In a speech on May 8, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “If one day our nation says ‘enough,’ only then will we step aside.” It may have seemed innocuous, but in the world of social media and electoral spin, such passing phrases can quickly come back to haunt you. So it was for President Erdogan. The opposition jumped on this lone word to galvanize the most energetic campaign so far in the run-up to the snap general election called for June 24.
The Turkish word that Erdogan uttered, “tamam,” is a slippery one. While it means “enough,” it can also have a meaning closer to simply “OK” or “fine.” So, which is it for the president? Is this really the beginning of a groundswell of opposition to his long rule, or is there really nothing for him to worry about?
AN ALLIANCE OF CONVENIENCE
The #tamam campaign has indeed become a worldwide trending hashtag, being taken up by Hollywood stars such as Elijah Wood. They are joined by a whole array of political opposition figures in Turkey, with tweets from Republican People’s Party (CHP) presidential candidate Muharrem Ince; Meral Aksener, leader of the new breakaway conservative nationalist Good Party (IP); and the leader of the old guard Islamist Felicity Party (SP), Temel Karamollaoglu.
Though the charismatic Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas remains in detention following the crackdown on the opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP), his Twitter account offered his “T A M A M” by proxy and his co-leader, Pervin Buldan, added her voice to the campaign. This paints a picture of an entire opposition landscape — from secular Kemalists to hardline Sunni Islamists to Kurdish democrats — united behind one phrase and one demand.
Such a groundswell ought to prove formidable, and yet the cracks are betrayed by one tweet from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, whose platform is currently blocked in Turkey under the state of emergency imposed following the failed coup of July 2016: “I love Turkey. I love Turkish culture and people. The beautiful city of Istanbul… great food, great wine, great culture. I call on Erdogan to unblock Wikipedia and to listen to the people! #tamam #wemissturkey.”
The sentiment to uphold a people and a nation as inherently good (i.e. of like-mind to oneself) in opposition to a single man who acts as a spoiler and dictator, suppressing masses that would otherwise share my worldview, is a common one. It is an echo of similar refrains used in reference to 20th-century dictators and also contemporary ones. Yet the narrative that one man — Recep Tayyip Erdogan — is suppressing the will of the Turkish people is palliative. It does not get to the heart of the issue.
ERDOGAN IS INDEED A SYMBOL
All the most successful political leaders are men — and occasionally women — who have been adept at identifying access routes to power and influence. These access routes already existed within the framework of a society. An individual leader is merely someone who is firstly astute enough to spot it and, secondly, happens to embody everything that is required to make the most of that route.
President Erdogan is now plainly a one-man hate figure for a large segment of Turkish society and wider international observers. He personifies for many everything that is wrong with Turkey, everything that is suspicious, corrupt and vengeful. There is, on the face of it, nothing extraordinary about a broad desire to remove a political leader who has been in power as long as President Erdogan. It is part of a natural cycle of renewal. But there is more to this than the desire for a new face. Many in Turkey are not simply tired of Erdogan — they loathe and reject everything he stands for.
Just as President Erdogan has become a symbol for the opposition to him, so too has he become a symbol for his supporters. It is, perhaps, a difficult and dangerous place to find oneself. In many ways, Erdogan the man and even Erdogan the politician has been hollowed out. Every day, it becomes harder to distinguish the man himself, his own drives and passions, from those that are attached to his person by others. There is every reason to suppose that the more vehemently the opposition rejects President Erdogan, the more entrenched the support that holds him up will become.
THE SINS OF OUR FATHERS
As much as we like to focus on the here and now, and to believe that the vote in Turkey on June 24 will be about current issues in the lives of people today, much about what we do in the politics of the present is preset in the actions of the past. Turkey is not a dictatorship in the way of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt or even of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. That is precisely what makes elections in Turkey so important. It was also not a democracy prior to President Erdogan in the way of Britain or the US.
It is easy in today’s analysis to gloss over a 20th century in which the religiously-minded majority in Turkey were second-class citizens. Generations grew up under far more dictatorial conditions than exist today in which cultural and Islamic practices were forcibly uprooted in the name of progress. Even after the partial liberalization of the 1950s, the military system still ensured that this sector of society was unrepresented. It became as much a class issue as a religious one.
What Erdogan and his party have achieved in the 21st century is extraordinary. He has not only given this constituency representation, but also overwhelming power and economic success. In that sense, a social revolution has occurred in Turkey. While it may be viewed more as a counterrevolution by many secularists, the figure of President Erdogan has become the embodiment of that transformation for what has remained, until now, a majority of the electorate.
The real threat to President Erdogan is from within, not from outside. The excited rumors about the possibility of former President Abdullah Gul — co-founder of the ruling Justice and Development Party or AKP — running against Erdogan on June 24 would have indeed been explosive had they come to pass. As it is, Gul shied away from the challenge. Just as secular Kemalists have always put their faith in the old guard in times of crisis, the base of support for the AKP will remain as well. Until it splits, they won’t. No amount of tamams will change that equation.