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Dangers in Erdogan's Polarisation Tactics

12/05/2014 12:43 BST | Updated 10/07/2014 10:59 BST

Tour guides at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul are fond of pointing out a fountain where executioners are said to have washed their hands and swords after every decapitation. This spot is widely known as Siyaset Cesmesi - the Fountain of Politics. Whether its gruesome reputation is the stuff of legend or fact is a matter of debate among historians. But what is undeniable is that in the Turkish subconscious, politics is inseparable from danger, strife and bloodshed.

Consider the imagery used by the ruling AK party in a television advertisement before elections last month. A man approaches a Turkish flag and cuts its strings on the sly. As the flag starts to fall, a human pyramid forms at the base of the pole. A young man at the top reaches for the dangling cord and jumps to an uncertain fate as the flag is raised once more. "Friend! Do not let scoundrels into my country," implores the accompanying slogan. "Shield with your body, let this shameless invasion stop!"

Outsiders might detect a whiff of angst in these words, but they resonate with every Turkish citizen. They are taken, after all, from a patriotic poem that is the basis for the national anthem.

Now that the dust has settled from last month's elections, what really stands out is the electoral psychology of the campaign. Ostensibly, these were local elections. But they were depicted as a war of independence akin to the one waged for four years from 1919 against western powers who were set on partitioning the Ottoman Empire. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, based his entire campaign on the message that there were forces inside and outside that were jealous of Turkey's economic boom. One government minister, Aysenur Islam, went so far as to tell a group of party orderlies that they were as important as the bowmen who had fought with the Prophet Mohammed in the Battle of Uhud. Turkish politics has never been so divisive.

Ours is a patriarchal land with a strong state tradition. In the typical Turkish household, children learn to fear the patriarch. We love our mothers, respect our grandmothers and fear our fathers.

Even in our political discourse one can hear echoes of our upbringing. After last year's Gezi riots left more than 8,000 people wounded, Mr Erdogan told journalists: "Don't worry. I brought those responsible into my office and yelled at them. I made them cry." No public official is too exalted to avoid a scolding from the Baba of the nation.

But, as the AKP constantly reminded voters, being the father is not without danger. Adnan Menderes, a popular prime minister, was executed in 1961 after a coup. The image of his lifeless body hanging from the scaffold is seared on to the memory of every citizen who saw it. Turgut Ozal, a subsequent prime minister (later president) is rumoured to have been poisoned. In the run-up to the elections party figures constantly alluded to these deaths, implying that dark forces once again threatened a popular prime minister.

Western democracies have systems of checks and balances to shield individuals and minorities from possible misuses of the power of the state. In Turkey it is the opposite: the state and the ruling elite are the ones thought to need protection. The law protects "Turkishness" and it protects the state's founding ideology; it does not protect freedom of speech. Writers, poets and journalists can be prosecuted under these anti-democratic laws, even if their assault on the state is purely rhetorical. In the name of protecting the country's system of government, Twitter can be banned, YouTube blocked and individual freedoms stripped away.

In democracies with transparent institutions, conspiracy theories are easily dismissed. Not so in Turkey, where citizens have little trust in the workings of the state apparatus. Fear of conspiracy, whether rational or not, is deeply embedded in our political culture.

After the local elections many outside observers were baffled that the government could get so many votes in spite of corruption scandals and internet bans. That is because they were fixated on the transient - the economy, the howls of protest from a vocal opposition, the criticism of a government that was once seen as a bridge between west and east.

Such fixations missed the point. The AKP's own electoral base has not been affected by such criticism. The forces of culture and education that impelled Mr Erdogan towards victory are measured not over months and years but generations.

After the local elections many outside observers were baffled that the government could get so many votes in spite of corruption scandals and internet bans. That is because they were fixated on the transient - the economy, the howls of protest from a vocal opposition, the criticism of a government that was once seen as a bridge between west and east.

Such fixations missed the point. The AKP's own electoral base has not been affected by such criticism. The forces of culture and education that impelled Mr Erdogan towards victory are measured not over months and years but generations.

While the rhetoric of war clearly worked with the 45 per cent that constitutes the party's electoral base, it served only to distance further the remaining 55 per cent. This is the danger that party officials do not want to see. In his victory speech Mr Erdogan thanked his supporters for "protecting the new Turkey's struggle for independence", again making the elections sound like a battle. In the run-up to the presidential elections in August, Turkey remains a country polarised like never before.

This article first published at Financial Times on April 28, 2014

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