Turkey’s choice could not be starker: more cruelty under Erdoğan, or the return of justice and hope

The country could finally tear off the straitjacket it has worn for years. But its president is a tiger caught by the tail – what will he do if he loses?

This weekend, my country will choose. If the unlikely unity coalition of opposition parties beats the goliath that is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey will be able to tear off the straitjacket that it has worn for years. If the regime wins, however, we will be mourning a country that once was, that could have been.

This is a clash between the forces of autocracy and democracy, between cruelty and basic morals. There is a real chance that Erdoğan will lose because six opposition parties have formed a united coalition, led by the secularist Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Not since the huge anti-government Gezi park protests in 2013 have the people of Turkey put their eternal conflicts to the side like this in order to take on Erdoğan’s palace, which effectively runs everything from the economy to the judiciary.

The party-state he has built, under the banner of his Justice and Development party (AKP), has not only undermined all the democratic mechanisms in Turkey but also created a model citizen who believes in submission to the regime – the millions who see themselves in Erdoğan’s image. There is even now a social problem of ordinary people acting violently against doctors – a social group often portrayed as an anti-government elite. Doctors, for their part, have been leaving Turkey in thousands, as have academics, engineers and well-educated people, who feel unsafe in a country increasingly defined by a combination of conservative religiosity and thuggish politics. Just this Sunday, an opposition bus in the AKP-run Erzurum, east Turkey, was pelted with stones during a rally. Last month, the interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, denigrated the elections themselves, comparing them to a “coup” attempt. Meanwhile, the list of people – from university students asking for academic freedom to opposition parties – who Erdoğan calls “terrorists” grows longer by the day.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu address the rally in Sivas on 11 May 2023. Photograph: Alp Eren Kaya/Depo Photos/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock

The anti-government coalition brings together a wide range of political actors, from ultra-nationalists to social democrats, and has gained support from the Kurdish community and the socialists. They all know that if they lose, many of them will end up in Erdoğan’s massive prisons, like Selahattin Demirtaş, the Kurdish political leader who was a candidate for the presidency in previous elections before he ended up in jail after what was effectively a mock trial.

Kılıçdaroğlu, the main opposition leader and dubbed the Gandhi of Turkish politics, and his allies keep making the heart-shape with their hands in every mass rally. It looks cheesy, but it means a lot. So many people are exhausted and see value in the simple gesture. “The destiny of the country and the party are one and the same,” Erdoğan has often said, casting half the nation as the enemy within. There’s a reason he’s scared: the opposition alliance has committed to reverse much of his legacy, principally proposing a shift back towards a parliamentary – rather than presidential – political system.

Still, the result is no foregone conclusion. Erdoğan’s propaganda machine is ruthless; the attack in Erzurum was quickly spun into a provocation against his party. After 20 years as Turkey’s most dominant politician, he can count on a wide range of support thanks to the web of political money that spans the country to feed his supporters, the fear of all things foreign that he inculcates in many Turkish people, and his mastery in exploiting religious sensitivities. Erdoğan’s cult of personality still mesmerises his base.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at an election rally in Ankara, Turkey on 11 May 2023. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at an election rally in Ankara, Turkey on 11 May 2023. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

But he knows well that electoral loss could lead to him and his close circle ending up in court, both domestically and even internationally given Turkey’s alleged war crimes in Syria. He is a tiger caught by the tail; the stakes are incredibly high. That is why Kılıçdaroğlu has warned his supporters not to go on the street to celebrate on election night for their safety. Still, Kılıçdaroğlu insists: “We will not seek revenge, but we sure will punish the guilty.”

The problem is that, as in any autocratic regime, the actors who paved Erdoğan’s way to his sultanate are many. A moment of truth for Turkey approaches. The question is simple: not Erdoğan or opposition, but fear or hope?

By Ece Temelkuran is a Turkish journalist and political commentator, and author of How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorshiptheguardian.com

ميادين | مرآة المجتمع، ملفات، تحليلات، آراء وافكار و رسائل لصناع القرار.. صوت من لا صوت له | الإعلام البديل

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