So many democracies today are beset with the politics of fear and smear that it is refreshing when some elections suggest voters say “Enough!” and choose candidates who do not see opponents as evil.
Turkey’s nationwide municipal election on Sunday was one good example. Many voters rejected the populist rhetoric of hate and division employed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been in power for 16 years. They gave control of five of Turkey’s six biggest cities to the main opposition parties. And this despite Mr. Erdoğan’s mass jailing of dissidents and his control over much of the media and the judiciary.
Voters in those cities had tired of the president’s labeling of opponents as either terrorist collaborators, anti-Muslim, or agents of the West. The truth was easily available on social media. In one video that went viral, a woman asks: “Why should the man governing Turkey make a distinction between the people? Are the [opposition] parties always evil and you [Mr. Erdoğan] are good?”
The voters’ desire for peaceful rather than polarizing politics was reflected in the victory speech of the winner of the mayoral race in the nation’s capital. “No one has lost,” Mansur Yavaş of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) told supporters. “Ankara has won.”
The new mood was best seen in the contest for mayor of Istanbul, the country’s economic powerhouse. After his victory, Ekrem İmamoğlu of the CHP urged Turks to be careful of their words. “Even a single person being slighted or offended will sadden me.” He promised to “heal the wounds that have been opened” by the harsh rhetoric about faith and ethnicity by Mr. Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party.
During his campaign, Mr. İmamoğlu spoke of the need for leadership in civility and an end to government relying on fear to suppress dissent. “If the mayor isn’t genial then the citizen isn’t either,” he said.
Another recent example of a country opting for candidates offering reconciliation was Saturday’s election in Slovakia. In a rebuke to the governing party’s anti-immigrant and populist tactics, a political newcomer and activist, Zuzana Čaputová, was elected president, the first woman to hold the post in the central European nation. In her victory speech, she said, “I am happy not just for the result, but mainly that it is possible not to succumb to populism, to tell the truth, to raise interest without aggressive vocabulary.”
“Maybe we thought that justice and fairness in politics were signs of weakness,” she told supporters. “Today, we see that they are actually our strengths. We thought that the barrier between conservative and liberal is unbreakable, but we managed to do it.”
Democracy’s great strength lies in its ability to draw people back from the extremes of rhetoric that rive a society rather than raise it up. In Turkey and Slovakia, voters have chosen that sort of reversal of hate. The bonds of civic life were too strong for incivility.