The social and political atmosphere in Turkey has not changed much since 2001: victory for the Justice and Development Party (the AKP) followed by constant hope that the good people of Turkey will eventually elect the AKP out of office. Well, it’s been a while and the AKP keeps winning. It is no secret that the AKP’s promise to improve Turkish democracy, solve the terrorism problem and join the European Union has failed time after time. Despite the news of corruption, oppression, and all the other terrible things the AKP has allegedly done since day one, its election victories continue.
Assuming that at least some of the reporting claiming such corruption, oppression, and destruction is true and all the rumors of ongoing, significant election fraud are false, it is indeed curious as to why such seemingly unpopular and allegedly extreme group of people keep declaring victory in the Turkish Republic, which was founded upon modern and secular principles of Ataturk.
One of the possible explanations looks not to the AKP but to the behavior of the alternative political parties in Turkey: a pattern of complete lack of compassion and perpetual arrogance of those who could possibly offer better and more secular solutions for the Turkish people.
As a farmer’s daughter, I grew up in a small town in Izmir. We worked hard every day and learned to live based on what we could make, bake or raise on the land. My immigrant parents instilled in us not only the value of hard work, frugality and freedom but also the importance of studying, learning, and becoming successful, modern and independent individuals. If we worked and studied harder than anyone we knew, we could become “someone” and not have to work on our farms, chasing cattle and pulling weeds all summer, every year. “Be a doctor or a lawyer. If not, at least try to become an engineer.”
We sold what we grew at farmers’ markets all over Izmir. Our clients were mostly doctors, lawyers, engineers … people who “made it,” and lived in apartment homes in cities instead of demanding rural areas. Sometimes, I’d join my father in his daily farmers’ market adventures. People would treat him terribly. Women with makeup, clean hands and fancy furs would come to his stand, and touch and mush every single tomato before they could decide on the perfect 2 kilos. Men would stand taller than they really were and disrespectfully demand discounts on what was already super cheap produce. Their children would look at me with curious and judging eyes and never say “hello”. Some people were nice. They would even spark a conversation with my father and ask questions about his Bosnian roots or how he cultivated pear trees from seedlings. But, there was always that “oh, you poor farmer” look in their eyes.
I quit going to the markets with my father. But, the reality would find me elsewhere. People who would drive to our farm for fresh produce, milk and bread brought their superior attitude with them, and, our new neighbors, two teachers, who moved into our small town had children who would never play with because I wasn’t a proper girl. I’d enjoy climbing fig trees and my hands were always tainted green or brown from picking tomatoes all summer and helping my mother turn them into tomato paste.
The doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, … whose backgrounds all laid with some farming past, they all acted as if the more they distanced themselves from us the more accomplished they became. It appeared that any close association with the simple folk was a taint on who they wanted to be. I doubt that any one of these people meant any harm. In fact, I believe that they enjoyed seeing real life on a farm and they felt responsibility to help by buying their produce and milk from us. But, we were the only ones who admired their accomplishments and, arrogance, they thought, was the only way to perpetuate our admiration.
I am now a successful American attorney. Even today, every time I visit Turkey, I still see the idea of one’s perceived success in his political, professional, or social life being used as an excuse for his arrogance and superiority to those who choose to live, think or talk differently than his own. What an ironic self-deception!
All the political alternatives losing the elections to the AKP for the last 15 years in Turkey is perhaps a result of the same thought-process. They seem to believe that intending to do the right thing for their constituents is, or should be enough, to win the political power in Turkey. For decades, those who claim to follow the modern principles and patriotism of Ataturk have focused on following his political example of secularism and western values. Ever since his death, however, they have failed miserably to follow his example in emotional connectedness.
Political persuasion has very little to do with facts, data or great intentions of building a better future for people. It begins with one’s ability to make his constituents want to listen to him. People listen and follow those they like.
The AKP’s alternatives, including their base voters in Turkey can be and have so far been self-righteous, condescending, and arrogant to anyone who doesn’t think, live or talk like them. On social media, you will see them call others an “idiot” for wanting to defend her right to wear a headscarf or verbally attack someone for even liking the AKP regime or its accomplishments in Turkey. The way they alienate the simple Turkish folk for disagreeing with their agenda is strikingly unreasonable. The lack of compassion and desire to understand and connect with those who hold the vote is absolutely incredible.
The educated, successful and modern group who lacks such compassion and connection with its potential constituent is, perhaps, politically right. They at least seem to stand for what is right for the Turkish Republic and its great people: freedom, independence, protection of women’s rights, religious secularism, freedom of the press… All of this, however, can be irrelevant in the hands of the emotionally wrong. The Turkish people don’t like them and have had enough of the arrogance. Now and then, there will be a potential leader of the opposition who seems more welcoming and full of hope for change in Turkey, who can somehow magically take us back to the more secular days of our past, such as Metin Fevzioglu. Try to email him or connect with him on social media suggesting to help his seemingly modern and secular cause: you won’t get a response.
The AKP representatives, on the other hand, are really nice. Send them an email. Stop to chat with them on the street. Go to their homes for a glass of tea. Or, ask them for help. They’ll send you cards, connect with you through your own neighbors and reach out to you even when it is not the election season. Their welcoming emotional connection with simple folk is strikingly warm and persuasive. It makes people want to listen to them even if they intend to “burn down the barn.”
As Katherine Branning beautifully expresses in her book, An American Woman’s Letters to Turkey: Yes, I Would Love Another Glass of Tea, most Turkish people are super nice. They are genuine, hardworking, hospitable forgiving and generous. They will give their coats off their backs, gift their only bread to you and, if you are nice to them, they may vote and keep you as their leader for decades to come even if you are allegedly corrupt and oppressive.
There is a story attributed to Ataturk: around the time of the Independence War, he went to a farm and saw a farmer still plowing his fields instead of fighting against the enemy. He asked the farmer why he chose to stay. The farmer looked at him and said, “Until that war comes to my farm’s boundaries, I won’t fight it.” The Turkish people haven’t changed much: they are still as hardworking and generous and they still want to be made relevant and need to be persuaded without being ignored or looked down upon.
It is true that some of the AKP leaders have began showing the same signs of arrogance to their constituents. Perhaps, that explains their recent loss that required another election in 2015.
As we move into a more conflicted social and political reality in the Middle East, it will be interesting to see whether the unsuccessful opposition in Turkey will ever realize the role of emotional persuasion and manage to follow Ataturk’s example in emotionally connecting with the Turkish people before self-righteously declaring to be the right choice based on their claims of modern and secular intentions. Only time will tell.