When Turkish voters go to the polls on June 7, they will decide whether to give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the parliamentary majority he needs to pass constitutional amendments strengthening his power as an executive.
Many of the issues at stake in the elections are familiar to followers of recent Turkish politics. Erdogan’s critics continue to accuse him of authoritarianism — demonstrated by his intensifying crackdown on criticism — and to decry his Islamist cultural policies. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) has also been blamed for Turkey’s flagging economic growth and its increasing regional isolation. On top of all this, Erdogan’s handling of the delicate peace process with Turkey’s Kurdish population has drawn fire from all sides. Some criticize him for negotiating with terrorists, while others condemn his refusal to offer reasonable concessions that could end decades of fighting.
But alongside these appraisals is another increasingly important issue: growing criticism of the crass consumerism and crony capitalism associated with Erdogan and the AKP.
Last fall, while the world watched the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) besiege the Syrian city of Kobane, Turkey’s leading satirical newspaper suggested that in their desperation to secure Turkish support, the city’s Kurdish defenders announced that Kobane’s bombed-out blocks would be perfect for building new shopping malls and luxury apartments. When ISIL threatened to strike in Turkish cities, an article headlined “Our malls are a red line” imagined Erdogan warning terrorists not to target “national values like our flag, our faith, our cellphones, housing developments or shopping centers.”
Turkish leftists have long criticized the AKP’s neoliberal economic policies. But their influence has been limited by the fact that Turkey, unlike many other countries, has been a net winner from several decades of neoliberalism, with dramatic increases in wages and GDP fueled by export-oriented growth. Though these critics are loath to admit it, parties promoting business-friendly economics have routinely shared just enough of their profits with the population to continue winning free elections against parties favored by the more left-wing military bureaucracy.
But a recent series of scandals have brought AKP economic policy — and the corruption increasingly associated with it — onto the front pages and given hope to Erdogan’s critics. In February of 2014, recorded phone conversations were leaked that purportedly recorded Erdogan instructing his son on how to dispose of millions of euros in cash lest they be found during a corruption investigation. A month later, however, Turkey’s voters handed Erdogan’s party another victory.
Then, in May 2014, over 300 workers died in a mining disaster in the city of Soma. Under the AKP, the mine was privatized and sold to a businessman with close ties to the party. The government then refused to act when serious concerns about the mine’s safety were raised in parliament. Dramatized by images of miners’ families angrily confronting defensive and hostile AKP officials, the tragedy offered a more visceral example of corruption than Erdogan’s tapes. Two weeks ago, 45 mine owners and managers finally went on trial, ensuring that the story will remain in the news as the polls open.
This winter, Erdogan’s construction of a lavish 1,000-room presidential palace exposed him to widespread mockery. Increasingly worried that this criticism was resonating with voters, the president’s team commissioned one of its most loyal papers, Yeni Safak, to publish a piece on the first lady’s frugal management of the palace kitchen. As detailed in an excellent piece by Pinar Tremblay, the effort backfired when Erdogan’s wife waxed rhapsodic about an obscure form of white tea that costs almost $2,000 dollars per kilo. As Tremblay pointed out, it takes many Turkish people six months to earn this much.
Over the past decade, many observers have argued that the AKP’s religious rhetoric obscured a deeper class conflict. The AKP is not simply an Islamist response to secular nationalism but the voice of a newly wealthy class of pious central Anatolian businessmen whose rise was resented by the country’s long-standing secular elite. Most recently, debates over the party’s efforts to redesign Istanbul have combined serious issues of social justice with an established elite’s contempt for what some see as nouveau riche tackiness. Last month, for example, the government announced plans to turn the area around Sirkeci Station, most famous abroad as the terminus for the Orient Express, into a culture park. The station will become a museum, its administrative buildings will become boutique hotels, and the nearby waterfront will host a concert arena, shopping centers and promenades named after Ottoman sultans. In short, the exquisite sense of history and authenticity prized by more sophisticated locals and visitors will be destroyed in order to create lucrative contracts for rich AKP supporters and historically themed trinkets for poorer party loyalists.
These class divisions are important, but they cannot fully explain the anger that the AKP’s new socioeconomic reality has generated. In particular, they cannot explain why critics are increasingly turning to the language of Islamic egalitarianism to challenge the AKP elite’s gospel of wealth. A striking example involves the Turkish holiday of Kurban Bayrami (the Festival of Sacrifice, known in Arabic Eid al-Adha), which commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son on God’s command.
For the past decade, controversy over this celebration concerned whether the practice of slaughtering animals on city streets was an example of traditional piety or embarrassing backwardness. But last year, Ihsan Eliacik — a theologian who helped found the Anti-Capitalist Muslims wing of the Gezi Park protests — suggested the real problem with the holiday was its obsession with consumption. The Festival of Sacrifice had become a festival of meat. Rather than focus on how the sheep were killed, he suggested, people should return to the holiday’s original goal of attending to the needs of the less fortunate with donations of money and food.
Eliacik is an established critic of the AKP, but even pro-government newspapers such as Yeni Safak have started to give religious debates a potentially subversive edge. In a recent column, Fatma Barbarosoğlu argued that the popular practice of covering parties had devolved from a religious celebration of a girl’s coming of age (when she would begin wearing a headscarf) to the kind of competitive consumption Americans know from sweet-16 parties or high-end bar mitzvahs.
When the secular nationalists led by Kemal Ataturk came to power in the 1920s, they appealed to the masses by promising to end the decadence, corruption and unequal privilege of late Ottoman society. Like other revolutionary regimes, the Kemalists eventually created their own system of privilege. The AKP once offered a religious challenge to this secular authoritarian government, which had failed to deliver the promised equality. Over time, the AKP has consolidated its own elite, giving rise to opposition that cannot be reduced to secularism versus Islam. While Turkey’s main opposition party first responded to the AKP by redoubling its commitment to authoritarian Kemalist secularism, it subsequently adopted a more liberal approach and now has added ending poverty to its list of campaign promises.
The upcoming elections will help reveal just how concerned Turkish voters are with economic inequality and which party they trust more to reduce it.