Russell Brand, Gezi Park and the Future of Voting in Turkey

For those of you who have been living in a cave in Cappadocia for the past few weeks, comedian Russell Brand has caused a ruckus again. Not in the form of a stage prank or satirical jibe, rather, he has announced a rather taboo recipe for social change; echoing legendary Scottish comic Billy Connelly he stipulates that we should not vote, “it only encourages them”.

As a Briton who has never voted either, this has given me a unique opportunity to come out of the proverbial closet. My long-held view is now a public discussion. However, as an alien living in Istanbul in the current climate, it has given me cause to reconsider my perceptions of Turkey where, given the right, I actually would be inclined to exercise my right to vote. Ironically, given all its obvious flaws, in regard to the vote, Turkey’s democratic institutions looks far more appealing than that of my home country. Yet as shown by the Gezi protests, it is an abstention with the system, if not the ballot choices, that has captured the imagination of this generation.

First a bit of background on the debate as it took place in Britain.

The setting of Brand’s outburst was an interview with Britain’s journalistic heavy-weight Jeremy Paxman, who threw back with the cliché, that as someone who hasn’t voted at a general election, “how do you have any authority to talk about politics, then?” For me, this aphorism has gone blatantly against the laws of logic needed to frame good debate. I have never voted on Britain’s Got Talent either, so am I to go out and burn all my Adele records? Okay, that may be far-fetched as a metaphor, given I haven’t legally purchased a record for around two years, but saying that, I still know the difference between good and bad music, and politically, we are living in the musical equivalent of 1975, with only the choice being between self-obsessed Glam Rock and boring hippy ballads. Is it any wonder that the foundations of a punk revolution are not in the making?

To let Brand speak for himself on the subject; “I know, I know, my grandparents fought two world wards (and one world cup) so that I’d have the right to vote. Well, they were conned. As far as I’m concerned there is nothing to vote for”

The reaction to his outburst got me thinking about what Sasha Grey famously said, that ‘Comedians are the new philosophers’. I’m not sure how far I would agree, but they are certainly the last people on Earth who can speak their mind – they are indeed the fortunate few whose job it is to do so. Duly then, the cybersphere  became clogged with open letters and youtube comments of support and derision.

Even Brand’s interviewer confessed that he himself didn’t vote at the last elections – not as a protest against the system as such, but simply as a coming-to-terms with the futility of the choices on offer. Contrarily, fellow comedian Robert Webb argued in an open letter that voting was indeed a revolutionary act in itself. The problem with the later point, however, is that literally no-one in the British Isles, at least in my life time, will have left the polling booth with the same satisfaction in their exercise of democracy as the Turkish youths I was amongst in Taksim this summer. Anyone who thinks otherwise has been conned.

Gezi Park as Abstention

As one piece of Graffiti on Istiklal Caddesi wryly put it, “the revolution will not be televised, it will be tweeted” and the Turkish example, no doubt influenced in its execution by Egypt, Tunisia and, in turn, Iran’s earlier attempt, cannot be ignored in terms of the power it has evoked in the imaginations of Europe’s millenials. Sat here in Turkey, geographically located between two worlds in generational conflict, the reversal of trends has been striking. Whereas in the twentieth century, the planet was lead by the narratives and ideological discourse of the West, it is now the East which is providing the blueprints for the kind of cultural, if not political, upheavals which will now form an affront to the more subtly entrenched political classes of the West.

Don’t get me wrong. The vote is still an important institution, and its day is not done. Tellingly, Turkey has the highest participation in voting of all OECD countries.  But it is simply not enough on its own. Marcuse’s ominous truism that “Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves” applies in England as much as it does here – where, as opposed to two parties vying for a middle ground that gives one no genuine alternative choice, it has been the army and its agents who have traditionally decided where the middle ground lies.

The fact is, that Britain’s political spectrum has entered a slump due to the death of the ‘Grand Idea’. Utopian ideologies are more often than not, an insult to peoples’ intelligence, no doubt, but at least in Turkey there are radically different viewpoints represented in parliament; conservative-minded, liberal capitalists go head-to-head with statists, nationalists and federalists. Although this makes Turkish politics extremely unstable, and often ill-informed thanks to a sabre-rattling press and various curtailments to freedom of expression, it has kept debate alive where it has slipt into a ‘Grand Sleep’ in the West.

If Turks still voting for now, there was one piece of news which showed how the mood was shifting this summer, when main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu announced in the first days of the protest, that he would hold a great rally on the Asian side of city, at four o’ clock, from where he would lead the crowds over the bridge to march to Taksim on the European side. By 2 o’ clock forty-thousand people had already marched across the bridge. Like the fabled French intellectual who, upon seeing a mob marching down the street declared “There go my people, I must find out where they are going in order to lead them”, even the long-established main opposition has been forced to recognize that the spectrum is extending in a completely new direction, and they must engage with that change if people are still to continue participating, or colluding, in Turkey’s democratic institutions.

The time of the ballot box is certainly not over, but with all main parties in Turkey looking back on autocratic pasts in order to provide answers for the problems of democratic-minded, liberal populaces, it is only a matter of time before they will all have to step up or be effaced by the challenge of the extra-parliamentary opposition of their people. As for Britain, I will continue to wait for a viable alternative to the current system to occur.

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