The Vote and Beyond : Lessons from the Turkish Repeat Elections

Başak Alpan |

A guest contribution by Başak Alpan,
from the Middle East Technical University, Ankara.

elections 5 - CopieHere’s one of the few good things about being a political science professor in Turkey: elections are never only boring econometrical calculations that no one is interested in, but each election gives you an ample amount of shock, perplexity, and challenge to cope with.

The parliamentary elections of 1st November are no exception to this rule. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as a surprise to even its own cadres, increased its vote from 40 % to 49% compared to the previous elections on 7 June, which had been repeated due to the stalemate in coalition negotiations. For the opponents of the government, it was one more occasion of shock, perplexity and challenge.

Some 70 000 of them – mainly middle-class, educated, urban political activists – had decided to be more than just voters and bystanders. They had volunteered for the civic oversight of elections under the umbrella of the civic movement named ‘Vote and Beyond’.

'Vote and beyond' - the civic movement's emblem.

‘Vote and beyond’ – the civic movement’s emblem.

‘Vote and Beyond’, which started as a movement in Istanbul in December 2013 (in the aftermath of Gezi Protests) became an association in April 2014. They have since become organised in half of the 81 provinces and were active in observing ballot boxes in the March 2014 local elections, August 2014 presidential elections and June 2015 parliamentary elections, aiming to make sure that the elections are realised impartially and without any rig.

The variety of volunteers that make up this movement gives evidence to the ‘shock-perplexity-challenge’ theorem mentioned above: there are social democrats, unwavering seculars sick of the conservative regime, anti-capitalist Muslims, liberals who have more recently been disenchanted with the AKP, socialists who struggle for peace and democracy, and more. According to a widely shared, self-ironical tweet, the political context in Turkey has become so surreal that it even turned previously poststructuralist anarchists into staunch guardians of elections.

As a member of this movement, I was an election observer in Ulubey yesterday, one of the relatively poor districts in Ankara. As I was travelling there along the misty hills of Ankara, I was aware of the fact that I would be meeting with a pre-dominantly conservative AKP electorate. The polling commission welcomed me, and during the nine hours I spent in the primary school classroom used as a polling station, we chatted, laughed, argued and exchanged views.

The inhabitants of Ulubey, however, had a different life agenda: they were concerned with the recent urban regeneration projects that would have a direct impact on their dwellings, and very upset about the influx of Syrian refugees to the district due to affordable rents and living conditions. ‘We were not even locking our doors here before the migrants arrived’, one of the voters said. Note that all these highly political issues were however extremely personalised and bore no immediate connection to any political party or governmental policy. It simply was about their lives and their neighbourhood.

Still, at the end of the day, it became apparent that 68 per cent of the electorate of our classroom had voted for the AKP. The Guardian was right when it claimed after the Ankara bombings and their 102 victims on 10 October that even pain cannot bridge the current polarisation in Turkish society between conservatives and progressives. But that does not change the fact that any political dissident living in Turkey today has to pass that bridge every single day. Before wrapping yourself up into your daily self-induced, anti-government, dissident utopia, you buy your bread from a pro-AKP bakery, you take a cab with a pro-Erdoğan radio channel blasting; you live your life surrounded by them. They are normal people with normal lives, dreams, desires, feelings and experiences. It is just that they have different priorities and abstraction levels.

This is what we need to theorise and address if we really want to claim that another world is possible for Turkey.

Başak Alpan is Assistant Professor
in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration
at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara.

The French version of this post can be found in the ‘Mails from Europe’ series,
on the homepage of the EU-Asia Institute at ESSCA School of Management.