‘Anxiety on the rise in Turkey, but no change in political choices’

ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News / Barçın Yinanç / 31,12,2012

2012 proved to be a year in which there has been a worsening of expectations, according to a prominent pollster. But despite the fact that uneasiness is on the rise in Turkey, political preferences are not changing, says Bekir Ağırdır. ‘There is no vision of any other [political] party in our hands,’ he says

2012 was a year in which the alarm bells have been ringing as polarization is on the rise, says Bekir Ağırdır. Despite the gloomy picture, the coolneadedness of society keeps his hopes alive, he says. DAILY NEWS photos, Emrah GÜREL

The year 2012 saw a further rise in polarization in society, a prominent pollster has said. As there has been a worsening of expectations, the “pain threshold” of society has gone down, according to Bekir Ağırdır, the general director of Konda, an Istanbul-based research company. “But there is no vision of any other [political] party in our hands. Therefore, the anxiety in society is not making them change channels,” he told the Hürriyet Daily News in a recent interview. The overwhelming support enjoyed by the ruling party could be deceptive however, because the boiling in society is building up, he warned.

How was the year 2012 for Turkey?

I would not call it a lost year, but rather Turkey in 2012 has been a country where many things we longed for did not take place. From a political point of view, the main topics were the rewriting of the Constitution and the Kurdish issue. From a societal point of view, there are three points: First, polarization is on the rise. Second, as the rewriting of the Constitution did not take place at the expected pace, there is a worsening in the expectations. Third, the Syrian ordeal has had negative implications on the expectations and the general mood about sustainability of welfare. The pain threshold of society has gone down. One of the main indicators of this is the fact that a big portion of society was convinced when in 2009 the prime minister said the world economic crisis would not affect Turkey. Today there is anxiety. People are uneasily asking, ‘What’s going on with all of this?’

What is your reading of this situation?

The Justice and Development Party [AK Party] came to power following a period of nearly 20 years in which Turkey was not administered well that was sort of crowned with a disastrous economic crisis. The society thought that the country was finally being ruled, decisions were being taken and there was economic success at the beginning of AK Party rule. But Turkey’s problems are not limited to just the quality of development and economic growth. There was an expectation that Turkey’s vital political and social problems would also be solved; that was the main denominator in the 2011 elections. The AK Party was perceived to be the representative of change. But the AK Party changed its line; it settled in the midst of the state, it became Ankarized. Not only were there no reforms, debates started as to whether we were going backward. But what’s worth noting is that all debates are made over the AK Party. There is no vision of any other party in our hands. Therefore, the anxiety in society is not changing channels; uneasiness is on the rise but there is no indication of a radical change.

It’s interesting that you do not want to call it a lost year.

The changes that are needed in Turkey require a change in the mentality; you can’t solve the Kurdish problem, for instance, by just changing a couple of laws. We need an integrative transformation project. But big taboos are also being broken in mentalities; there is nothing we cannot discuss today, be it the military tutelage or reconciliation with past atrocities etc. There are serious mental fractures, but they need to be comprehensive and permanent.

But you also talked about debates on going backward.

This debate is valid only for some, and this is also an indication of polarization, which in politics can be defined as being for or against the AK Party. If only this polarization was limited to politics… We have had polarization in political life in the past as well, but it has never become permanent. But today we have an issue of identity, for instance. Actually there is nothing wrong with people willing to live with their identity and conducting politics over their identity. But this can pose a problem when constructing the ‘new.’ We can’t write the Constitution or build societal peace solely regarding the demands of the pious or modern or Kurds or Alevis. The ‘new’ means rules of an order in which we can all exist. We need to catch a higher level of consensus. But if I am imprisoned by my own identity demands, let’s say as a ‘modern secularist,’ this will mean I will not understand the demands of a girl with a headscarf. This is where Turkey is blocked, since political parties can’t go beyond the politics of identity. The prime minister asks for religious youth. Yes, there is such a demand in society for religious youth, but not everyone wants that; there are also people who are asking for free-thinking youth.

Why did we come to this point?

We were not able to manage the process of transformation well. We did not reform the initial model of the republic. When all our debates are imprisoned in defending the republic or settling accounts with the republic, we could not discuss issues like democratization or globalization.

What are the main indications of the rise in polarization?

We have the most comprehensive research on the Turkish-Kurdish issue since 2005. The number of those who want a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue is on the rise, but so is the number of people who want destructive solutions. The gray area between the two is getting smaller. The tension between Turks and Kurds is increasing. Half of Turks are saying they do not want a Kurdish neighbor, while this ratio is one-forth among Kurds. While the Kurdish issue started as a problem between the individual and the state, today it has gained a dimension related to society’s layers. Whereas we could have solved it 20 years ago with a couple of laws, as of today we are talking about the need to convince those living in İzmir. In addition it now has a regional dimension, as we have seen with the Syrian crisis, and it perhaps will have a global dimension in the future.

Another tension area is between modern and pious/conservative lifestyles. There are papers, books, TV channels and even grocery-store products that we label as against our lifestyles. We have research on the correlation between cultural identities and consumer trends. There is a product or a service that one in four consumers says is against their lifestyle and would not take it home even if it were free. Could there be something worse than that?

When we look to the ratio of optimists and pessimists regarding what people think of daily political issues like the Syrian crisis or the change of dress code in schools, we talk about two different worlds. If in Turkey three-quarters of optimists are gathered in one party and three-quarters of pessimists are gathered in another party, do they favor a party because they are pessimists or are they pessimists because they favor that party; to what degree political preferences shape perceptions becomes a relevant debate. What is abnormal is the fact that we act in parallel to politics when we analyze an issue in our daily lives. This is a problem because it means that ou analysis based on common sense is not working and that we take our whole stance from the poles where we stand.

I find this polarization very dangerous because if it continues like that and if our perceptions and lifestyles become an echo system, and our findings indicate that type of development, the next step will be gettoization in the societal sense. In other words I will go on vacations or live in neighborhoods or use the banks of people like me. But this society needs to be ‘us.’ And this should be done through the hands of politics. But whether the society has become rigid due to politics or whether politics has become rigid due to the society, no doubt, each affects the other.

In 2012 what the real problem was is the fact that each side built its game to secure the loss of the other side. At the end of the day we all lose. For instance, we just can’t expect the solution to the Kurdish issue from one party, but just because of the polarization it is becoming impossible to create an environment of discussion.

But once the perception that problems will not be solved takes root, then this will affect all of our preferences. We will start even shaping all our planning according to the presence of problems. If we start thinking, for instance, that there will never be rule of law in our country, we will start not stopping at red lights in traffic.

And you claim 2012 has been a year in which indicators in that direction have been on the rise.

Yes. I am trying to say that society is ringing alarm bells.

But despite all this anxiety, society has not changed its political preferences regarding parties.

Yes, that’s why the prime minister believes that he is moving in the right direction, because the polls taken each week show no loss in his votes. But his belief is wrong because there is uneasiness, and it is boiling.

After this gloomy picture is there any reason to be optimistic?

The coolheadedness and conscience of this society despite everything is tremendous. What keeps my hope alive after each poll is my admiration for the coolheadedness of this society.

When we look at each case, we can become upset about this neighbor or that shopkeeper, but when the conscience of 75 million comes together, society gives this reaction: In their daily lives, individuals are much more calm, tolerant and pluralist. It does not bother me if my shopkeeper is an Alevi or Kurd or whether the cleaning lady that comes to my house wears a headscarf. But when I look outside through the window, all the noise that I hear through politics and the media makes me uneasy and tells me there is a problem. I say, ‘I guess the woman with a headscarf in my house is a good one, but the others will cut my throat.’ Then I look to the state and want the state to protect me. One side of me is optimistic, tolerant and pluralistic but the other side is scared and afraid of taking risks. The problem in Turkey is how politics manage these two sides within us.


Bekir Ağırdır is the general director of Konda, a prominent Istanbul-based research company.
He was born in Çal, Denizli, in 1956; he later graduated from the Department of Business Administration at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ).

Ağırdır worked at the computing service department of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) between 1979 and 1980, at Bilsan Bilgisayar Malzemeleri A.Ş. between 1980 and 1984.

He worked as the CEO of Meteksan LLC.; of Pırıntaş Bilgisayar Malzemeleri ve Basım San. A.Ş. as well as vice CEO at Atılım Kağıt ve Defter Sanayi A.Ş.

He also worked at the History Foundation of Turkey first as a coordinator, and then as a director general, between 2003 and 2005.

He is also the founder of the Democratic Republican Program and is an active member of several NGOs.

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