The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Turkish voters are showing a remarkable level of resilience.

As the tempest of the French Revolution gathered, philosopher Denis Diderot, in correspondence with a paramour, lamented the inexorable gravitation of humanity towards the mystical. He postulated that despite the Enlightenment’s luminescence, its rays scarcely penetrated the urban periphery, its advance halted not by distance but by the human condition. Diderot’s reflection, a presage to revolution, resonates through the corridors of time, mirroring the trajectory of the Turkish Republic.

It’s a tale of enlightenment deferred, where modernity’s march, as historian Arnold J. Toynbee might assert, accelerated four centuries of evolution shaped in the West by colossal historical forces, such as the Renaissance, religious reformation, and the Industrial Revolution into a mere fifteen under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s incredible stewardship—only to be confronted by the repressive shuttering of the Village Institutes, custodians of democratic enlightenment for the rural populace.

Ayfer Kocabasi describes these Village Institutes like so: “The Village Institutes were founded upon egalitarian principles in 7 regions and 21 different locations across Turkey. The aim of these Institutes was to liberate villagers through education and culture and to provide a means to enlightenment for Anatolian villages, which were enduring middle-ages like conditions at the time, and through this to rejuvenate the whole country in the social, cultural and education spheres. In this sense the Village Institutes were a social transformation project. The education provided by these institutes utilized a secular, democratic and scientific curriculum with a student-centered pedagogy, which aimed to help participants realize their full human potential. Unfortunately, through a forced change in their curricula in 1947, Village Institutes were hollowed out and were then officially terminated in 1952.”

The closing of these institutes meant the halt of the advance of the enlightenment aimed by the Republican Revolution, without which multi-party democracy would bring counterrevolutionary forces into politics. Here, Aziz Sancar, a Nobel laureate, would later echo this sentiment in his laureate speech, attributing his ascent from a simple village boy to a celebrated scientist to the Republican Revolution and these very institutes.

For years, Turkey’s forward momentum was blunted by systematic assaults on progressive elements, while reactionary forces, buoyed by external support amid the geopolitical chess game of the Cold War, flourished. The 1980 coup further depoliticized the country, and the subsequent rise of neoliberal capitalism dismantled the social welfare state, leaving the secular-nationalist left in limbo. From the 1970s through to the new millennium, an intellectual purge ruthlessly excised a generation of esteemed journalists (with Uğur Mumcu standing as a poignant example) and academicians—figures still revered in public memory—who valiantly defended secular democracy, particularly as religious schools multiplied nurturing a cadre for a counterrevolution.

As the new century dawned, the media and business conglomerates rallied behind Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, portraying him as the new face of Turkish center-right politics. His ostensible reconciliation with the secular-democratic order, despite an Islamic lineage, won him accolades and likened him to Europe’s Christian Democrats. The European Union, eyeing him as the next interlocutor in Turkey’s protracted EU accession saga, and the United States, lauding his endorsement of the Iraq invasion, reinforced his image. Meanwhile, domestic dissenters, critical of this narrative, were marginalized and labeled as undemocratic.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rise to prominence began in the 1994 local elections and was propelled by his Justice and Development Party’s electoral success in the 2002 general elections. The West welcomed him as the embodiment of the majority’s will, overlooking the inherent inefficiencies of the D-Hondt system, which historically engendered frail coalitions. Despite this, the true majority lay with the 75% that resisted Erdoğan in 1994, splintered among diverse leaders and further fragmented by the rise of a prominent left-leaning artist, whose candidacy was ultimately detrimental to the republican cause. In the 2002 general election, the majority eschewed the euphoria surrounding Erdoğan’s purported image as a harbinger of “progressive democracy” since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) received only 34% of the votes -despite all the support of domestic and foreign circles- with which it gained a disproportionate power in the parliament due to the peculiarities of the electoral system.

The climax of AKP rule unfolded as a monolithic regime took hold and made counterrevolutionary moves in the armed forces and the judiciary, a regime that the Gezi Park protests challenged in vain. This regime brazenly normalized constitutional transgressions, culminating recently in a call for a new charter that would omit secularism and national identity—concepts hitherto inviolable under Turkey’s existing constitution.

Democracy’s essence cannot be distilled into mere arithmetic. It embodies the sanctity of free thought and conscience, the right to dissent, the liberty of the press, human rights, social equity, and a meritocratic rule of law. For over a decade, the analysis offered by both domestic and international media has skirted around the unconstitutional, unjust, and aggressive character of the one-party state/one-man regime, which manifested with particular intensity in the lead-up to and throughout the election process. The electorate was artificially polarized into a hardened dichotomy—48% versus 52%—a mythic split that had come to dominate the political narrative.

The profound message embedded within the March 31 electoral verdict is a resolute “No pasarán” to this counterrevolutionary tide. The mythic statistic was upended as 64% rallied behind the CHP (Republican People’s Party), capturing 80% of the nation’s economic centers and overturning AKP strongholds. The significance of these figures merits contemplation, especially considering the entire government apparatus, including Erdoğan himself, canvassed the streets for votes. Accusations of unconstitutional resource allocation, electoral corruption, and the selective recounting of ballots spotlight the Machiavellian tactics at play.

Regarding the March 31 election, three more key observations emerge: First, the government’s hyperbolic claims which are not Turkey’s national issues in the first place—that the fall of AKP would precipitate the downfall of Jerusalem and Gaza—were ineffectual in concealing its contradictory dealings or the diversion of significant funds to space tourism amidst rampant poverty.

Second, the CHP’s control of major cities in the 2019 local elections laid the foundation for municipal governance that sought to mitigate the stark realities of economic mismanagement, pervasive corruption, and the degradation of meritocracy faced by ordinary citizens. Despite these efforts, the absence of a majority in municipal councils thwarted many ambitious projects, as seen in the case of Istanbul’s Mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, whose initiatives faced relentless opposition from the highest levels of government. Therefore, people voted for CHP not only for candidates but also for municipal councils.

Third, for over a decade, the CHP has been depicted as a party at odds with the populace’s core values, a portrayal emanating from the very imams trained in religious schools who then infiltrated the annals of history and law to reshape the nation’s republican narrative. However, the CHP’s roots trace back to the profound legacy of Atatürk, a figure who not only redefined his nation’s destiny at Gallipoli but also laid the foundation for a modern, secular, and democratic republic from the ashes of a crumbling empire. Atatürk’s influence reverberates through UN and UNESCO accolades, the emancipation movements post-World War II, and the fervent national celebrations that have defied governmental prohibitions over the past decade, culminating in the centenary of the Turkish Republic.

The result of the May 2023 general elections solidified a sentiment of despair, particularly among the younger generation, which clung to the hope of reclaiming a life seemingly wrested away. They look back on a past where Turkey was a crossroads of global culture, a stark contrast to the current reality where they are priced out of simple social pleasures and travel. A generation of youth faces the indignity of rejected visa applications and the heartbreak of witnessing tourists relishing their homeland while they grapple with exorbitant costs. Despite their diligence, they confront the disheartening prospect of unaffordable housing and dependence on their retired parents, who themselves grapple with insufficient pensions.

Amidst this backdrop, the country has become a marketplace where its citizenship, land, and remnants of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s industrial legacy are auctioned to the highest bidder, drawing a grim parallel to an Ottoman past overshadowed by European hegemony and capitalized by foreign interests.

Confronted with this dispiriting vista, the nation’s youth face a singular, stark choice: to emigrate in pursuit of opportunity, joining the exodus of medical professionals and academics fleeing a system marred by vindictiveness and exploitation.

Yet, the elections of March 31 have sparked a resurgence of optimism at a time when it seemed all but extinguished. A staggering 80% of the young electorate cast their ballots for change, elevating an unprecedented number of young women to positions of municipal leadership. The tyrannical Thrasymachean ethos, which the AKP regime has come to embody, has been dealt a resounding blow, signaling the twilight of an era and the potential dawning of a new epoch in Turkish politics.

Seda Ünsar obtained her Ph.D. in Political Science with distinction from the University of Southern California, and has a B.A. in International Relations from Koç University on a full Vehbi Koç Scholarship. Seda’s research interests incorporate institutional theory and path dependence, secularism and political Islam, ethnicized and religionized politics under neoliberal ascendancy and politics of (un)development, discontents of globalization and democratization. She was a visiting fellow at London School of Economics after which she joined the Max Weber postdoctoral programme at the European University Institute. She is currently a professor of Political Science based in Istanbul, and is the author of a novel titled 'Düşüş: siyaset ve felsefe odasında aşk hikayeleri, İnkılap Kitabevi' (The Fall: stories of love in the room of politics and philosophy, İnkılap Publishing House). She is also a contributor at Cumhuriyet (the Republic) and Birgün (One-Day) Newspapers.