In the 1990s, Turkey’s Welfare Party stood out with its political campaigns emphasizing economic and even class matters. For instance, when Tayyip Erdoğan won Istanbul in 1994, he proudly declared during TV debates that he was the only person who lived in the slums.
Back then, Erdoğan did not seek prestige through the “palace” but through modesty. His bid to be the “fortune of the unfortunate” was accompanied by a style that replicated the language of the oppressed.
In later years, political decisions were dictated by this concern. An organic relationship was expected to emerge between the lower classes and the party. This promise of elevating of the poor and downtrodden to upper levels through political representation constituted the initial base of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). During its first years in government, the party affirmed it had created a new middle class.
Thanks to the abundance of cash in global markets, easy and cheap loaning means, affordable transfer costs and construction booms that spurred economic growth a that time, low-income groups underwent a significant improvement im their standard of living. Temporary reliefs provided in certain service areas such as health and municipal services also contributed in raising that standard.
Moreover, the feeling the poor were being cared for was colored with a religious and cultural identity discourse. The liberal discourse that prevailed in the 1980s generated a “contempt for poverty” that went hand in hand with an exclusionary secular and modernist discourse that culminated with the 1997 so-called post-modern coup. The dominant idea back then was that the poor were the only ones to blame for their poverty and that the state had no obligation to feed them. Even after the AKP came to power, the opposition derided the distribution of free potatoes, pasta and coal as “cheap politics”.
Except for statement from the then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2006 when he scolded a complaining farmer, telling him to “take his mother and go”, the AKP government was keen, for a long while, to maintaining its image of “the party siding with the poor”.
Discontent over economic conditions clearly surfaced during the 2009 local elections that were held following the 2008 economic crisis. Yet this was largely clouded by political events a drama instigated by the Gulen community between 2007 and 2010.
In 2011, the AKP came up with a new strategy which became official in 2015. The party scraped its connection with the poor, referring to it only in an identity-focused discourse. As it rapidly slid into authoritarianism, the government instrumentalized its relationship with the poor, in line with right-wing populist practices. The masses were assigned the role of supporting the leader as he challenged the global elite and of praising his victories and glory. The poor harbored the hope they would gain something from this.
The poor were also asked to tackle enemies clearly designated by the government. But instead of of income redistribution, the transfer of resources from the old to the new elite continued blatantly.
As the economic crisis deepened, the government’s discourse changed. Responding to discontent, it made references to the “ungrateful” that were incapable of measuring the cost of the bullets shot for the country’s survival. In fact, rather than siding with the poor, the AKP began to accept both poor and rich, granted they offered their support.
The attitude of Erdoğan and his close aides to the economic crisis is reminiscent of the “poverty loathing” that prevailed in the 1980s. The government’s fierce supporters on social media are quite aggressive in promoting this discourse. People that have committed suicide because they were unable to earn a living, students beaten by the police as if it was not enough that their subsidized meals were taken away from them are all considered “troublemakers”. Those who write about them are castigated as liars. Poverty is again referred to as fiction. Arguments include “How can somebody who owns a smart phone be starving? Why should the state be obliged to feed the student? If a person is starving then it is that person’s fault.”
The government, which is first culprit for the current problems, insists all is good. which translates into a more aggressive stances within supporting circles. It is obvious from random street interviews that the language of the government supporters on the streets has also worsened. To a person who says “I can’t make ends meat, I’m hungry,” an AKP member snaps back: “There is no such thing, you’re a troublemaker.”
Earlier this week, columnist Bahadır Özgür wrote on Gazete Duvar: “Poverty is no longer a Dickensian occurrence nowadays. It is fed by the anxiety of not being able to find a job while still at school, the fear of being fired while still working and the panic of not being able to pay back the bank loan. The dynamic behind this process is the rapid loss of the value of physical labor and the abilities added to that physical power. The tools such as professional formation, education level, expertise that makes one stronger in the race do not have a meaning in this regime. What the market needs is that all wage earners today are the potential poor of the future.”
What makes sustained poverty palatable for the market or the system is that it can be transferred into submission. One needs to borrow more, work more and be satisfied with less. In the military, for high obedience, the most effective formula is trivialization and disidentification. Populism is one of the tools to capture the poor masses. It is a glue for them while they enjoy the feeling of being cared for. Yet this feeling of being cared for can easily make way for that of being ignored.