Erdoğan’s victory has broken our hearts. But we will keep hoping

Ece Temelkuran

After years of division, the feeling of brotherhood among Turkey’s different factions has been inspiring.

It feels like I’ve been dumped by text message,” wrote one of my friends. She sounded like a heartbroken lover but in fact she was talking about the Turkish opposition’s presidential candidate, Muharrem İnce. It was around 11 o’clock on election night and İnce’s whereabouts were unknown, while people were risking their lives trying to monitor the vote count. Half of the nation – responding to İnce’s call to fight until the end – had been trying to protect their votes from the government’s theft of the election.

It was like something from a Hollywood romance. The woman, having been disappointed so many times before that she fears opening up to another man, finally lets down her guard to love again – only to be disappointed once more. We, the heartbroken woman, learned that İnce had acknowledged the victory of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan through an off-the-record text message he sent to a TV presenter, not thinking that it would be revealed live on air.
The fireworks from the governing party buildings and the celebratory gunshots from the Erdoğan supporters seemed to mock the defeat of democrats: how stupid we had been to believe in a leader again after so many previous let-downs. At the end of our film, President Erdoğan, confirmed again as the sole leader of the country, gave one of his classic victory speeches, in which he said: “One nation, one flag, one state.” We, the opposition, as has been very clear for a while, are not included in his understanding of this nation.

For those who do not know much about Turkey – except for its representation in the global media as the crazy country where anything can happen – we have been living under a series of maddening political absurdities that have become easier to relate to since Donald Trump came to power in the United States and western countries started to face their own share of rightwing populism. However, prior to these elections – the first since the Gezi Park protests of 2013 – there had been real hope for those who opposed the hostile polarisation imposed on the country by Erdoğan.

It wasn’t only the rallies of the social democrat candidate İnce that brought millions together. It was also felt by ultra-nationalists and Islamic conservatives, including the mainly Kurdish HDP party. There was a de facto alliance of democracy against this one-man regime. For the first time in years, the choking sense of “Erdoğan the impregnable” was shattered. The man himself was stammering during his rallies, forgetting his words during speeches that the audience had been paid to attend; and his election promises – such as free cake in coffee houses – were widely ridiculed.

Yet despite the fact that we all knew it wouldn’t be a fair election, the spirit of “Yes we can” was in the air. Even the hardcore cynics were having second thoughts. Younger voters were expected to play an important role in the outcome, and they were out campaigning for İnce.

After years of division, that much-missed feeling of brotherhood among the different factions of our political spectrum was an inspiration. So much so that I wrote: “This is the liberation war of democracy. The western countries should follow the Turkish elections to see how democracy can be saved from rightwing populism even when all the state powers are seized by a ruthless leader.” I wasn’t alone in this enthusiasm: the international media, for the first time in years, were talking about a Turkish politician who was not Erdoğan.

“I am sorry,” said İnce, in his long-awaited speech, the day after the election. He was genuine and open as he apologised for not appearing in public to make a statement the previous night. “If you still want me to lead you through this walk, I am ready.” Since neither his party nor his intensely emotional supporters gave him any credit, he was embarrassed to do it himself: “In an election campaign of just 50 days, the votes of my party increased for the first time since 1977. Imagine what we can do in 500 days.”

It was met with mixed feelings. Some wanted to get back to their comfort-zone cynicism; others wanted to try again. In the coming days we will see whether or not İnce will be able to convince the exhausted opposition of Turkey. Whatever the result may be, it is thanks to İnce and the other opposition candidates that Turkey showed the entire world how half of our country is ready to join the struggle for democracy, at a time when the concept itself seems in global decline.

In countries such as mine, politics is highly emotional, and leaders are either loved or hated. Supporters carry their leader’s photo in their wallet like a secret lover’s. This might have seemed an odd phenomenon to western societies. But now there is the “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” chant and “I love you, Bernie” screams. This happens when people are faced with the fear of rightwing populism. Just like the Turkish people, Britons and Americans have started looking for a saviour, a valiant prince who won’t let them down.

As I was reprimanded after the election by my self-loathing friends for my childish enthusiasm and passionate behaviour on social media during the night, I thought of the line from the Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer romance Frankie and Johnny: “Maybe I am crazy, but I’d still like to believe in love.” In our case, in Turkey, determined as we are to stand together and continue to hope, that rings true. No matter what.