Turkey is more divided than ever, and new elections won’t solve its problems

Supporters of Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), wave Turkish flags as they wait for him to arrive to deliver a speech at a rally in Istanbul on Oct. 25.
Supporters of Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), wave Turkish flags as they wait for him to arrive to deliver a speech at a rally in Istanbul on Oct. 25.
Image: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Only three days before historic elections are to take place in Turkey (Nov. 1), the police raided a critical media institution—Koza Ipek MediaGroup. For the first time in the nation’s history, a television station’s broadcast was cut off live on air.

This was a major blow to Turkey’s already-deteriorating press freedoms. Ordinary Turks across the country are outraged. Yet despite increased solidarity among different segments of society against this brutal crackdown, Koza Ipek’s friends in the mainstream media industry have largely kept quiet. The news manager of Kanaltürk, which is also owned by Koza Ipek, has criticized his colleague’s apparent indifference to this audacious act of censorship—going so far as to call them “penguins.”

But this is not surprising. Turkish society has never been especially unified. And its media industry reflects this reality. Turks vs. Kurds, Sunnis vs. Alevis—strong divisions have always had a presence. There is, however, aconsensus that Turkey has never before been this polarized; and that this is worrisome in the run-up to such significant elections.

This is, in in part, thanks to the increasingly authoritarian politics of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. His bitterly divisive rhetoric, which frequently employs religious narrative and the demonization of opponents, has cleaved the country in two: those who love him, and those who hate him. Both parties are equally passionate in their convictions, which makes the divide all the more volatile.

The country is so divided that even after the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of the Turkish nation on Oct. 10, reportedly committed by ISIL, the government could only issue a bland, unfeeling statement of mourning. Indifference toward the excruciating pain of those with loved ones who were killed (mostly leftists, Kurds, and Alevis) exacerbated tensions. It kept the country from understanding these deaths as shared pains, and kept us from mourning together.

It’s not hard to understand citizens’ anxieties: Amid heightened fears of ISIL-sponsored terrorism, prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has stated that the government in Ankara indeed keeps a list of potential suicide bombers, but will not arrest them preemptively because Turkey is a country that operates under “rule of law.” This comes from the head of a government that does not shy away from arresting journalists over critical tweets. Indeed, the deputy chairman of the main opposition party has claimed that the number of people arrested over charges of insulting president Erdoğan has exceeded those arrested for ISIL-affiliated activity.

Polarized at home, Turkey has become increasingly isolated from the wider world. This is mainly due to its failed policy on civil conflict in neighboring Syria. Domestic obsessions with partisanship have exceeded and stifled effective foreign policy. Now, Russia is operating in Turkey’s backyard as the West shrinks away. Despite Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism, the “leader of the free world,” the United States of America, seems content to ignore human-rights abuses so long as they maintain access to the Incirlik Air Base. Germany and the wider European Union are similarly willing to overlook Erdoğan’s unsavory politics so long as Turkey keeps the bulk of Syrian refugees from entering the continent. In other words, the honorable duty of saving Turkish democracy lies on the shoulders of Turkish voters.

Will they pull it off? Public opinion polls do not indicate any forthcoming, meaningful change. We can thank Erdoğan’s massive and effective media-propaganda machine for that. Of course, in the absence of auditing mechanisms, the reliability of public opinion pollsters are also questionable, but most independent surveyors agree—the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and de facto leader president Erdoğan are likely to garner at least 40% of the vote.

But the outlook isn’t entirely gloomy. Erdoğan’s party’s support is indeed almost solidified, but is not likely to give him the desired majority to change the constitution for his apparent ambition of unending presidency. Unless Erdoğan does not block the formation of a coalition again, the country will face gridlock. And given what Turkey has gone through since the corruption probes, including but not limited to arrests of judges for the first time in the nation’s history, one could easily assume that Erdoğan’s number one priority is to remain clear of accountability.

On Nov. 2, Turkey is very likely to remain polarized and unpredictable, with a fragmented political landscape. One certain fact is that Turkey has left its traditional lines of division behind. The future struggle will be be not between ethnicities or sects, but the friends of freedom and oppression, respectively. And although it seems Turkey needs a miracle to save itself from near-majoritarian authoritarianism, the opposition isn’t going anywhere. And elections won’t be granting any miracles to anyone.