Erdoğan’s Turkey and the Problem of the 30 Million
On July 15, 2017, Turkey marked the first anniversary of the averted coup attempt. Erdoğan addressed a huge crowd of supporters, recounting the events that were already becoming a foundational legend for his new political regime. “When the putschist traitors attacked on the night of July 15th, we gave 250 of our heroes to the soil,” Erdoğan said, referring to those who were killed that night. “Do you know what we got in return? In return, we saved the future, the prospects of a Turkey of 50 million.”
This was extremely odd. Turkey had a population of slightly more than 80 million at the time. Everyone in the country knew this, and referring to “the 80 million” was a staple of Turkey’s political vocabulary, as in “the goal scored by the national team uplifted the hearts of the 80 million,” or “we are working hard to bring quality healthcare to the 80 million.” Nobody ever got the number wrong, least of all Erdoğan, who uttered it almost on a daily basis.
When members of the opposition brought up the issue in parliament, an MP from the president’s Justice and Development (AK) Party claimed it had been a casual utterance, and that there was no point in reading much more into it.
Still, the opposition was alarmed and the government evasive, precisely because it wasn’t hard for anyone to guess at the thought process behind the number. In the weeks and months after the coup attempt, Ankara bureaucrats and politicians gathering for late-night sessions at coffee houses were haunted by one question: What if the coup had succeeded? Like most Turks, they took it as given that foreign forces — namely the United States — were behind the coup, so this wasn’t a question of a domestic power struggle, but a foreign takeover. Surely, they thought, there would have been civil war. And in this civil war raging across their collective imagination, parts of the country were cast as patriotic resistance fighters, and other parts as foreign collaborators. You could feel people looking at you, casting you for a role in the theatre of their mind. Inevitably, this would scale up to some kind of demographic calculus.
Half of the population that consistently support the president could be considered loyal, but that only represents 40 million people. What made Erdoğan’s number of 50 million interesting was that it hinted at something unspoken. He seems to have cast his eye across the opposition bloc and seen something he liked. Roughly 10 million of them, he must have thought, would have supported him against the foreign enemy. They may not be voting for him, but they were patriots, and would do the right thing. The remaining 30 million citizens of the Republic of Turkey would not only have defected, they would presumably have subjugated the other 50 million, the true Volk, if the coup had succeeded. July 15, Turkey’s new national holiday, didn’t just mark a victory over foreign powers, but over these people as well.
The Government’s Approach
Today, the problem of the 30 million is deeply entrenched. Erdoğan’s brand is waning in the cities, the coasts, and among young people. Neither the new Erdoğan-shaped presidential system, nor his expansionist foreign policy are popular in these parts. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, chronic unemployment and inflation extinguished any hope of him bouncing back in the polls. Despite his total control over the state, mainstream media, and major capital groups, the president is unlikely to ever get much more than half of the popular vote.
If he wanted to, Erdoğan could cut the 30 million out of political life. He could shut down their political parties, purge them from the bureaucracy, and tighten policing of free media and the internet. In such a future, there would still be some nominal opposition parties, but Erdoğan would effectively monopolize the political sphere. Any real dissent would be treason. Liberals in Europe and the United States would condemn this on principle, but investors would probably stay in Turkey, and after some turbulence, things would go ahead in more or less the same manner. So far, the government seems to believe that this approach wouldn’t solve its problem. Depriving “disloyal” citizens of their status wouldn’t make them go away, and it certainly wouldn’t weaken their position morally.
The Erdoğan government now faced a question that all successful populist regimes must solve: What to do with the minority? They certainly can’t be granted free and fair elections, lest they attain the means to exact revenge. Nor can they be deprived of all their rights of representation, lest they be driven to revolt or treason. So how does a very slim majority of a country suppress the other half indefinitely? How does it rest easy, knowing that its hegemony is locked in?
It would be immensely convenient for the government if the 30 million could simply change. They wouldn’t have to vote for Erdoğan, but they would need to accept what he would consider common decency: to have faith in the inherent purity of their nation, and trust in the state, as embodied by Erdoğan. In the government’s parlance, they would need to become “local and national.” In a speech delivered in December 2019, Erdoğan said: “In this country, we have made local and national versions of everything, only the main opposition, have we not been able to make in this way,” eliciting laughter from the front row of VIPs. “God willing,” he continued, “with our people, we will achieve that as well.”
He was more serious than he let on.
The Government’s Strategy
In order to lay out the government’s strategy, I will place the main components of the opposition on a gradient of “local and national” sentiment. Moving from right to left, the first, and closest to the government, are small groups of opposition nationalists of various stripes: The aging Kemalists, pan-Turkic nationalists, and Islamists together make up the group of roughly 10 million that Erdoğan thought would support his own voter base on the night of July 15. To their left is a heterodox group I’ll call the “center opposition.” These are lapsed nationalists, who have been led astray by the ‘devils’ of globalism. They are mostly urban, disproportionately middle class, and well represented in the arts and popular culture. They are also politically the most malleable part of Turkey. On the far end of the gradient are the leftists and adherents of the Kurdish movements — the most intractable opposition to the government. It is these latter two clusters who make up the 30 million.
The Erdoğan government surely knows that an attempt to “nationalize” all of the 30 million would be unrealistic. Rather, it seeks to separate the leftists and Kurds among them and brand them as terrorists, then turn around and securely pull the center opposition into the nationalist opposition.
To achieve this aim, the government first needs to contain the spread of the left. Most in the opposition reject Erdoğan because they oppose one-man rule or Islamist government. The left, however, puts up genuine systemic resistance: They reject the idea that the Turkish nation is pure and infallible. Like leftists elsewhere, they deconstruct official history, focusing on massacres of minorities and exploitation of the working classes. There is also an inextricable tie to the Kurdish movement, which in turn is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — an insurgency that has been waging war on the Turkish state for over four decades. The connection between the non-Kurdish left and the Kurdish movement is complicated and has gone through various stages in the recent past. For the Turkish right, there is little difference between leftist subversion and Kurdish insurrection. “I joined the police to beat up Communists” a crescent-mustached officer once told me, and he was talking about arresting Kurdish protesters.
Today, the left end of the spectrum is represented in parliament under the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is built on the Kurdish movement but also serves as a stronghold of the non-Kurdish left. This combination is by no means unpopular. From its voter base of 6 percent in 2011(under independent candidates, before the HDP’s founding) to 13 percent in June 2015, the HDP was growing on the wings of its charismatic co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas. Many in the urban middle class, who are fairly indifferent about Kurdish rights, wanted to see Demirtas grow the HDP into a Turkish-Kurdish version of the European Greens. The idea at the time was to also expand into a grand center-left coalition that would prevent Erdoğan from establishing his hyper-centralized presidential system. Their momentum was cut short when months after the coup attempt, in December 2016, the government detained Demirtas on charges of terrorism and began a ruthless crackdown on the HDP’s activities that has since only gained in intensity.
Today, as the Greens are building a progressive front across Europe, the HDP is at its breaking point. Most of its leaders are in jail, and its staff is demoralized, overworked, and almost unemployable anywhere else. There is growing tension between the leftist-Turkish and Kurdish wings. All this is a point of pride for the government. If it hadn’t intervened, there was a serious danger that a well-organized and well-staffed HDP would have continued pulling the entire opposition bloc to the left.
The second part of the government’s strategy is to keep the left — crippled and branded as terrorists — within the political system. While Turkey’s politics is polarized between the government and the opposition, this creates a second polarization, this time within the opposition camp. It is this second polarity where the vast majority of political discourse takes place. From the perspective of a nationalistic system of valuation, in which being “local and national” reigns supreme, this is a fatal flaw. On the one hand, the various factions of the opposition can’t win a national vote unless they partner with the HDP to form a 50 percent bloc against Erdoğan. On the other, the nationalists within the opposition cannot be seen working with the “terrorists” of the pro-Kurdish left.
The political theorist Carl Schmitt believed that politics can be boiled down to the distinction between friends and enemies, and that any attempt to separate politics from warlike enmity would fail. This helps explain why the “terrorist-patriot” polarity within the opposition is such a structural advantage for Erdoğan. Think of the typical conservative, nationalistic voter on election day, trying to decide between Erdogan’s block and the opposition nationalists: with Erdoğan, he gets friendship with fellow nationalists (albeit of different hues of conservatism) and enmity towards Kurdish separatists and ‘self-hating,’ ‘Godless’ Turks. With opposition nationalists, he is in tacit league with said Kurds and atheists against Erdoğan, who for all his faults, does not have a foreign bone in his body. For this person, supporting Erdoğan is emotionally efficient and robust. When sitting with friends at the local coffee shop or tuning in to social media, his mind is crystal clear about whom to praise and whom to attack. If he supports an opposition nationalist, whoever, he is constantly performing an emotional balancing act. He is tacitly allied with people he considers subversive against a government he believes is corrupt. This is an uncomfortable position to be in. If the country’s mood becomes more bellicose (during military engagements, for example) the subversion of his allies may become less tolerable than the corruption of the government, and he may want to switch sides. This is why there are always rumors about the opposition nationalist IYI Party’s switching over to Erdoğan’s coalition, especially in times of armed conflict with the PKK or its affiliates.
Still, the People’s Republican Party (CHP), Turkey’s founding and currently main opposition party, has tried to contain this “patriot-terrorist” polarity. Its umbrella candidates for the presidency, ranging from the soporific Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu in 2014, to the firebrand Muharrem Ince in 2018, have failed. In the 2019 municipal elections, however, the CHP’s mayoral candidates did well, uniting the Kemalist-nationalist camp, Islamists, liberal cosmopolitans, as well as leftists and even some sympathizers of the Kurdish movement. These candidates won against Erdoğan’s men in all major cities, including Ankara and (in a repeat election) Istanbul. This was the first, and so far only, time Erdoğan’s containment of the left had been breached. Generally, however, Erdoğan’s strategy of keeping the left within the political sphere has allowed him to position himself and his allies as the only pure nationalists in the country.
Having saved the opposition from the clutches of leftists and ensured division within it, the Erdoğan government finally seeks to pull the entire bloc to the right. This means focusing on liberal-minded urbanites whose nationalism has lapsed, and rekindling their faith in the national mythos. This is the most challenging aspect of its effort, and where it has done most poorly.
The most obvious method the Erdoğan government pursued to this end has been its restructuring of the media. For the past few years, the government has been taking over media channels that centrist voters traditionally follow, then gradually shifting their tone to favor the government. The Dogan Media Group, owner of Hurriyet (Turkey’s former newspaper of record) and CNN Turk (a 24-hour TV news channel) used to cater to a secular, urban, and increasingly progressive audience. The group’s main audience overlapped with the centrist-opposition CHP’s voter base, whose older members are secularist-nationalists and younger members (often their children) are leftist-progressives. In March 2018, the media group was sold to an Erdoğan-friendly conglomerate, which fired many of its veteran journalists and changed editorial guidelines. The result has been a desensitized, less colorful version of the jingoist carnival running across Erdoğan’s formal channels. CNN Turk, especially, became a tool for the government to enter the living rooms of CHP voters and tell them that they were voting for terrorist collaborators. So insidious were these attacks that the CHP had to ban its members from getting on the channel, and call upon its electorate to boycott it.
The Recent Impact of the Strategy
There are times when the government’s efforts to subsume the 30 million appear complete. When Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring, taking swathes of Syria from the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, Kurdish militants reportedly shelled parts of southern Turkey. In an address delivered soon afterwards, Erdoğan said “We have 18 martyrs and close to 200 wounded. In our country, we have the terror group’s so-called political organism. Aside from that, our nation is now in a state of Yekvücut.” The term is a favorite of the president. It is a combination of the Farsi term “Yek” meaning “single” and the Arabic word “vücut” meaning “existence,” or in the Turkish use, “body.” Erdoğan was thinking of the nation as a single biological organism, with the leftists and the Kurdish movement as foreign bodies. He was clearly satisfied with how the various factions of the opposition in parliament dealt with the motion to launch the operation. The nationalist opposition IYI Party eagerly voted for it, while the HDP voted against it, both of which was expected. What gave Erdoğan cause for celebration is that the centrist-opposition CHP had been bullied into voting for the cross-border operation as well. “Though our insides are burning, we will say ‘yes’ to the resolution so that our soldiers will not get so much as a bloody nose,” its leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu had said. When pushed to make a choice between what are essentially its nationalist and universalist poles, the CHP could be relied on to opt for the former. This was exactly the outcome Erdoğan’s political strategy had been aiming for. Years of hard work were paying off.
In the state of Yekvücut, there were three political classes in Turkey. The first was Erdoğan’s ruling class, who made the foundational decision of when, and against whom, to go to war. The second was a nominal opposition that got dragged along, and the third was a small, systemic opposition, which identified with the enemy across the border, and was vilified as its representative within. Such hierarchies, it seems, are inevitable. It is only with the presence of the third group that the second group does not have to suffer the indignity of being the lowest class. Meanwhile, the ruling class can rest easy knowing that nationalist politics has overpowered universalist notions. The difference between legitimate opposition and treason collapses, and the problem of the 30 million dissolves into thin air.
At first glance, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be a prime opportunity for practicing the state of Yekvücut. It requires historic levels of social and economic mobilization and invites international comparison that can turn to competition. In a speech following a weekly cabinet meeting in April, Erdoğan said “we can only overcome this outbreak if all 83 million of us move together.” Using the up-to-date census figure, he called on citizens to “embrace our oneness, our togetherness, our brotherhood.” With the combination of swift action and luck, Turkey’s containment efforts have indeed been more successful than those of most European countries and the United States. The intensive care units are well-staffed and equipped, and public compliance with the rules is robust. Erdoğan’s media was overjoyed in the early days of the pandemic, hailing the event a turning point in history that would mark the collapse of Western predominance and establish Turkey as a preeminent power. Surely, this was a time for the 30 million to rejoice in “Team Turkey’s” success.
They didn’t. The opposition media — largely relegated to the internet — was reporting on the plight of the working class and the brewing economic crisis. Like free media across the West, they also questioned the quality and veracity of their government’s COVID-19 data. In a speech delivered in May, Erdoğan was unusually angry. He had clearly expected a Yekvücut moment and was struggling to understand why it hadn’t come about. His strategy to create a “local and national” opposition wasn’t working, and the frustration of it seemed to hit him head on. “I want to warn once again the media and other representatives who are in league with the CHP’s leaders,” he said, before launching into what was — even for him — an unusually vituperative attack: “You are not national, and your localness is in question,” he said, “you have always sided with whoever was treacherous [bozguncu], whoever was perverted, whoever was depraved” adding, “you are like the creatures in mythology that only feed on enmity, hate, fear, confusion and pain.”
The fiction here was that these words were meant for a handful of journalists and politicians, rather than dissenting citizens, the 30 million. The extent to which the president believed this wasn’t clear. It also didn’t matter. It is in moments like these when Erdoğan’s policy to patiently inculcate patriotism into the 30 million dissolves into bitterness, and he lets fly:
When there is an earthquake, you do your utmost to inflate the numbers of those under the rubble. When there is an attack on our economy, and people are thinking of their bread and their future, you run after political profit. When there is a coup attempt, and our nation plants itself in front of tanks, flags in hand, a takbir [“Allahu Akbar”] on their tongue, you applaud the tanks on your balconies, you slurp coffee in front of your televisions. When we stage operations to end harassment on our border, you rise up against us in defense of blood-stained terrorists.
The examples the president lists are all Yekvücut moments, and the 30 million are always there to prevent him from consummating them. The idea is that these people are worse than dead weight, that they actively work to towards Turkey’s demise. The absurd accusations of fraud and coup-abetting aside, there is something to the idea that the opposition wants things to get worse. The Erdoğan government’s consolidation over the past decade has been so suffocating for opposition voters that many do look for deliverance in economic or natural disaster. “I just want Tayyip [Erdoğan] to get a thrashing, I don’t care at all how it happens or who does it,” one such voter told me not long ago. Just as Erdoğan and his supporters chase the moment that will finally subsume the 30 million, they chase the moment that this regime will come crashing down.
It is difficult to discern which side is winning overall. On the one hand, the opposition is becoming more nationalist, and is willing to grant Erdoğan the legitimacy he seeks. Opposition leaders on the nationalist end will often appeal to Erdoğan to include them in the decision-making processes, and their media will support the government in critical issues, especially when it comes to foreign policy. On the other hand, there is an increasingly vociferous leftist movement. The Erdoğan government may have cut short the HDP’s rise, but it hasn’t been able to prevent leftist ideas from spreading. The CHP’s youth wings today are highly class-conscious and hostile to militant nationalism. Figures like the CHP’s Istanbul provincial head Canan Kaftancıoğlu , who campaign on a mix of feminism, workers’ rights, and anti-fascist slogans, are gaining a national following. The polarization within the opposition is likely deepening, with part of the 30 million become more “national,” while another part is becoming more leftist. This means that the great mass of right-wing sentiment is growing, but so is the left-wing minority. The “problem,” in the government’s view, may no longer be 30 million strong, but it is more acute, and perhaps more vexing, than before.
It is in this context that in the past few months, the ruling class has been circling back to the image of the military coup. The most unusual references can spark hysteria on this point. In January, two sentences in the introductory pages of a report entitled Turkey’s Nationalist Course by the American RAND corporation vaguely reflected on the prospect of a coup. This triggered weeks of speculation and chest-thumping in government circles, to the point where nobody knew the origins of the rumor. Most people in government circles probably didn’t feel like it was serious, but they welcomed the opportunity to display their loyalty to the Erdoğan government. This has reached a point at which prominent opposition politicians have to be careful about slight ambiguities in their speech, lest they be hit with avalanches of coup delirium. In April, when the CHP’s Canan Kaftancıoğlu said on a small opposition TV channel that she foresaw a change in government “in an early election, or in any other way,” and that the regime the Erdoğan government had built would also end. These are common talking points across the opposition, which has been trying to goad the government into snap elections and speaks openly about its opposition to Erdoğan’s presidential system. Yet Kaftancıoğlu is not just any politician, but someone who is carrying leftist irreverence into centrist politics. Her comments sparked waves of coup hysteria, as well as a large fine.
The furor didn’t revolve around conspiracy theories per se; few brought up clandestine networks that would actually execute a coup, nor made even perfunctory attempts at connecting Kaftancıoğlu to such imaginary plots. The idea seems to have been that a leftist minority would fail to contain their hate for the virtuous many, and launch a rabid attack at them. Many found the idea convenient, since it would also grant the nation the opportunity to rid itself of this group. The AK Party’s Istanbul provincial head, for example, tweeted that those attempting the last coup in 2016 had been “spilled into the Bosphorus” and that Kaftancıoğlu “should know that the Bosphorus is cool this season, and deep in the summer.” He probably didn’t think that Kaftancıoğlu would personally block the continent-spanning bridge by force, as putschists had tried in 2016, but the thought of it was clearly exciting. Another flash of violent fantasy occurred on a pro-government TV channel, where Sevda Noyan, a pundit, said: “[The coup attempt of] July 15 is stuck in our throats. Wallahi [I swear to God], we couldn’t do the things we wanted to do, we were caught unaware.” But in the event of another coup, she would catch up:
Our family would take about 50 people. [laughs] I mean, I should say we are very well equipped in this regard, both materially and spiritually [laughs] we – we are with our leader, and we would never allow him to be taken. That is why they should watch themselves. There are still 3-5 in our building compound. My list is ready.
Noyan was saying that her family was well armed (gun ownership has soared since the 2016 coup attempt) and was eager to use lethal force against people she suspects would be on the wrong side of the Erdoğan government in a hypothetical coup. These kinds of statements are fairly common within the core of the government’s supporters, but still unusual enough for the wider public to cause a minor controversy. When responding to public outrage, Noyan pointed out that she merely echoed Interior Minister Soylu’s statements from a 2017 interview when he said, “We couldn’t do the things we actually wanted to do on July 15. That is clear. I don’t know if they will give us that opportunity, I mean if we ever face this sort of thing again, we will have seized that opportunity, that much is clear.” The key word here is opportunity. To Turkey’s governing class, the military coup of their imagination is not a matter of defending against an armed force trying to take over the government. Rather, it is a night of free-for-all, in which politics is stripped down to its violent core, and a majority at the height of its powers can finally put down the enemy within: the haters, the doubters, the creatures of mythology.
There is reason to think that the present phase of Turkish politics, which is based on the polarization within the opposition, is coming to an end. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified pressure on the already beleaguered economy, and the government’s expansionist foreign policy is making dramatic international confrontations more likely. In this turbulent new environment, Erdoğan might give in to the temptation to take a more activist approach towards the problem of the 30 million. “Turkey will not only reach its 2023 goals [the centennial of the Republic], it will also be rid of the representatives of this diseased politics,” he said in May, hinting that he might cut the left out of the political system entirely. If this should happen, politics would be an uneven contest between Islamist, pan-Turkic, and secularist hues of Turkish nationalism. Far off, in the back streets of the big cities and in the Kurdish provinces, in second-hand bookshops and hidden corners of the internet, there would be a progressive left, weathering out what is surely going to be a violent storm.
Selim Koru is an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) and a writing fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI).
Image: President of Turkey
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated, “When pushed to make a choice between what are essentially its nationalist and universalist poles, the CHP could be relied on to opt for the latter.” This was a mistake. Instead, it should have stated, “the CHP could be relied on to opt for the former.”