Could this be Turkey’s next leader? He is Sırrı Süreyya Önder, an MP who was at the forefront of the Gezi Park protests in May, leading the resistance in the teeth of advancing bulldozers. He is a politician of unusual integrity and charisma. A former actor and film director, he turned his hand to political journalism before running as an independent candidate for Istanbul in the 2011 elections. After winning an overwhelming victory in the polls, he decided to align himself with a political party and settled on the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party), the party which represents Kurdish rights and has been negotiating with the government in the recent Kurdish peace process. Önder is not Kurdish himself, which is unusual.
As I wrote last week, there have been exciting – if vague – rumours of a new political party emerging from the protest forums which have been held to discuss political representation for the concerns of protesters. This is badly needed, because mainstream opposition in Turkey is pathetic. The CHP (Republic People’s Party), the main opposition party, is outdated and disorganized, incapable of capitalizing on these protests or anything else. Their policies are almost entirely reactionary, and they rarely bestir themselves beyond blanket criticism of AKP policies. The leader until 2010, Deniz Baykal, led the party for eighteen dreary years, and was only persuaded to leave after an alleged sex-tape was leaked to the press. The current leader, Kemal Kılıçdaoğlu, seems like a rather nice man but has not taken the country by storm.
Turks have huge respect for strong, charismatic leaders, which stems from the ongoing hero worship of Kemal Mustafa Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey. Every Turkish leader since Ataürk has struggled in the shadow of the great man, and many people suspect that for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he is a particular nemesis. Erdogan has been the most popular and longstanding leader since Atatürk, and he needs a living rival.
He has no rivals, currently, because there are is no new blood in Turkish politics, only stagnation. This is mainly due to the barbaric 10% threshold which prevents any new political party from getting anywhere in elections. Even if a particular party candidate wins an overwhelming majority in their constituency, they will not win a seat in parliament unless their party has won over 10% of the votes nationwide. Anyone who voted for them effectively wasted their vote. This means that voters tend to support old dinosaurs like the CHP, even if they have no faith in these parties. Alternatively, they vote for independent candidates, who can, unaided, legally win seats in parliament by winning over 10% of votes just in their constituency. The 10% nationwide threshold for political parties is, incidentally, the highest in Europe, and the subject of much controversy, but the AKP show no interest in lowering it. It was instigated after the military coup in 1980, so that the military could control the main parties in power and prevent opposition. It is a self-evidently unjust system, but unfortunately it never suits those in power to change it, so it has stayed like this for twenty years. During the protests, I heard a religious Turkish lady describe it as “haram” – a religious sin.
Some parties have rather cleverly tried to buck the system by recruiting independent candidates; when these candidates win, they join the party to boost its profile and improve its chances for the next election. The BDP (Kurdish rights party) has done this to great effect, even attracting new ministers like Önder, the charismatic ex-actor. Önder has impressive credentials – like all successful politicians (including Erdogan), he has been imprisoned for his political views. At university in Ankara in 1980, he was sentenced to twelve years for being part of a student body that resisted the military junta. He is hugely popular, at least among Kurds and Istanbulus, although he cannot currently compare to Erdogan, sadly. If a political “Gezi Park” party did emerge now, it would need to employ the same tactics as the BDP to gain any momentum. It would need a lot of financial backing, which some old banking families might be willing to provide. Most of all, it would need a leader: my money is on Önder.