Turkey and the challenges ahead

Simon Hooper reports from Ankara on the outcome of key Turkish elections and analyses some of the ch

As someone who has covered the high drama and hysteria of elections in Bolivia and Venezuela, Sunday's Turkish elections in Ankara proved to be a surprisingly sedate affair with none of the mass euphoria, street parties, music and colour I associate with votes in South America.

Having spent the previous day racing around the nearby countryside with a 200 car-strong rolling carnival of AKP (Justice and Development Party) supporters decorated in the party's orange and blue colours, tossing flags, flyers and other party-themed paraphenalia out of the window at excited villagers, it all seemed particularly anti-climactic.

But Turkey's strict election laws forbid campaigning on the day of the vote itself. Cars still carrying party colours were stopped by police and ordered to remove them, the vans with campaign songs blaring from roof-mounted loudspeakers were noticeable for their absence and even the bunting strung between every available lamppost had been pulled down overnight, leaving Ankara looking like a house that had been zealously tidied the morning after a party.

Perhaps the heat – 36 degrees on Sunday – also helped stifle political passions. On the other hand, it may be a sign of the growing maturity of Turkey's young democracy that one of the most important votes in the country's history was conducted with a minimum of fuss in a quiet, orderly fashion.

On the face of it, Sunday's result appears to be a straightforward success for AKP leader and ruling prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had been forced to call elections months ahead of schedule after falling out with the country's political establishment in a row over his administration's supposed Islamist-leanings.

Erdogan was not only re-elected but re-elected emphatically as his party's share of the overall vote surged to 46.7 percent from just 34.3 percent five years ago.

First and foremost then, Erdogan has secured a massive democratic endorsement from a broad cross-section of Turkish society for his party's pick-and-mix populist programme of liberalising economic reforms, welfarist tendencies and cultural conservatism.

But the AKP still faces a delicate political situation. It must now once again return to the unresolved task of choosing the country's next president – the issue that prompted secularist outcry back in April over the government's nomination of foreign minister Abdullah Gul due to the fact that Gul's wife, like Erdogan's, wears a headscarf.

Erdogan has also pledged constitutional reforms including a referendum on whether future presidents should be elected directly by popular vote and shifting more of the presidency's executive powers to parliament.

Yet even his comfortable majority falls short of the two-thirds necessary for any major tinkering with Turkey's well-entrenched system of checks and balances and it is hard to see either the opposition Republican Party (CHP) – traditional defenders of the secularist legacy of modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – or the resurgent far right Nationalist Party (MHP) coming to his aid.

It also remains to be seen for how long Turkey's secularist institutions – particularly the army – will be prepared to respect and accept Sunday's result as the 'will of the people'.

Turkey's military leaders have long made a habit of interfering in politics, overthrowing three governments directly since 1960, and undermining a fourth – which included Erdogan and Gul - by more subtle means in 1997.

While coups may no longer be as fashionable or as accomplishable as they once were, the Turkish military's influence in Ankara's corridors of power still runs deep.

In April, it was an army statement – published on the internet – threatening to intervene against the election of a non-secular presidential candidate, that did most to trigger the political crisis leading to Sunday's election.

"They used to send tanks onto the street. Officers would take over TV stations," says Ibrahim Kalin, a columnist for the Zaman newspaper.

"Now they just send an e-mail. You can think of the army as Turkey's perennial government - they are always in power."

Already Erdogan is under pressure to sanction an escalation of the army's campaign against the PKK following a recent wave of attacks by the Kurdish separatists, including operations into Kurdish-controlled Northern Iraq.

Many moderate Turks fear such a move would only stoke the Iraqi cauldron, incite further PKK violence and damage the country's faltering relations with the US, yet sanctioning a cross-border campaign may well be a price Erdogan – who has already vowed to do "whatever is necessary" - is forced to pay in return for an uneasy truce with his deeply distrustful generals over his domestic agenda.

Ultimately however, as the only party trying to occupy the political centre ground, the biggest challenge facing Erdogan and the AKP is likely to be holding together its broad support base in a country still coming to terms with its own complexities.

Turkey is an essentially contradictory place where aspirational westernised lifestyles and a traditional Islamic identity collide, sometimes jarringly, every day. My personal favourite example of this came at a magazine stand in Ankara where I spotted copies of Turkish FHM advertising "SEKS: KARMA SUTRA!" while a muezzin from a nearby mosque wailed in the background.

Beyond the recognisably European major cities, however, Turkey remains a conservative Islamic country in which socialising is largely segregated by sex, the majority of women wear headscarves and alcohol consumpion is rare.

Yet there is also a keen appreciation of the benefits and challenges of globalisation on the Turkish economy, an openness to new ways of doing things, and a progressive attitude to education. Many traditional Turkish families nowadays chose to send their daughters onto futher education in Austria or Germany to bypass the dogmatic secularism that forbids headscarves in university classrooms.

More than any other party, AKP has set about addressing those contradictions in a way that fits the reality of Turkish life beyond the delusional world inhabited by the country's secular elite.

"The secularists have an image of Turkey that is fully western in outlook, in lifestyle, and the fact that a Turkish president could have a wife who wears a headscarf shatters that image," says Suat Kiniklioglu, a newly-elected AKP representative for Cankiri province.

"Turkey is a country with many variations of grey and you cannot describe it in black or white. It's impossible."

Turkey, then, has many paths from which to choose and one election is unlikely to go a long way towards deciding determining its future. But the fact that Turks voted so emphatically against the authoritarian tendencies of the traditional establishment suggests that at least the tone of that debate will be democratic.

"We've come a long way to embracing democracy in a genuine sense," says Kalin. "But democracy becomes powerfully influential in terms of social justice, equality and fairness if the society is strengthened, not the state. It doesn't work if the state sees itself as this patrimonial boss, saying 'I am here to fix your mistakes.' If we can change that balance, Turkish democracy can grow even stronger."

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”


Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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