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Why The AKP Always Rocks

[Orininally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with reader's comments] Erdoğan won it again – and won it big. The election victory for his party last Sunday, received an astonishing 50 percent of the votes, was not just magnificent, but also unprecedented. For no other Turkish party has won three elections in a row before with a steady increase in votes. The question why Erdoğan’s party, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is so successful has been a recurrent one in Turkey in the past decade. For a long time, the common Kemalist answer has been quite simple: The AKP gets so many votes, because the majority of the Turkish voters are stupid and ignorant. Had the people been “educated” better, they would have seen the light, and have voted for the political branch of the Kemalist regime: The Republican People’s Party, or CHP. Modern versus Western My answer, as you might guess, is a different one: The AKP succeeds in every new election, because it is simply very successful in building a more developed and wealthy Turkey. Just drive around the country and you will see endless streams of new highways, railroads and shopping malls. Shantytowns are replaced by modern public housing, and new businesses are opened everywhere. And all this is happening while most other countries around, including those in Europe, are struggling with the economic crisis or stagnation. Like its center-right predecessors, in other words, the AKP focuses on modernizing Turkey by creating more wealth on the ground. This is a different paradigm than that of the Kemalism, whose primary goal was to Westernize Turkey by imposing a cultural revolution. The most powerful image of Atatürk is the brimmed hat he introduced as a sign of Westernization. The most powerful images of Menderes and Erdoğan, however, are the factories, bridges and dams. The religiosity of the AKP cadre is another factor, too, but in an indirect way. The majority of the Turkish society is serious about Islam, and wants to see it respected. Erdoğan not only represents that wish, but also uses a political language drawing inferences from religion. In his victory speech, for example, he introduced the term “helalleşme,” while apologizing to the opposition for his excessive language in the election campaign. The term refers to the Muslim idea that you need to reconcile with someone for the mutual sins you might have committed against each other, for not being guilty in the sight of God. A more secular politician could use another term for the same meaning, such as “building a consensus,” but that would not resonate with the deep cultural commitments of the Muslim pious as helalleşme does. That is why I believe Erdoğan, when he speaks out of wisdom, and not anger, does a great job in terms of building a democratic language within the Muslim cultural sphere. Authoritarianism revisited But what about the problems Erdoğan is rightly criticized for such as his authoritarian language and the still-poor record of freedom of speech? Well, I must say, for the potential AKP voter, these are less crucial matters than the prosperity and the pride he finds under Erdoğan. Besides, the same voter probably knows what not every concerned Westerner notes these days: Yes, the AKP has been intolerant to its critics, but some of those critics have been long unabashed supporters of the military interventions in Turkish politics, interventions that hurt and intimidated a lot of innocent people. The same voter probably remembers while some problems continue under the AKP, most of them were much worse before. The police might be engaged in excessive wiretapping, for example. But before the AKP, it was also engaged in excessive torture. Shorty put, there are simply rational reasons for the AKP’s constant success in the ballots. The opposition, especially the CHP and its supporters, would be doing themselves a great favor by assessing these reasons rationally, instead of further complaining about the alleged stupidity of the society.
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