The Turkish original of this article was published as AK Parti, tek adam ve Erdoğan olgusu on 5th September 2015.
The notion that “President Erdoğan lies at the root of all problems” has become an ingrained reflex for a significant section of society. Faced with any undesirable development, they revert automatically to “holding the president responsible” for whatever they regard as having gone wrong. It can’t be denied that Tayyip Erdoğan’s way of doing politics and leadership style has also contributed to this outcome.
A fundamental reason why things have got to this point is the tradition of strong leadership in our political culture. The Election Law, the Law on Political Parties, and various other bits and pieces of legislation all combine to create suitable grounds for a one-man cult to flourish, to which our society-wide culture also makes its contribution.
But all this is not quite enough to explain what has come to pass. How have we arrived at a point where “nothing can be explained except by reference to Erdoğan” — where he is even dragged into talk about failure in international football?
An old tradition
This sort of mental outlook is not entirely new. A similar atmosphere had also arisen in the Menderes, Demirel or Özal eras. Menderes in particular had become the target of an exceptional wave of anger.
One thing that is now different is that Tayyip Erdoğan has been able to wield effective power for much longer. A second and perhaps more important point is that with the progressive weakening of military tutelage over politics in the current era, there has been a corresponding rise in elected, governmental power.
The underlying sociology
Habits of individual-focused thinking hinder our ability to undertake a healthy analysis of what is happening in our country. If we turn instead to look at objective data, what we have to acknowledge is the presence of a party which despite all the erosion inflicted by thirteen years in power is still able to get 41 percent of the vote. The gap between it and its closest rival in opposition is around 16 points. All public opinion surveys point to a high level of sustained popular support behind Erdoğan.
While the AKP is still largely under Erdoğan’s influence, it also has a complex, differentiated, multi-layered, multi-variable social and economic background. In the midst of all the polarization in Turkey, the AKP still is top of the list among political organizations most open and accountable to popular influence.
There definitely is a large mass of people who believe in and trust Tayyip Erdoğan. You may have all kinds of different opinions about or be critical of this popular mass. But to attribute everything to “blind loyalty to one man” is to disregard the autonomy of the individuals that make up society. We are talking of an experience of thirteen or fourteen years and a social base that continues to comprise more that 40 percent of the country. This kind of reality cannot be explained by a single person’s charisma. Trying to ignore sociological or psychological dimensions in order to focus solely on one man is much too shallow, to say the least.
The middle classes
The “conservative middle classes” with a propensity for social change are clearly continuing to support and sustain the AKP to a considerable extent. It is possible to subject the psychological outlook of these sections of society to different readings and critiques. But the bottom line is that their propensity for democratic compromise and their inclination to internal peace should not be underestimated. Thus it is possible for the votes lost by the AKP to be a reaction to an “intransigent” outlook.
Let us add that during the last election campaign, public opinion surveys reveal the AKP’s rank-and-file not to have largely approved of Erdoğan’s descending into the streets to pursue a partisan propaganda line.
With less than two months left until the new elections, all the experience accumulated by the AKP, the CHP and the other political parties should this time be able to open the way to the possibility of a compromise. Of course it is not going to be easy to transcend all the discord. But this time, I believe that a solution might be in the offing.
To try to read and explain everything through being for or against Erdoğan makes it actually impossible to understand the inner reality of Turkey, including its sociology and its foreign policy.