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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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.