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Turkey early elections: Will “ENOUGH” be enough?

When Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, called for snap election on June 24, more than a year ahead of schedule, he was hoping to catch the country’s already fragmented opposition even further off guard. There was no magic formula to make secularists, Turkish nationalists, Kurds, leftists and pious conservative malcontents all unite and time was already running up. Who could have guessed that the common rallying cry for dissenters would be supplied by Tayyip Erdoğan himself?

Erdoğan’s persistent answer to his critics has always been his popular support. The only thing between himself and a second term would be the people who put him there in the first place, he told a group meeting of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) on May 8. “It’s my people who brought me to the Prime Ministry and Presidency. When the people say ‘enough’, that’s when [I] will withdraw”.
Within hours, about two million social media messages reverberated with the word “enough” or tamam in Turkish – written with spaces in between and capital letters “T A M A M” for added emphasis. The word also means “OK”, “sure”, “all right”, “done” and provided ample scope for barbed double entendres.

The simple slogan was adopted by Erdoğan’s presidential opponents, each imprinting their own style to the use of the word. The jailed candidate of the Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, was characteristically witty. Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Muharrem İnce was direct and to the point. The GOOD Party’s (İYİ Parti) nationalist leader Meral Akşener was on the wrong side of pompous and Felicity Party’s (SP) Islamist leader Temel Karamollaoğlu was typically po-faced.

Many Twitter users also used the word to evoke the scores of killings, attacks, massacres and other calamities that took place during AKP’s 16 years rule. “First find the murderers of Tahir Elçi. Then all will be T A M A M” tweeted Türkan Elçi referring to the assassination in broad day light of her husband, a prominent lawyer and human rights defender, in the Kurdish southeast of Turkey more than two years ago.

Normally virulent when wrong-footed, the AKP was slow to react. Its eventual response – the hashtag “devam”, which means “carry on” – managed to prompt some three hundred thousand tweets, albeit, as analysis showed, many from robot accounts.

The elections are, Erdoğan knows, make or break. Either he will be invested with far greater presidential powers or condemned to a bleak wilderness. Losing is not an option. But to win, he needs a fully committed party, not robots at his back.

Early or premature?

Come June, Turkey will be voting for both president and for parliament. To avoid a second round in the presidential contest, the front-runner has to get over 50% of the vote. That the elections have been brought forward from November 2019 is already something of a climb down. It was Erdoğan himself who once said early elections were a sign of instability.

Conventional wisdom is that the president made the move at the urging of his new election partner, Devlet Bahçeli, the elderly and somewhat grumpy leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The MHP is hemorrhaging support to a former party member Meral Akşener. Her vigorous campaign style is far more appealing to the nationalists rank and file. A formal electoral pact with the AKP (the two parties will stand as one) means that Bahçeli fear not getting over the required threshold of ten percent which any party needs to be able to qualify for seats in parliament.

However, a newly invigorated opposition has responded by forming a coalition of their own – including the minority religious SP which can be counted on for a few percentage of the votes. But the “nation alliance” left the pro-Kurdish out. Still, the final outcome will hang on whether the HDP can get over the ten percent. Turkey’s weighted system of representation means that that votes allocated to a party that does not cross the threshold, disproportionately benefit the party that does the best. HDP’s failure to enter the Parliament will likely favor the AKP.

Erdoğan assumes the AKP will be in the lead. The country is still being governed under a state of emergency and the government controls much of the private press. Kurdish and left-wing dissent is suffocated by a sustained crackdown. But the Turkish economy shows signs of severe deterioration and the AKP is continuously rubbing salt in the many wounds opened by an endless cycle of political crises. Even the faithful feel that the well-organized, symbolically charged party engine is running out of fuel.

AKP’s Erdoğan: Is the thrill gone?

Notably, the elections are being held in the wake of the April 2017 referendum which instituted a strong-man presidency, won by the narrowest of margins and marred by claims of fraud. A failed military in coup in July 2016 has handed the government a ready-made narrative that it is in perpetual war against a “parallel state” run by the FETÖ network under the cleric Fethullah Gülen from his exile in Pennsylvania. As a result, there have been mass dismissals of hundreds of thousands of civil servants suspected of being pro-Gülen. Rather than cleansing the system of its foes, the purge seems to have upset many of AKP’s conservative voters. The alliance with the MHP is meant to expand that shrinking base.

Early elections may help the AKP take advantage of a new wave of nationalism prompted by the military operation against Kurdish forces in Syria’s Afrin. The city was seized on March 18 – a symbolical date marking the Ottoman Empire’s Dardanelles victory during the First World War. Although a myriad of pro-government media outlets along with state institutions have waved flag after flag, the mood of triumphalism has quickly vanished. The anthem, even among AKP’s own supporters, seems to be B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone”.

No one underestimates Erdoğan’s ability to fight elections with the backing of the entire state machinery. His government enjoys emergency rule powers and a compliant media to help further their cause. Under conditions that can hardly be described as fair and square, will E N O U G H really be enough this time round?

HDP’s Demirtaş: Tongue-in-cheek and witty

From his prison cell in the northwestern city of Edirne, HDP’s Selahattin Demirtaş still manages to tweet through intermediaries. He once shared – from Twitter – that prison guards were wondering how he was able to tweet suspiciously checked in vain the only electric device in his cell: a kettle. His late contribution to the flurry of “enough” tweets made reference to this. “There was a problem with the kettle, that’s why I am late. E N O U G H,” a tongue-in-cheek Demirtaş said.

The HDP has been under constant government pressure since the last general elections in November 1, 2015: Municipalities run by the party were seized by state-appointed trustees while its deputies and party members were jailed on terror charges. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed during the Turkish army’s offensive in Kurdish provinces in the winter of 2015-2016, including Diyarbakır’s historic district of Sur. Pro-Kurdish media outlets are repeatedly shut down and their journalists put in prison.

Despite having spent the last 1.5 years behind bars, Demirtaş is able to keep his calm and easygoing tone. “My means are obviously limited. Only one person can attend if I stage a rally,” he joked in a letter addressed to HDP supporters during the official announcement of his candidacy. He argued that the HDP shouldn’t campaign about its own woes, but embody hope for a better future. “[During the campaign] you shouldn’t talk about me, but beauties of life,” he said.

His and his party’s influence on the final outcome of the elections will be far greater than the means at his disposal. Should the HDP fail to enter the Parliament, the AKP may easily earn a majority even if it performs badly overall. “If the HDP remains under the threshold, the AKP will grab at least 70 seats. This is not the only HDP’s problem, this is a problem of justice in democracy and fair representation,” Demirtaş told in a recent interview via his lawyers. “It also falls on the Nation Alliance to think a little bit about what they could do against an AKP who would seize the majority at Parliament,” he said. “Even if we stay under the threshold, we will not step back from our struggle.”

CHP’s İnce: Direct and spontaneous

Instead of backing their own party leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğu or an all party unity candidate like the former president Abdullah Gül, the main opposition CHP is running with Muharrem İnce, a strong orator and man popular with their own base. İnce is considered to have a chance of appealing to the electorate at large should the presidential contest go to a second round. He is known for his nationalist views, but he has not wasted time to visit Demirtaş in prison and call for his release. Like the man himself, İnce’s “enough” message was to the point: “The time is up” he tweeted in response to Erdoğan.

GOOD Party’s Akşener: Experimented and multi-faceted

Akşener has established her GOOD party as breakaway faction of the MHP. Already popular among nationalist voters, her time as a Minister of Interior between 1996 and 1997 – at the height of Turkey’s dirty war in the southeast and unsolved killings – means she struggles to widen her appeal to Turkey’s Kurds, who make up some 15% of the electorate, left-wing voters and social democrats. However, she has already intimidated her former party leader Bahçeli and has Tayyip Erdoğan in her sites. Even if she cannot attain the presidency herself, she may do the governing party a lot of harm. Her rhetoric does border on the grandiloquent – as did her tweet: “There is an E N O U G H that comes from the skies.”

Temel Karamollaoğlu: Old school Islamist

“Enough, God-willing” tweeted Felicity Party (SP) leader Temel Karamollaoğlu, echoing the slogan of the political Islam movement in Turkey in the 90s. Karamollaoğlu’s vocal opposition to AKP’s economy policy and the Afrin military operation is an appeal to the disaffected members of AKP’s political base. But Karamollaoğlu was a mayor of the Central Anatolian city of Sivas at the time of the infamous 1993 massacre when a lynch mob attacked a hotel conference attended by many Alevi (Turkish Shi’ite) cultural figures and 35 people were killed. While he may do better than expected, he is still a figure on the political margins.

Trends propelled by social media are quick to be adopted but, this being Turkey, it remains to see what each candidate will make out of it. Prominent lawyer and human rights defender Eren Keskin, reminded that by saying enough, not every candidate means the same thing. “Those who don’t propose a real democratization [are merely playing a game]” Keskin tweeted.

Indeed, at the end of the day, embracing the catchword to tell Erdoğan “E N O U G H” without committing to peace, democracy and rights, may only ring hollow.

Photo: Students and academics protesting against the division of Istanbul University into two institutions write “Tamam” (“enough”) during a sit-in to echoing the response on social media.

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