Out for a stroll on election day

Today was Turkey’s general election. 20 different political parties campaigned but it was clear from day one that there were four parties to pay attention to: The ruling party, the Islamist and right-wing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and their three main opponents, the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the far-left Democratic People’s Party (HDP). Turkey has the highest threshold for entering parliament in the world (10% of the vote) so the big question was whether the next legislature would be made up of three or four parties.

If the AKP had won the supermajority that they had hoped for, their intention was to change the constitution and create what president Erdoğan calls a “Turkish style” executive presidency, modeled on the governments of Kazakstan and Uzbekistan, neither of which are known for their democratic credentials. According to their detractors, they need this in order to see to it that their top officials never stand trial for various corruption charges and their having been caught sending weapons into Syria.

Instead it’s looking like they may not have even won enough to form a government on their own. There may even be a hung parliament. It also looks like the HDP made it into parliament, which is historic and will prove incredibly significant for Turkish politics for a while to come.

Officially the results are still not in and there’s a lot of speculation about how things have gone and how they will end up. A few hours ago I took a walk and see what sort of effect the election was having on the neighborhood. I decided to walk down Tarlibası to Shişane, up İstiklâl, wander around Cihangir, head up to Taksim, and then head home from there.

The first person I spoke with was the young shopkeeper on the corner. He was watching the election coverage on television, as I would find most people doing throughout the evening.
“AK Party! Erdoğan is strong! They won!”
He wasn’t wrong. At this point, it was looking like the AKP had taken about 40% of the vote. In terms of basic mathematics, they won the most votes. According to Turkey’s laws though, they didn’t win, because that’s not enough to form a government.
“What about the other parties?” I asked.
“Psh, look at them. Look at Demirtaş, huh? So little! He’s weak!” He pointed to the HDP’s 11.5%.
“Weak? I don’t know. What about the bombing in Diyarbakır? Seems like they had a tough fight.”
He shrugged and made a face. I couldn’t tell if he was reflecting on the terrible tragedy, where several people were killed and hundreds were wounded in a terrorist attack on a small political party whose biggest opponent was the AKP, or if he thought I was daft for evening thinking it was even worth mentioning.”
“Look, Erdoğan is strong!” He pointed to the results again.
I nodded in agreement and bid him farewell.

I walked past a woman begging for change on the street. She had her passport out to show that she was a Turkish citizen and not an immigrant without papers. Turkey has 1.7 million Syrian refugees and I imagine the passport helps her stand out. I walked past another woman who was talking on her cellphone but took the time to smile and wink at me as she passed by. I decided not to bother either of them about election returns.

Up on my left was a cafe where a middle-aged man in a white suit sat drinking tea and watching the live election coverage.
“AKP?” I asked.
He shrugged and waved his hand in a “they’re not doing so well” sort of manner.
I couldn’t tell if he was happy about this or not.

I walked up İstiklâl quite a ways without catching a glimpse of anything worthy of note. In the past month I’ve seen dozens of political gatherings and demonstrations of all kinds, always under the watchful eyes of a small army of police officers armed with automatic weapons. Today, however, the street seemed completely devoid of political life, as if everyone who might normally be leafletting or speaking was inside watching the coverage.

I took a side street and popped in to grab some pide, which is sort of like pizza with butter instead of sauce or olive oil. I asked the guys inside about the vote count, which they were watching. They shrugged.
“And the AKP?” I asked.
They all smiled and one younger man said simply, “Not so good for them.”

The next person whose evening I intentionally interrupted was a parking lot attendant who had a small television from which one could hear the election night broadcast from at least 20 yards away.
“Do you speak English?” I asked, feeling just as stupid as I ever have asking that question.
His response was excited, his eyes wider with every sentence, all of which was spoken in frantic Turkish. I barely understood two or three words.
“Ok,” I said, “AK Parti?”
He frowned. “AKP,” he corrected. ‘AK Parti’ is usually only used by their supporters. He went on to say a great many things, out of which I could manage to understand very little beyond the word “coalition,” which in Turkish sounds like *coalisyon.*
“Coalition?” I asked, pointing to the screen. I’ve spent some time thinking about how tha various parties might collaborate and I was curious what combination of mutually opposed parties he thought might try to form a government.
He shrugged. Then he pointed at the AKP and said, “Big loss,” before explaining in Turkish — probably in great detail — whatever else it was that he thought about the whole affair.
I smile and thanked him. I’m sure if I could speak the damned language I would have had an interesting discussion.

At the mini-market a few blocks away, I bought a lemonade and approached the two men watching the vote count.
“How’s it going?”
They both grinned. “Not well for the AKP.”
“This is good?” I asked.
“Yes,” one of them said. “It’s good because the AKP is not good.”
“Oh, I see. Well, what’s going to happen now?” I asked.
They both looked at other as if each hoped the other would answer. They both shrugged.

This went on for a while. I bought some cookies here, a cimit there, and every time I asked the same sort of questions. Usually either the AKP “had won again” or “was finally losing,” depending on a given person’s political persuasion.

When I got to Taksim, I saw a number of police officers and for a moment I thought some kind of event was taking place but then I remembered that Istanbul is a lot like Chicago in that there are cops everywhere. Indeed, there was no gathering of any kind, save for typical gatherings of people with selfie sticks posing for photos under the Republic Monument. I bought some Turkish coffee from an old man pushing a shopping cart full of air-pots. He was surprised I knew anything about Turkey. He told me he was a HDP supporter and that was ecstatic about their 11%.

At the end of the square I spied four news vans and a small group of people gathered near one reporter. “This is it,” I thought and I rushed over to ask some questions.

“Is there going to be a rally of some kind?” I asked a guy who looked maybe a few years younger than me.
“Yes, of course. For the AK Parti. They won, you know.”
I pointed out that they came nowhere near the number of seats that they had wanted.
“They won with more than 50% of the vote,” he protested.
He was watching the live coverage on his smart phone. I looked at the screen.
“It says they have maybe 41 percent,” I offered.
“Yes, but you know…” He shrugged and waved one hand as if to shoo away an explanation that needn’t be given since we all knew whatever it was he knew.
“When is the rally?”
“It’s in ten minutes!”

I decided to grab a seat on the wall near the metro stop and observe. I sat, growing ever less patient as ten minutes turned into 25. I pulled out my phone and started playing RISK. I must have looked strange, slouching against a signpost, with my hat tilted back and my hair in my face. Several people did a double take as they walked in or out of the station. Maybe they thought I was drunk.
The small crowd of people who had gathered in anticipation of an AKP rally had all departed.
What the hell?

I got up and decided to approach two young women sitting on the edge of Gezi Park. They look up at me somewhat apprehensively at first. I took off my hat and crouched down so they could look down on me from their vantage point on the hill. Then I apologized for my Turkish. This combination of deferent gestures seemed enough to win me their attention.
“I hear there’s a rally supposed to take place. Do you know anything about this?”
They looked confused. “A rally for what?”
“The AK Parti,” I said, feeling quite foolish.
They both laughed. “The AKP? No, why would there be a rally?”

On my walk home I could see fireworks in the sky, a celebration either of the AKP victory or the AKP defeat, depending on who was shooting them off.

– Jason

PS: Yesterday I visited the Communist Party (who ran an all women slate in the election) office where a young man told me that there would be immense social turmoil as a result of this election. I wonder if he’s right.

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