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Like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Mr. Erdogan is now an Ideology

By Kaya Genc

June 25, 2018

On Sunday, when Turkey chose both a parliament and a president with sweeping new executive powers, I experienced the most uneventful election evening of my adult life. There was no real tragedy or comedy, just the repetition of something by now familiar: an electoral victory for Turkey’s conservatives.

I voted in the morning at a Greek school in my neighbourhood, Cihangir, and I spent the next few hours in a mall, watching a movie. The silence as I returned home Sunday evening was unnerving. It was broken only when a car passed by my narrow street blaring a campaign song with this refrain: “Recep Tayyip Erdogan.” I knew what had just happened.

Like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, that triad of names evokes not just a leader, but an ideology, a state of existence, and for many Turks the status quo itself. Mr. Erdogan had won, with 53 percent of the vote, and he has consolidated power as he wished to.

He spoke to the silent majority: ordinary middle-class Turks who pay their taxes and want to enlarge their bank accounts. He pledged to keep them safe from “rabble rousers,” religious cults, armed insurgents and the pitfalls of Westernization. In his first years in power, Mr. Erdogan was considered a threat to the Turkish establishment. Under the new presidential system, he now embodies it.

Mr. Erdogan formed an alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party in the wake of a coup attempt in 2016. Thanks to the electoral success of the nationalist party on Sunday, Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party can command a majority in parliament. Two weeks ago, Mr. Erdogan promised to lift the country’s state of emergency after the election. And in his victory speech, delivered from a balcony at his party’s headquarters on Monday, Mr. Erdogan struck a conciliatory tone. He talked about leaving the past tensions behind. Turkey’s imprisoned politicians, novelists and journalists may not believe him.

Mr. Erdogan has no elections to face for five years and he can avoid social conflict in the coming days. His fights with the “noisy minority” — feminists, socialists, human rights activists and even disillusioned Islamists from his own ranks — have worked to his advantage.

In the absence of elections, jailing intellectuals or maintaining the state of emergency carries little meaning. Besides, with the sale of the Dogan Media Company, Turkey’s biggest media group, to an ally, most Turkish media patrons are now on Mr. Erdogan’s side. Only Rupert Murdoch’s Turkish Fox takes a critical stance, but that may also change, and the days of Mr. Erdogan versus the media appears to be over.

Over the next days, the president will reshape the Turkish state. When Mr. Erdogan recently unveiled the new executive presidency he was planning, analysts noted its similarities to the solar system. Mr. Erdogan sits at the heart of the new system as its sun. The number of his “planets,” or his ministries, is 16. His nine “satellites,” or policy boards, will specialize in areas like health, foreign and social policy. Tellingly, the European Union ministry, which worked on Turkey’s membership negotiations with the union, was abolished and its elusive mandate folded within the foreign affairs ministry.

Turkey’s new Presidential Palace, modelled after the White House, will open its more than 1,000 offices to specialists working for the presidency. “We will make decisions faster; all services will be results-oriented,” Mr. Erdogan said while introducing the system.

But the Turkish parliament still stands tall and there things may get tricky for the president. The Grand National Assembly’s new shape offers some optimism to the Turkish left. The People’s Democratic Party and the Republican People’s Party gained more than 200 seats in what will be a 600-seat body. Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned presidential candidate of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, won significantly more than Meral Aksener, the leader of the newly formed nationalist Good Party, who vowed to send back all Syrian refugees to Aleppo.

Ahmet Sik, a Turkish reporter famed for his exposé of the infiltration into Turkish military and the judiciary by the followers of the cleric Fethullah Gulen, has been elected to a parliamentary seat. Twice jailed for his journalism, Mr. Sik will conceivably be a leading defender of Turkish journalists, 150 of whom are in Turkish jails.

The electoral competition was unfair, but as often happens in Turkish affairs, repression has led to original thinking. The opposition’s humorous and brave campaign caught the government off guard.

Muharrem Ince, the main presidential contender and winner of nearly 31 percent of the vote, did not dispute the results, and lost in style. “The man has won,” he texted a Fox television journalist. When he addressed the press a few hours later, he was visibly shaken but answered all the questions. Some feared a vote-rigging, but then came the news that both Mr. Demirtas’s and Ms. Aksener’s parties passed the 10 percent threshold to get parliamentary seats.

While campaigning, Mr. Erdogan presented his vision as the establishment one and this is perhaps how he won the “silent majority.” Mr. Erdogan appeared dispassionate in victory. In 2013 his Justice and Development Party joined the European Conservatives and Reformists political family. Some of his critics compare Mr. Erdogan to President Vladimir Putin of Russia and other strongmen, while others see him as an Islamist, but Mr. Erdogan identifies himself as a conservative.

The mood was also conservative-gray in Cihangir around noon on Monday. I yawned reading the election coverage. But then a construction crew showed up on the street and began breaking all the cobblestones for some building project. It was business as usual.

Kaya Genc, an essayist and novelist, is the author of “Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey.”