"A 100% metaphysical certitude lock"
Should Turkey's opposition be optimistic about the elections?
On Tuesday, Turkey woke up to the new election video of opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. I wasn’t a fan of previous CHP election clips, but this one I think is pitch perfect.
The song they end up picking for these videos acts as the soundtrack for the whole campaign, and they went with Levent Yüksel’s Tuana, so that morning, half the country is swaying with sweet 90s nostalgia, singing along to the refrain “I promise you spring will come again, I promise that the light won’t fade.”
If you follow Turkish politics, you’ll have noticed that the opposition is more optimistic than ever before. Turn on Halk TV or Fox, and the mood is euphoric. The presenters are counting the days until the election, referring to Kılıçdaroğlu not as a mere candidate, but as the 13th president in the making.
There’s not a day that goes by when people send me things about how popular Kılıçdaroğlu is, even in conservative strongholds like Konya. Apparently he couldn’t visit the shops there due to the sheer size of the crowds surrounding him:
I think things are a bit different among Turkey watchers abroad. There’s an urge here to throw a wet blanket over the optimism. Here is a tweet, for example, by Sinan Ciddi, a senior scholar at an American think thank, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD):
Ciddi goes on:
“This happens b4 each election since 2015 and then people cry. Thinking that Erdogan will leave office through democratic proceduralism is the epitome of naïveté for me. I want to be wrong and eat my words… but studying TR for 24 years tells me that I’m not going to be proven wrong. Read the dynamics folks and wake up”
There’ll be optimists and pessimists on the outcome of any election (or horse race, or tavla game, or Anthropocene) of course. Let’s define a bit more clearly what the two dispositions entail here:
Optimists tend to think that the opposition will probably win the election, be able to form a government, and do a decent job once there. They are encouraged by the poll numbers and spend a lot of time imagining the country as it could be on the morning of May 15. They believe that senior figures in the bureaucracy will ultimately want a transition and help make it happen. Not many people I’ve talked to are delighted by the prospect of Kılıçdaroğlu juggling the interests of 6+ parties supporting him, but the optimists think that it can be done. “It can’t be worse than what we have now” said someone working for a table of six party to me.
The pessimists think that something big will probably go wrong. They fear that Erdoğan can still win the election, that he can cheat even if he doesn’t, or that he might do something else (like start a conflict) to shore up support last minute. The vocal pessimist thinks that the opposition isn’t adequately prepared for these problems, and could succumb to them. Some species of pessimists also believe that Kılıçdaroğlu’s coalition is too incoherent to be effective even if he does win, and that it’s likely to fall apart and set the country up for an Erdoğanists resurgence.
Pessimists are picky about the polling and hesitant to indulge in post-Erdoğan daydreaming. They fear that endemic optimism will breed complacency. They make a point of speaking from a very cold and rational place. After all, they say, Erdoğan will always surprise you.
What determines whether someone is an optimist or pessimist? I’d say it’s a person’s deeply-held views of human nature, their reading of Republican and Ottoman history, their careful study of polling microdata, their computer-generated simulations in light of various interpretations of the most recent laws, and of course, private focus groups they might want to hold in key cities across the country.
I mean, that’s what I do.
The rest of you seem to be swayed by less rational factors, like location and degree of involvement. Hence the dispositional chasm between in-country and out-country groups.
It’s not too hard to understand of course. It makes sense for opposition supporters in Turkey simply have a lot more riding on the election. For them, the line between political analysis and political action is understandably very thin. Abroad, the urge is to describe political reality as closely as possible, maybe even try to predict it. Also, if you’re a professional “Turkey watcher” (stop looking at me) you might want to cut that cold, analytical figure.
There’s a lot of friction between the two dispositions. A friend of mine, for example, now works at the Turkey desk of a major bank in London. He says that the vast majority of the people he and his bosses talk to are optimistic about an opposition victory, which the bank likes, but now they have to worry about being in an optimism bubble. My friend has to keep searching for opinions and data points to balance out his prediction, obsessively cutting out any human bias creeping into it.
Another friend has a political job in Turkey, and whenever people abroad ask him “whether Erdoğan will really give up power if he lost,” he sort of rolls his eyes. Westerners, he says, see Turkey “as a savage place” that was incapable of political change without violence erupting. I would have pushed him on that point, but didn’t want to be on the receiving end of the eye-roll.
Some optimists feel that the focus on Erdoğan’s possible actions is no longer warranted. It’s where the country is heading as a whole that they’re excited about, and what they would rather talk about. Most pessimistic positions also imply that Turkey has a “right-wing majority,” implicitly accepting Erdoğan’s version of what the country is (why many in İYİ are undercover pessimists). Many optimist will argue that this is a myth, and that inspiring leadership can yield a more democratic and left-leaning state and society.
Much of the pessimism abroad comes from the English-language writing on Turkish current affairs in the 2010s, when the liberal world fell out of love with Erdoğan, and started thinking about a new narrative. I started writing in the mid-to-late 2010s, and focused on the nature of Erdoğan’s politics, his imperial ambitions, the reasons for Turkey’s falling out with the Western world. I was part of a group of writers who basically wrote a corrective of the optimistic, liberal interpretation of the 2000s. We spent a lot of time explaining to people why this government wouldn’t do another “Kurdish opening” or a lasting rapprochement with its Western allies. As such, I’ve been a reliable supplier of pessimistic takes. I’m fully behind all of that analysis.
I’ve been wondering though, whether that kind of a focus on a political movement that makes up half of the country is warranted. I’m still fascinated by the right, and will keep writing about them for a long time, but am also dipping my toes into other waters. I started writing more explicitly in these pages about standup comedy, the regression of the Erdoğan regime, or NYE celebrations. I will develop that vein of my writing in the months and years ahead.
I do think that Turkey is undergoing a deep political shift. “People are waiting for this election the way a mother waits for her son to return from military service” said a friend of mine recently, and I think he’s right. There’s hope and trepidation awaiting the return of something long lost.
Canan Kaftancıoğlu, the CHP Istanbul president and the person behind İmamoğlu’s 2019 campaign, tweeted Kılıçdaroğlu’s Konya visit on Tuesday:
I don’t like to say assertive words, but don’t hesitate to act assertively.
With this in mind, rather than make a claim, I’d like to make a realistic observation.
The election could end in the first round, and you’ll see that it will.
Whatever the evil in power does, it cannot change this outcome, it will not be able to change it.
Because the majority of the population wants this and the outcome won’t change no matter what anyone says.
We believe, so all we have to do is to put in the work.
That’s definitive. You can quote me on that :)
Kaftancıoğlu is a serious political strategist and has been canvassing across the country for years now. When she says something like this, I take it seriously. (She could have used some copy editing, but hey, it’s a tweet chain.)
The tweets made me think of another political strategist. There’s a Steven Bannon interview from 2019 when he’s talking about the Trump campaign right after the Access Holywood scandal. Basically, one month before the 2016 presidential election, a tape emerged in which Donald Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women on a regular basis because “when you’re a star, they let you do it.”
It blew up into a potentially candidacy-killing scandal, and the senior campaign staff apparently got together to assess his chances of survival. Here’s Bannon describing the scene:
Trump’s going around and saying, “Give me your percentage and what do I do,” and they’re all like, you know, 0%, 20% […] He comes to me and says, “What do you think?” I said, “100%.” He goes, “100% what?” I said: “100%, you’ve got this. It’s a metaphysical certitude lock.” He goes, “Knock off with the 100%.” He goes, “I’ve got to hear your real number.” I go, “It’s 100%.” He goes—I said: “Listen, they don’t care. This is locker room talk. They don’t care about vulgarity or anything like that. They care about—they care about they’re losing their jobs; they’re losing their country.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll find the Kaftancıoğlu-Bannon comparison off putting, but hold your nose for a second. Both are very talented, high-level political strategists, and both refuse to play the probabilities game. They claim to have transcended the tension between optimism and pessimism. They have already won by virtue of their positioning. Now they need only collect their prize.
None of that will help my banker friend in London of course. He is in the business of betting on the outcome, he has to see the election as a contest.
For the rest of us, elections need not be binary affairs. They are collective experiences through which society articulates its political vision. I think what Kaftancıoğlu and others hear in that articulation is that the country has outgrown Erdoğan. How do you not feel good about that?
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