THE BLOG
08/27/2014 02:55 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2014

Turkey Votes in Erdogan and Votes Out Its Founding Ideology

As widely expected, Turkey's Prime Minister Erdoğan emerged victorious in the first round of Turkey's presidential elections, garnering around 52 percent of votes cast. This is his ninth consecutive election victory (3 general and 3 local elections, plus 2 referendums and the recent presidential elections) - a record that is hard to beat by any politician in any democracy. The joint candidate of the main opposition parties, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, received around 38 percent of the vote, whereas the pro- Kurdish and left-leaning candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş, took slightly less than 10 percent of total electoral support.

Erdoğan's conciliatory messages at the victory speech

In his victory speech, Erdoğan struck a conciliatory tone and adopted inclusive language. He called on the opposition and different sections of society to leave behind its old rifts and to embark on the establishment of a new Turkey. While spelling out the names of groups making up the socio-cultural and ethnic composition of Turkey, he did not only refer to the Muslim sections of society, such as the Turks, Kurds, Circassians and others, but he also included non-Muslim sections of society as well: Armenians and Greeks, in particular.

As regards the primary foundation of Turkey's identity, he offered the concept of Türkiyelilik in place of the official and constitutional concept of Turkishness, as Turkey's constitution defines all citizens of Turkey as Turks. The term Türkiyelilik stands for a more civic conception of citizenship in place of the previous ethnocentric understanding of Turkey's citizenship and identity. This term facilitates the ground for Turkey to go beyond its ethnic and sectarian cleavages and fault lines.

The state's preference of certain ethnicities and sects over others has been the root cause of many of Turkey's woes. Moreover, such a redefinition of Turkey's citizens is likely to contribute to Turkey's ongoing Kurdish peace process, as the state's previous policy of Turkification -- strictly enforced, but utterly failed in the case of Kurds -- provided a fertile ground for Kurdish nationalism to arise and later manifest itself in the armed activities of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

In addition to Turkey's past fault lines, Erdogan also adopted a conciliatory parlance on Turkey's more recent emerging social/political fault line which is centered around difference of lifestyles. Erdoğan said as they (his government) had been respectful of different lifestyles before, he will remain respectful of citizens' different lifestyles from the presidential office as well. The debate over lifestyle essentially accounts for the tension between Turkey's conservative and secular sections of society, which has become more popular as a topic of discussions in public and political circles in recent years. All these conciliatory words illustrated that Erdoğan is warming up to his new role as the president, a position that will require him to be evenhanded towards all citizen of Turkey.

Putting this aside, this election outcome essentially illustrated first, that the majority of Turkey's population demand the revision of Turkey's founding ideology (Kemalism); and second, that genuine politics is the only game in town for any party that strives for political success or popular support.

Revising the founding ideology

First, these numbers clearly indicate that both Erdoğan and Demirtaş increased their votes, hence they can count this election as a victory. In the general elections of 2011, Erdoğan and Demirtaş respectively received (through their parties) around 50 and 6 percent; In the 30 March 2014 local elections, these candidates acquired around 45 and 6 percent. Moreover, unlike İhsanoglu, they both are political figures and represent two social bases that had been marginalised by the previous Kemalist establishment: conservative/Islamic segments of society and Kurds.

In contrast, İhsanoglu was running on the joint ticket of the main opposition Republican People Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Whereas CHP is primarily representative of the secular, western-oriented part of the founding ideology of the Turkish Republic, which was premised on laicism, nationalism (Turkishness) and a western-orientation, the MHP is representative of the nationalism (Turkishness) part of the same ideology. Thus, İhsanoglu run in this election as the representative of the previous Kemalist establishment and its founding ideology. In contrast, Erdoğan and Demirtaş represent the segments of society that demand the revision of this founding ideology. Erdoğan's social constituency was primarily the victim of the republic's militantly enforced secularising mission or policy, and therefore demanded the relaxation or revision of this policy; Demirtaş's social base has essentially been the victim of the republic's nationalist (Turkification) policies and demanded the redressing of this aspect of the founding ideology. To put it differently, in this election, Turkey's founding ideology was put to the vote. The result was a clear victory for revisionist forces: conservatives/Islamists and Kurds.

Actually, it is not only in this recent election, but since the 1990s, Islamists/conservatives and Kurds have been the primary force for change in Turkey. They were both ascending in Turkey's politics and possessed the necessary will, energy, and motivation to change Turkey to make space for themselves in the socio-political and economic center, and to revise Turkey's founding orthodoxies. And at present, any party in Turkey which reduces its political platform to protecting the old status quo is doomed for failure, as repeatedly demonstrated by the dismal election performance of Turkey's main opposition party, which has spent its whole political capital on trying to maintain a defunct Kemalist orthodoxy.

Second, as the military was pushed back to its barracks and its influence curtailed, politics in Turkey has been freed from its previous chains. Therefore, political parties should engage in politics in earnest, if they strive for political success and public support. No longer it is possible for any political party to come to power and shape public politics through means other than genuine political processes, as was previously the case. As Turkey has changed in this regard, political parties need to reconsider their political platform, strategies, and language as well. They have to genuinely start to engage people and produce policies and politics that aim at their base.

The insistence of Turkey's moribund opposition not to understand and execute this basic form of PR is at the root of its repeated failures. For instance, in a context, where people were going to vote to elect Turkey's next president, the opposition chose an apolitical name with generic messages as their candidate. Opposition candidate İhsanoğlu spent the whole campaign period just trying to make himself known by the public, since he was an unknown retired diplomat at the time of his nomination, unlike the other two candidates. He succeeded at this: only around 10 percent of society knew him at the time of his nomination, but this figure reached 90 percent by the end of the campaign. Yet knowing someone is not akin to knowing him/her politically. People learned about his résumé and etc., but did not have the opportunity to learn where he stands on major social and political issues during the election campaign. Being politically unknown was a significant setback for İhsanoğlu in a contest where the arbiter is the people.

In a political environment unburdened by the vestiges of military rule and of extra parliamentary forces' influence, Turkey's people voted to revise its founding ideology by choosing Erdoğan and emboldening Demirtaş. As Erdoğan changes his role from being the Prime Minister and the chairman of the Justice and Development Party to being the president of the Republic, he has struck a conciliatory tone by recognizing the content and imperatives of his new job.

An earlier and abridged version of this article appeared on Al Jazeera English on Aug. 16, 2014.