Turkey’s new prime minister is now Binali Yildirim, the former transportation minister. As an engineer, his competence in more technical roles was in little doubt, but some have been questioning his ability to take over from the more intellectual and diplomatic Ahmet Davutoglu who recently resigned from the prime ministry over differences with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After I attended AKP’s extraordinary congress to select a new leader yesterday in Ankara, triggered by Davutoglu’s resignation, I think the point is less about Yildirim’s abilities, and more about his malleability to Erdogan’s wishes.
Admittedly, it was a strange, surreal sight. Caught in a freak thunder and lightning storm in Ankara, I was drenched to the skin and, like everyone else, seeking shelter. As I found temporary respite near the entrance to Ankara’s main train station opposite the stadium where the congress was being held, I could not help but notice an enormous banner that showed the portraits of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Erdogan, Davutoglu and Yildirim in that order. The reason why this struck me is because the AKP congress was an event ostensibly to select candidates for the party’s leadership and the post of prime minister, and for them to be nominated and make their case for election. However, the decision had already been made last Thursday.
This raised the question – if the decision has already been made, why hold a congress at all? Ankara ground to a standstill, with traffic redirected from the location of the venue. Police presence was heavy and snipers could be seen on the rooftops surrounding the stadium, braving the inclement weather to keep an eye on things below. Security was obviously tight, as not far from where I was standing was the site of a Daesh terror attack that killed over a hundred people and slightly further south was the site of a Kurdish terror attack that claimed scores of civilian lives. Even with the risk of a potential terrorist attack, tens of thousands of people flocked to the capital from all over Turkey to attend the congress.
Direct access to the stadium was sealed off and so people had to walk an additional kilometre around the site to access controlled checkpoints into the venue. Thousands of people wearing makeshift ponchos made of plastic bags and bin liners scurried about in the rain and many stood underneath the shelter of a children’s play area. All of them knew exactly what would happen at the congress. All of them knew that there would be no candidates other than Yildirim. All of them were not surprised in the slightest that a party congress could close down their capital. I was amused as I imagined the Tories or Labour trying to close down central London just to hold an event.
Such is the seemingly hypnotic effect of AKP under Erdogan’s leadership that this was all seen as par for the course. Inside the stadium, people were carrying banners representing the various regions and cities that they were from, as far west as Izmir and to cities like Kars and Van on the eastern edges of Turkey. The stadium blared with AKP anthems, including ones singing in praise of Erdogan and Davutoglu, and would have been bizarre for someone used to the sterile standards of British politics, in comparison to Turkey anyway. Turkish politics is still largely centred on the party leaders, rather than the parties themselves, and this was of course initiated by Ataturk himself who still maintains a personality cult long after his death. Once one gets used to this fact, they start to understand why personalities are so important in Turkey and how a particularly strong and charismatic individual like Erdogan can command such loyalty.
Erdogan himself did not attend the congress, and neither did former president Abdullah Gul. Davutoglu was present, however, and was greeted with rapturous applause when he made his speech. In his speech, he frequently referred to AKP’s mission and how it was more important than any one man, individual or personal issues. The meaning behind this is clear and is bolstered by such events as Davutoglu witnessing the marriage ceremony of Erdogan’s daughter not long ago, which is deemed as an honour in Turkish culture. Davutoglu recognises that AKP’s success hinges upon Erdogan’s leadership and that their joint objectives are the same, even if they may differ in execution. He clearly stated that he would not seek to divide the party and was enthusiastic about defending AKP’s purpose and achievements until “the last breath”.
After his speech, things wound down fairly quickly when Yildirim, who was seated next to Davutoglu, was announced as the only candidate for party leadership. His speech was full of stutters and he struggled to speak, a marked departure from the oratory skills of Davutoglu. He spoke at length about countering terrorism and moving the Turkish nation towards a constitutional change that would create a presidential system, expanding Erdogan’s powers significantly and quite possibly abolishing the post of prime minister altogether. The frequent mention of Erdogan was perhaps an embodiment of something that Davutoglu himself expressed in that, for him, the congress was not a farewell congress but a “loyalty congress”.
Davutoglu’s words are completely true. The reason why people attended from all over Turkey was to show loyalty to Erdogan, a man who, as president, is supposed to be non-partisan and yet is still indisputably the true leader of AKP. Turkish newspapers loyal to AKP wrote that AKP had “elected” Yildirim, but that is simply not what happened. Erdogan selected him and appointed him and no one could say otherwise. As the banner that I mentioned earlier showed, the decision to appoint Yildirim was made long before the congress itself, yet the AKP faithful flocked to show their loyalty to Erdogan, knowing that he is not supposed to represent any party, knowing that there were no real elections to decide who will be the new AKP “leader”, and knowing that Erdogan had the final word on everything.
Although that does seem quite dictatorial, it is important to understand that, as long as Erdogan is in Turkish politics, he will mould the system to his choosing. If he is a prime minister, Turkey is a parliamentary system. If he is president, it is a de facto presidential system, and will likely soon be made de jure. What is central to Turkey and its politics is Erdogan himself and, although it is quite clearly a one-man show, it is also quite easy to forget that almost every election he participates in, he gets an enormous share of the vote. He became prime minister after winning landslide after landslide in elections recognised as free and fair. When he became president, defeating Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, more than half the electorate voted for him.
Democracy is obviously more than just votes. But if Turks are voting freely, and they are continuously voting to support Erdogan for a variety of reasons that are as diverse as his economic successes as well as the fact that there is no viable alternative to him, then we can only expect the phenomenon known as Erdoganism to rise meteorically. Kemalism is in danger, and it is in danger from Erdoganism, this generation’s strongest personality on the Turkish political stage, and the strongest personality since Ataturk himself.
Images are from Anadolu Agency.
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