Kurdish nationalists, some Western countries and a few liberals, including scholars, lasted until June 2015 general elections. It was no longer sustainable as President Erdoğan saw that it did not bring him the victory he thought would change the political system of the country. The only way to remain in power was war and chaos. The PKK gave him both.

Total breakdown: July 2015 – Today

The June 7, 2015 general elections were a turning-point for Turkish democracy. On the one hand, the AKP, despite having the highest share of votes, did not have the necessary majority to establish a government. On the other hand, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the Kurdish nationalist party, surpassed the 10% threshold and entered the parliament with eighty MPs – more than the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the Turkish nationalist party. This was totally unacceptable for President Erdoğan. He was the architect of the peace process, but its benefactors were Kurdish nationalists. For the first time his party could have lost the government and fallen to the opposition. Yet, he also knew that the other three parties in the parliament – the Republican People’s Party (CHP) – secularist left-wing party -, the HDP and the MHP – could never form a coalition government. Turkish and Kurdish nationalists affirmed this by constantly expressing that they would never support a coalition government in which the other side was present. Political chaos ensued, at the end of which President Erdoğan called for another election in November. This time, his party got the majority. The reason for that, aside from the political chaos, was the Kurdish insurgency in the Southeastern Turkey.

It is still unclear why the war between the Turkish government and the PKK started out of the blue. Both sides have blamed each other. What is important is that this provided President Erdoğan an incredible chance for consolidating his power. He could now turn to Turkish nationalists and say, ‘look, we are cleansing all terrorists within and outside of our borders.’ Authoritarian Islamism was replaced by nationalist authoritarian Islamism. Now the enemies are Kurdish nationalists, who are secessionists, liberals, scholars, journalists etc., who openly condemned the military violence in the Southeastern Turkey, Gülenists who made a coup attempt on July 15, 2016 and most importantly Western countries which are behind all these attacks against Turkey. Their populist discourse is now totally nationalist: ‘the issue is not Erdoğan, target is Turkey, Turkish nation! (Mesele Erdoğan değil; hedef Türkiye, Türk milleti !). They found an ally in Russia which was more than delighted to take Turkey out of the Western camp. This move from West to East completed their new populist alliance: the AKP, Turkish nationalists and Russia.

Now the uprooter rhetoric is that Western countries ‘envy our success – such as building a 3rd bridge on the Bosphorus, a 3rd airport in Istanbul etc. -, and threaten our nation.’ It creates a very dynamic nationalist-Islamist movement which is constantly sustained by the state of emergency at home and war abroad, that is in Northern Syria. For instance, President Erdoğan uses this constant state of war with Syrian Kurds by even involving children in his populist discourse. On February 24, 2018 he invited a six-year old girl in military uniform on the scene and explained the reason why she carries a Turkish flag in her military uniform: in order to be covered when she falls a martyr. In a nationalist Islamist discourse, this rhetoric is not abnormal. Inflaming nationalist and Islamist feelings and emotions through whatever means is fundamental for the success of this discourse. Moreover, this new regime of confusion should be sustained by this constant military operations abroad and antagonization at home. But, most importantly this new rhetoric helps to uproot the factual truths and confounds them again with nontruths, lies and opinions. It renders the search for truth meaningless. The discussions about the real perpetrators of the failed coup attempt or the real threat that Kurdish forces in Northern Syria constitute become irrelevant. According to this nationalist Islamist discourse, no one should have any doubt about these. Looking for factual truths is meaningless. What is the issue if President Erdogan knew beforehand that Gülenists would make a coup that night? Does that nullify the Western threat? What remains important is that Turkish nation is under threat. This threat emanates from Western countries who occasionally use Gülenists and Kurdish nationalists in order to stop the development of Turkey. The nation should stand together and show its grandeur, according to this ideology. Otherwise, Western countries will destroy the nation and enslave it as they previously did a century earlier to the Ottoman Empire. It is this demonization of Western countries that creates the floating political space of the uprooted truths. One should either support his/her government which ‘fights the infidel’ or be a traitor.

The AKP’s changing allies, enemies, populist discourse, ideology and ‘uprooter’ rhetoric since 2002 .

Allies

Enemies

Populist Discourse

Ideology

Uprooter Rhetoric

Good old days(!): November 2002 – May 2013

 Liberals

Gülenists

Western countries

  Kemalists

Seculars

Political       and               military        élites

It’s not enough, but yes! (Yetmez ama evet!)

Political Islam

Coup plotters (Ergenekonand Balyoz)

Beginning of the disillusionment: June 2013 – June 2015

  Kurdish nationalists

Some liberals

Some Western countries

  Gezi protesters (çapulcu)

‘Interest         lobby’

Some Gülenists

They are only three or five çapulcu! (Sadece üç-beş çapulcu!)

Authoritarian Islamism

Sabotaging our unity, peace and prosperity

Total breakdown: July 2015 – Today

 Turkish nationalists

 

Russia

 Kurdish nationalists

Gülenists

Liberals

Western countries

The issue is not Erdoğan; the target is Turkey, Turkish nation! (Mesele Erdoğan değil; hedef Türkiye, Türk milleti !)

Nationalist authoritarian Islamism

Envied and threatened by Western countries

The success of this post-truth politics so far is incredible. Yet, the AKP will probably at some point adopt a new uprooter rhetoric. They will do this due to changing conditions and circumstances or unexpected events of upcoming days which would necessitate reorganizing and redefining their allies, enemies, populist discourse and ideology, as they did before first in June 2013 and later in July 2015. This process will go ad infinitum until their opponents find a way to re-root the factual truths on firm and transparent bases without ever confounding them with nontruths, lies and opinions. Only then they may have a chance to attract popular support for a kind of democratic transition. ‘Whom and how to do this’ can be the question of the century for Turkish democracy.

 

Can Mert Kökerer is a masters student in sociology at NSSR.

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