During a recent visit to Istanbul ahead of Turkey’s important elections on May 14, I was struck by a number of things.
The first was to see how deeply scarred the people were from the February 6 earthquake, affected not only by grief, but also by the realization that the end of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 20-year rule was partly due to an over-centralized and dysfunctional government system. the culprit of the large number of victims. Erdogan’s re-election is no longer a foregone conclusion, which makes these elections consequential not only for Turkish citizens, but also for the global balance of power.
It is not surprising that friends, former colleagues, ordinary people were constantly talking about the elections and the earthquake in the same breath. Many expressed concern over the impending mega-earthquake in Istanbul and described various escape plans. I met people who were stockpiling water in their cars, trying to buy property overseas or planning to move to a safer new apartment.
Between the massive earthquake in Istanbul and worries about the upcoming elections, the country seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
I was also surprised by the fact that almost everyone had convinced themselves that Erdogan would lose the upcoming vote. In interviews with journalists, opposition officials and even bureaucrats, there was an almost blind belief that this was Erdogan’s last stand. They were so overconfident about the possibility of an opposition victory that only two of the dozens of friends and acquaintances I met in Istanbul, one journalist and one media executive, said they believed Erdogan would eventually win it.
There are, of course, very good reasons for making that assumption. The opposition alliance consisting of six parties is leading in the polls. Erdogan authoritarian bargaining Turkish society seems to have broken down and young people want change. With double-digit inflation, the once effective patronage system is now openly criticized for nepotism. The government’s inadequate response to the earthquake showed that behind the all-powerful facade of the state, institutions were empty, money was scarce, and corruption was rampant. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is no longer able to monopolize politics as it did a decade ago, and as a reflection has seen fewer applicants for parliamentary seats than in previous years.
But there are reasons to be cautious. The elections are still six weeks away, and a lot can happen in Turkey during that time. I am worried about this certainty of change and its consequences for Turkish society if Erdogan can hold on to power. For many, it would mean something bigger than losing the election. feeling cheated, possibly public anger and nihilism about the country’s future. For people on both sides, Turkey’s political struggle represents a deeply personal and existential struggle.
Of course, there is still a significant constituency that believes that Erdogan is the best person to lead Turkey. (Metropolitan’s latest survey finds (43.5% think they would or would consider voting for Erdogan, while 51.6% say they would not.) During Erdogan’s first decade in power, AKP policies liberalized Turkey and helped bring many citizens out. out of poverty by expanding social security and services. In the second half of his two-decade rule, Erdogan skillfully orchestrated culture wars, nationalism, and identity politics to give Sunni conservatives a voice in Turkey’s destiny. With a unique combination of neo-Ottomanism and Islamism, he rebranded Turkey as an unstoppable rising power. For the AKP base, Erdogan is the only person who can “make Turkey great again”.
But for others, Erdogan is responsible for Turkey’s authoritarian movement and economic despair. For them, world-class issues are secondary to economic survival. Many will ask themselves. “Who can lead the country better?” – More precisely, “Under which government am I better?”
The opposition argues somewhat convincingly that the problem is not just Erdogan, but the country’s consolidated one-man regime, which was brought into law in a narrowly passed referendum in 2017. The “Table of Six” is the name given to the somewhat awkward coalition of six right-wing to social-democratic parties, outwardly supported by the pro-Kurdish HDP, as the Opposition. His main pledge is the overthrow of Erdogan’s one-man regime and the restoration of the parliamentary system and the rule of law.
That this opposition bloc has survived despite the daily barrage of government propaganda and fake news in a highly authoritarian environment is itself an important testament to Turkish society’s desire for change.
But the opposition’s Achilles heel may be its candidate, 74-year-old Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the People’s Republican Party (CHP). The former civil servant is a soft-spoken social democrat who hails from Turkey’s Alevi/Alav minority. The ongoing debate over Kılıçdaroğlu is similar to the debates of US Democrats before the 2020 elections. Yeah, he’s nice and all, but can he slay a dragon? After a year of infighting and drama, the opposition parties finally settled on Kılıçdaroğlu, with the strategy of bolstering his ticket with the popular mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem Imamoğlu and Mansur Yavash, who would serve as his deputies.
Kilicdaroglu is not trying to be another version of Turkey’s mercurial leader. If anything, he has positioned himself as the antithesis of the strongman: an ordinary family man who makes anti-corruption videos from his middle-class kitchen, a quiet unifier of various factions in Turkish society.
But his task is not an easy one, since this is the country that exported the concept of the “deep state” into the global lexicon, in a long tradition of self-appointed guardians of the regime. Voter suppression is a reality in Kurdish villages, and control of the ballots during the counting process is crucial to victory. And if Erdogan’s chances are as low as the polls suggest, why do Turks think “he seems calm?” Perhaps because the Turkish president wields the levers of state power and has already used the courts to eliminate some of his main rivals, such as Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş or Imamoglu. An opposition splinter party just surged in the polls, reportedly backed by government trolls, a practice practiced in Hungary and Russia. In addition, Turkey’s new electoral law has not been tested. I suspect that this will make things difficult for the opposition both in terms of monitoring the vote and getting a parliamentary majority.
The problems facing Turkey will not end with Erdogan’s defeat. Immediately after the election, the economy will undoubtedly face headwinds, and possibly a currency crisis. The ability of a post-Erdogan government to withstand inflationary pressures and the economic consequences of years of economic folly could be severely limited if Erdogan’s AKP manages to retain its parliamentary majority.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s president has veered sharply to the right, forming alliances with smaller parties that offer minimal benefits but huge ideological baggage. This includes the New Welfare party, whose main demand was to repeal a law protecting women from domestic violence, and the ultra-conservative HÜDA PAR, a descendant of the notorious Turkish Hezbollah, which terrorized Kurdish communities in the late 1990s. This poisoned chalice may help Erdogan in places, but it is seen as an existential threat to Turkey’s secularists, Kurds and Alawis.
Many people ask me whether it is even possible to dream of free elections in Turkey and will Erdogan ever give up if he loses? The answer is yes. If the difference is small, say 1% to 2%, forget it. The election will be contested between US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. But if the victory of the opposition is more than 2%, then it is irreversible. Erdogan built his legitimacy on the elections and could not win a decisive victory.
The worst outcome for Turkey would be a neck-and-neck situation where both sides claim victory. On May 14, an effective organization to monitor the ballots across the country will be crucial for the opposition. In the 2019 local government elections, the opposition won Istanbul (and other major cities) thanks to its vigilance. few the watchers fell asleep sealed ballot boxes to prevent fraud. The opposition will have to repeat this across the country, including in conservative hinterlands and Kurdish villages.
Difficult years are ahead for Turkey, regardless of who wins. My last visit made me realize that the country, once a rising star on the outskirts of Europe, was torn apart by earthquakes, economic hardship and, above all, polarization. If the opposition wins, there will be a chance to restore democracy and perhaps even effective economic governance. But the stripped-down politics of the past few years will make it difficult to build a national consensus on key issues.
Elections can only be the beginning of a long process of healing Turkey’s political and economic system under the best of circumstances.
But regardless, it would be good to start.