Turkey’s elections outcomes: one-man regime and male-dominated politics

by Sevinç Doğan

© private

Sevinç Doğan’s master's thesis “Mahalledeki AKP” (AKP in the Neighborhood) on AKP's local organizational dynamics was published in 2016 and received the Yunus Nadi Social Sciences Award in 2017. Doğan is currently writing her PhD dissertation at the Departmant of Sociology at the Mimar Sinan University in Istanbul. More recently, she participated in political perception studies focusing on different electoral groups, and penned comprehensive reports.

The presidential and parliamentary elections which were held together on June 24 were a critical turning point in Turkey’s break away from the parliamentary system. The new executive presidential regime is simply the legal cover of a one-man rule. Although the Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost 7% in the parliamentary vote, its leader Erdoğan polled 52.2% in the presidential vote with support from his ultra-nationalist ally the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), thus officially becoming the president of the state.
The elections were held under a state of emergency, drastic media censorship and an oppressive environment where all kinds of opposition were branded by the government as treason.

An alliance against the politics of polarization

In this process, while the government stepped up its politics of polarization, Erdoğan tried to conserve his support among the right-wing and conservative sectors of the society through nationalist propaganda. The government continued to pursue a populist politics, employing the state’s means to the benefit of pro-government companies and its constituency. The other half of the society, not supporting the government nor Erdoğan, that consists of more secular-minded sectors, ethnic and denominational minorities, and left-wing groups, continued to be stigmatized.
During this turbulent run-up to the elections, opposition parties tried to resist the government’s polarization attempts. The elections were marked by alliances. While the MHP rallied behind the AKP, the mainstream opposition alliance was formed by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) – the main opposition party which appeals to secular voters, İYİ Party, a new nationalist party which split off from MHP under the leadership of a female figure and the Islamist Felicity Party which most AKP founders hailed from. Meanwhile, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), mainly based on Kurdish movement and also supported by socialists, was not included in this larger alliance. Although the leaders and other former MPs of HDP have been imprisoned for a few years, the party succeeded in passing the ten percent threshold and reinforcing its legitimacy.

© Cem Dinlenmiş

Electoral mobilization

When the government first announced its decision to hold snap elections, this lowered the morale among the opposition, which reacted by challenging the legitimacy of  holding elections under a state of emergency. However, the mainstream opposition then mobilized to convince wider society, and in a short time, succeeded in forming an alliance and gaining the psychological advantage. For the first time in a long while, the larger masses started to believe that it could really be possible to introduce a palpable change in Turkey’s political scene. Furthermore, AKP and Erdoğan performed poorly during the run-up to the elections and MHP did not even organize a visible campaign in the public arena.
The opposition’s election campaigns placed a strong focus on ballot box safety, and civic mobilization on the election day.
Unexpectedly, the ultranationalist MHP polled 11% at the parliamentary vote, thus providing Erdoğan the political support he direly needed in order to establish the executive presidential system. Apparently, MHP's vote came from some disgruntled AKP voters who were expected to vote for İYİ Party. Also, after the election, there were discussions as to whether the elections were rigged or not.

Anti-Western propaganda and conspiracy theories

During the campaign, the government had frequent recourse to conspiracy theories, citing foreign powers, internal enemies supported by them, grand conspiracies against Turkey, and also stirred the fear of seeing Turkey become the next Syria. Nationalist and militarist arguments were at the forefront. Ignored were the pressing issues such as the soaring foreign debt, rampant inflation, widespread unemployment, violence towards women, suppression of the Kurdish masses through military, and the rise in injustice. Instead, the government always underscored the threat of the state being divided up by supposed external and internal enemies, thus appealing to nationalist sentiments via an anti-Western and anti-US discourse.

© Ramize Erer

Discrimination among women and forms of power

The government pursued a discriminatory policy towards women. Women wearing headscarves account for a majority of the female AKP voters. In fact, however, there are numerous parallels between women wearing headscarves and those who don’t, in terms of consumption habits or aesthetic perceptions. As such, the headscarf represents a symbolic distinction in the political sphere. The government pragmatically appeals to conservative women with an emphasis on the headscarf, while demonizing women who uphold more secular lifestyles.
The government is well aware that it needs women for its legitimacy: Women, especially conservative and middle-aged housewives play a key role in organizing AKP's grassroots activities. AKP has an equivocal stance towards these women, who are at a disadvantage in educational capital and bear the brunt of social inequalities. On the one hand, AKP imprisons them within their domestic roles as wives and mothers, but on the other, it mobilizes them to a certain extent via local political activities. While they gain some advantages through participating in the party, they are ultimately urged to dedicate themselves to domestic roles, and the male domination over their bodies is reinforced.
The government’s sexual politics towards the female body is somewhat reminiscent of the sexual politics of the authoritarian regimes. Such regimes are characterized by control over women’s body and a gender-based division of labor (De Grazia, 1992). As a crucial part of its political program, the government demands higher birth-rates, restricts access to means of birth control – especially the right of abortion, and continuously encourages marriage and childbearing. It also replaced the former ministry for women’s affairs with a ministry of ‘family’ and social policies, and furthermore, extended the right to certify marriages to religious officials, causing uproar among women activists. The government also keeps intact the legislation allowing child marriages, as well as regulations that favor men in cases of harassment, rape and violence towards women. Nonetheless, women continue to express a massive dissent against the government’s policies and discourse, in the form of street rallies and campaigns.

Authoritarian politics on the rise

Today, following the final legalization of the executive presidential system in Turkey, pluralist and dissident voices are being suppressed. This ferments nationalist discourses which further reinforce the male domination in politics. The official propaganda turns around concepts such as executing, lynching, and crushing the state’s ‘enemies’  to impose a uniformity.
As hopes for change in the near future keeps diminishing, Turkey turns into a country dominated by a leader cult, and the rule of law is in tatters. Unemployment figures are very high among the youth, especially young women, and the deepening economic crisis further fuels their worries (Eurostat, 15 June 2018). The need for mechanisms to channel the dissidence and concerns of the wider masses and inspire their self-confidence and hopes is more urgent than it has ever been (20 September 2018).

Further reading

Aretaios,  Evangelos (2018) 'Tracking Turkey's future through its present', POLİTİS Newspaper, June 2018.

Eurostat (2018) Young people neither in education nor employment, 15 June 2018.

Doğan, Sevinç (2018)  'Ruhunu yitirmiş corpus ve status quo'culuk', [Autocracy and opposition in 24th July elections], Birikim, v. 351, pp. 19-30.

Doğan, Sevinç (2017) AKP ile Kadınların Çelişkisi [AKP's Contradictory Relation with Women], Evrensel Newspaper, 25 February 2017.
De Grazia, Victoria (1992) How Fascism Ruled Women- Italy, 1922-1945, University of California Press.