The banner 'Potato, onion, goodbye Erdogan' was carried in the 1 May rally än Istanbul, which coincided with the critical 14 May elections in Turkey. Photo: Shutterstock.

A Lesson from Turkey: Economic Crises as Steppingstones, but not Exit Routes for Authoritarian Populists

It is evident that populist politicians, even if they come to power through free elections, deviate from the same path when they stay in power for an extended period and transform the regime. Turkish President Erdogan’s prolonged tenure in Turkey allowed him to skillfully reshape the political regime into a one-person rule. By monopolizing the achievements of his ancestors and emphasizing religious values in opposition to ultra-secularist elites, whom he portrayed as foreign puppets and defenders of the oppressive status quo that insulted the way of life of ordinary citizens, Erdogan successfully created a deep polarization in society to maintain his grip on power.

By Ibrahim Ozturk

In my Project Syndicate piece titled “Erdogan’s Success Story” (June 14, 2011), I provided a positive assessment of Erdogan’s remarkable economic achievements over the past decade, highlighting Turkey’s expected entry into higher-income country status during his third term. However, I concluded the article by posing the question: “How will Turkey utilize its rapidly growing economic power?”

In a notable departure from the initial period (2003-2011) when Erdogan strengthened his position and reformed the regime, he veered away from the essential factors that contributed to his success. The period following the 2011 election victory witnessed a shift towards a process of power intoxication, culminating in the complete consolidation of the presidential government system (PGS) in 2018. This marked a departure from the so-called “orthodoxy,” replaced by a more arbitrary approach characterized by learning by doing and trial-and-error, which Erdogan referred to as “heterodoxy.” Although this era resulted in unprecedented economic and political turmoil, Erdogan’s election for a third term as president raises the question of why a populist government that initially came to power amidst an economic crisis did not encounter more significant challenges.

However, empirical evidence suggests that populists often come to power through relatively “free,” if not entirely “fair,” elections, yet only a few of them are consistently able to exit power. This usually occurs through being voted out of office, primarily if they manage to stay in control long enough to transform the system into a more authoritarian one. Consequently, the modes of departure often involve scandals, impeachment or resignations, constitutional crises, refusals to step down, coups, suicides, or tragic accidents. The recent elections in Turkey have demonstrated that in cases of democratic backsliding, an economic crisis alone is a necessary but insufficient condition for an authoritarian leader to change course. The positive case of successfully defeating an authoritarian populist in Brazil in March 2013 highlights that the sufficiency condition lies in the opposition’s ability to employ and manage various factors more effectively than the government, even when the latter abuses state power.

Erdogan as a Mastermind of Populism

Engaging in debates about the fairness or fraudulence of Erdogan’s election victory at this stage does not provide significant insights. As highlighted by Funke et al., when populists manage to remain in power for a decade or longer, they often shape their country’s political destiny in negative ways. After Erdogan’s prolonged tenure, Turkey has regressed from being considered a “free” country, as indicated by the Freedom House Index of 2023, and the elections can no longer be deemed fair. In a country like Turkey, where the general election results show that the opposition party (Republican People’s Party, CHP – 25%) consistently lags behind the ruling party (Justice and Development Party, AKP – 35% on May 14, 2023) by approximately 10 percentage points for nearly 21 years, the transfer of power appears unlikely, regardless of the coalition formed.

While the definition of populism may vary, as the Pope declared, it is commonly viewed as an “evil” that tends to lead to undesirable outcomes. Erdogan’s brand of populism aligns perfectly with a Machiavellian approach, where any means or methods to secure victory are deemed permissible or legitimate. Engaging in a political game with a leader like Erdogan, who does not hesitate to employ divisive tactics and polarize society through the creation of antagonistic groups such as “us vs. them,” “the people (ordinary, virtuous citizens) vs. the elite (pro-statuesque, corrupt, self-serving),” “true believers vs. infidels,” and “nationalists vs. traitors,” is a recipe for a nightmare scenario. He consistently invents and substitutes (foreign or domestic) enemies, identifies (internal or external) scapegoats, stokes security concerns within society, and perpetuates a state of conflict to solidify his hold on power.

Populism, with its rhetoric in defense of the rights of the “innocent and silent majority” against the perceived beneficiaries of an establishment or elite, implies that political power should not be held by economic, financial, intellectual, or political elites, but by a homogenous and virtuous “people.” This perspective, as highlighted by Arnesen and Peters, draws from Norris (2018) and encourages the emergence of a charismatic leader who presents themselves as an outsider to the establishment and claims to understand the “true desires” of the people, representing their voice and serving their interests. Consequently, this discourse undermines the significance of “mediating institutions,” particularly in the countries dominated by a paternalistic or patrimonial culture like Turkey. As a result, modern governance institutions, norms, and values, such as the division of labor and expertise, lose their relevance. Merit is increasingly replaced by loyalty and militant advocacy, and professional, autonomous specialized institutions are either weakened or filled with supporters. Erdogan’s era exemplifies the harm inflicted upon institutions and the economy as populists remain in power. It is important to note that Erdogan’s “populism” is not a learned, an acquired or imported ideology but an original synthesis deeply connected to geography, culture, history, and the cult of his leadership personality.

Several factors play a decisive role in Erdogan’s populist discourse:

  1. A multipolar world in power transition without an omnipotent hegemonic power dictating its unilateral will to the “rest.” 
  2. Geopolitics, which can be negotiated and marketed in such a world, just like the geography of Turkey. A situation that brings both high risk and return. 
  3. A majority population whose “memory” has been manipulated and updated with an older version of the software, ancestors, and religion being the two strategic tools. 

In such a geostrategic location of great power rivalries, Erdogan’s situation can be likened to a person who owns few rooms but several keys to open them. Obviously, it is almost impossible to find the right key and open the door in time always quickly. But he doesn’t waste time opening the door; either he breaks it in an emergency or uses the only lock in this geography to open all the doors with a magical capacity; culture! In that regard, Erdogan can be called the “inventor of populism” in the 21st century when it comes to the creation and exploitation of a nostalgic “populist heartland” that corresponds to a retrospectively imagined utopia built on an abandoned but undead human based past. 

As Yilmaz and Morieson put,“the addition of religion has made populism a formidable force capable of producing a range of emotions among segments of the public, thereby increasing the demand for populism.” Keeping society intact with his constantly renewed agenda, Erdogan’s emotional populism allows him to employ the elements of religion-history-culture and friends-foes antagonism.

An additional defining trait, and perhaps surprising to some, is Erdogan’s religious belief, encapsulated by the motto “After you have done all you can, leave the rest to God and trust it.” This philosophy stems from the recognition that in the face of complex and ever-changing circumstances, risks are amplified by deteriorating institutions and declining human capital. Such challenges reflect the vulnerability of the “one-man system,” where even an omnipotent dictator cannot single-handedly handle significant challenges. In such situations, prayer becomes the only recourse, driven by the conviction that “the new day will come with new hopes or opportunities!”

Erdogan’s approach to economic management serves as a field where his populism is exemplified through the stylized characteristics outlined above.

The Transformation of Turkey’s Economy: From Orthodoxy to Heterodoxy

In countries with strong institutions, an orthodox economy signifies a market that operates based on its internal dynamism, guided by market-friendly rules that address potential market failures. Conversely, in a country dominated by authoritarian populism, a heterodox economy implies arbitrariness and uncertainty. Both of these approaches were tested and experienced in Turkey from 2003 to 2023. In this article, Erdogan’s economic management can be examined within three distinct periods: the first period (2003-2011) characterized by the application of good governance principles to a reasonable extent, the second period (2011-2018) marked by a turbulent transition to a completely different regime, and finally, the consolidation of the authoritarian PGS since 2018.

In the following discussion, I will summarize the key achievements and highlight unresolved problems that have spiraled out of control, particularly with the consolidation of the single-man regime under the PGS.

During the first period, the orthodox approach primarily involved:

(i) the establishment of quality institutions such as central bank autonomy and the rule of law,

(ii) fostering peaceful coexistence and regional relations through the “zero problems with neighbors” policy, and

(iii) pursuing integration with the EU, the global community, and global governance institutions.

Except for the global economic crisis of 2008-2009, the first period witnessed domestic reforms, solid institutional capacity, and comparable long-term growth performance to similar countries. The economy expanded by an average of around 5.8 percent, as depicted in Figure 1, although with a visible loss of momentum. By 2013, national income surpassed the trillion-dollar threshold, and per capita GDP reached $12,500, propelling Turkey to the status of an “upper middle-income country” for the first time.

Figure.1 Economic Growth in Turkey (2003-2022)

Source: https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/TUR/turkey/gdp-growth-rate

i) According to Acemoglu and Üçer, a notable development during this period was the dominance of overall productivity growth over factor inputs, marking a significant shift. Additionally, the implementation of monetary and fiscal discipline contributed to a decrease in inflation from 55% in 2002 to single-digit figures by 2005.

ii) In terms of financing economic growth, there was a notable increase in capital inflows across all categories and terms, which facilitated a smooth expansion. Furthermore, thanks to fiscal and monetary discipline, interest rates experienced a significant decline across all categories and terms. This period also witnessed a reduction in the budget deficit and a decrease in the share of interest burden on the budget.

iii) According to World Bank data, there was a striking improvement in income distribution during this period. This was evident in the decrease of the Gini Coefficient from 0.45 in 2005 to 0.38 by 2007, indicating a more equitable distribution of income.

On the downside, despite positive progress in leading economic indicators and relative macroeconomic stabilization, the following aspect remained fragile, with long-term implications:

i) While the population increased from nearly 65 million to 85 million as of 2023, primarily due to the influx of millions of unorganized refugees, GDP receded to nearly 800 billion dollars after 2019. As a result, per capita GDP also declined by 8000-9000 dollars, indicating Turkey’s middle-income trap status as of 2022.

ii) Turkey’s potential for growth did not improve, primarily due to a decline in productivity growth resulting from the discontinuation of reforms after losing external anchors, such as Turkey’s full membership negotiations process with the EU.

iii) The halted structural transition led to the persistence of a growth model based on classical low-value-added, capital-labor intensive industries. Moreover, the share of upper-middle-income technology in production and exports remained stagnant at around 2.5% until 2022, showing no improvement over nearly two decades. It is worth noting that countries like South Korea and China achieved a share of 35% at a similar development level.

iv) Reflecting the insufficiency of national savings and structural weaknesses, Turkey’s reliance on imports and capital inflows for growth persisted. As a result, each period of economic growth led to a significant increase in the current account deficit, which reached approximately 5-6 percent of GDP in 2022.

In his third term, which began in June 2011, Erdogan exhibited an increasing authoritarian tendency, reflecting a sense of power intoxication. Unfortunately, this period saw a decline in the gains that had been achieved. The process was initiated by the corruption operations on December 17-25, 2013, and further exacerbated by the self-orchestrated coup attempt by “the team Erdogan” on July 15, 2016. It culminated in a complete overhaul of the system in 2018, leading to a severe economic downturn referred to as a “free fall.”

Throughout the years, Erdogan systematically politicized and undermined the independence of key judicial institutions, including the Council of State, Court of Cassation, Court of Accounts, and the Constitutional Court. He also exerted control over institutions such as the Central Bank, Statistical Institute, Competition Authority, and banking supervision and regulation bodies. This process resulted in a loss of control over inflation, unemployment, domestic and foreign deficits, and the accumulation of national debt. Official figures indicate that annual inflation reached 86% in 2022, significantly higher than the global average rate of less than 8%. These macroeconomic imbalances were primarily causedby the excessively low policy rate pressure imposed on the Central Bank of Turkey and excessive monetary expansion, which became rapidly unsustainable. Moreover, these policies enabled Erdogan-backed speculators to generate exorbitant profits.

Then Why and How Erdogan Wins: A Hate and Hope Paradigm

Displays of a foreign currency exchange bureau in Istanbul, Turkey, on May 5, 2023. Photo: Tolga Ildun.

In a country the size of Turkey, lacking abundant natural resources, it is impossible to conceal economic facts and failures from the public and international community for an extended period. Manipulating data through Soviet-style fabricated politburo methods or exerting strict militant control over autonomous policy-making authorities like the statistical institute is ineffective. This is because the impact of these developments is directly felt in people’s daily lives.

This finding aligns with the overall understanding that populist economic policies have a short lifespan and are not sustainable. Furthermore, it predicts that such a government either loses power or transitions into complete authoritarianism. Unfortunately, Turkey currently teeters on the brink of such a development following the May 2023 elections.

Does Erdogan’s continued stay in power, particularly with the main opposition party CHP trailing the ruling party by almost 10 points, imply that economic factors have lost importance in authoritarian regimes during elections? While the literature suggests that populist parties often come to power after a macroeconomic crisis, the reverse is not necessarily true. These elections demonstrated that an economic crisis is necessary but insufficient to dislodge an authoritarian government. It also indicates that Erdogan skillfully constructed an ‘uneven playing field’ and relied on a dependent electoral majority. The opposition made every effort to win the rigged game, even adopting the populist-ethnonationalism strategies of its adversary, but ultimately failed. In addition to Erdogan’s “success” in providing livelihood security to a significant portion of the electorate, he also stoked security concerns and fear of a return of the old status quo elites, known as “White Turks,” who previously threatened and humiliated the lifestyle of ordinary citizens.

The most crucial factor that neutralized or balanced the devastating economic crisis, as indicated in Table 1, is the extensive and effective use of the “Welfare regime.” Despite Turkey’s unfavorable rankings in all categories compared to similar authoritarian populist countries like Argentina and Brazil, it excelled in implementing widespread social support programs, including those targeting the most vulnerable families. Furthermore, these measures were presented skillfully within the framework of culture and religion, yielding profound political consequences. Culture matters. In a region where the notion of citizenship demanding justice and the rule of law as a public good has remained premature for centuries due to the culture of patrimonialism, citizens perceived “social support” not as a constitutional guarantee but as a benevolent offering from the Sultan. Their “loyalty” was consequently secured through a minimum level of economic security, protecting those who felt neglected and left behind.

Table.1 Governance in Selected Populist/Authoritarian Countries

The second decisive factor is the utilization of immigrants as a source of cheap labor and a voting reserve for the ruling AKP. Despite having to work informally in low-wage sectors without social security protection, Erdogan adeptly leveraged foreign funds, primarily from the EU, to compensate for their losses, including providing social protection. In the midst of a deteriorating economic environment, the opposition’s discourse of repatriating immigrants did not resonate, particularly among small and medium-sized companies, due to this practice that alleviates labor costs for millions of refugees and grants a comparative advantage to low value-added sectors.

In addition to financial support, Erdogan fostered a strong emotional connection and sense of belonging among the immigrants by invoking a highly susceptible concept from religious literature known as “ummah” or “Ansar brotherhood.” Moreover, he transformed this imaginary notion into tangible expectations that shape the minds of millions of people. Depicting a mythical “global land of brotherhood” based on religious commonalities and historical memories, Erdogan conveys the message: “Just like our esteemed ancestors, it is time to reclaim our history as the worldwide Muslim diaspora eagerly looks to us as protectors.” As a result, sympathy towards Erdogan among the average person on the streets of any Muslim country may be higher than in Turkey itself.

While these “pull factors” served their economic purpose, Erdogan also strategically employed “push elements” in his rhetoric. Believing in the power of media under his control and the limited memory of the people, Erdogan not only took credit for past successes but also shifted blame for past failures onto present-day politicians who were not in power at the time and never governed Turkey. In a country with low levels of political, religious, and economic literacy, he manipulated the decision-making capacity of the electorate through the media he seized. The production of manipulated statistics, inventions, and innovations within this context instilled a sense of pride and superiority in a society yearning for a return to the glory days of the past.

Conclusion

Therefore, it is evident that populist politicians, even if they come to power through free elections, deviate from the same path when they stay in power for an extended period and transform the regime. Erdogan’s prolonged tenure allowed him to skillfully reshape the political regime into a one-person rule.

By capitalizing on and monopolizing the achievements of his ancestors and emphasizing religious values in opposition to ultra-secularist elites, whom he portrayed as foreign puppets and defenders of the oppressive status quo which oppressed and insulted the life patterns of ordinary citizens, Erdogan successfully created a significant divide that was crucial for maintaining control.

To secure the loyalty of the people, with whom he had “connected with heart and imagination,” particularly those who were likely victims of economic difficulties, Erdogan employed a combination of cultural and economic transactional policies. He not only provided various economic benefits but also manipulated them by instilling fear of losing their privileges and fostering a sense of national security, sovereignty, and even independence. When one considers the opposition parties’ leadership, policy quality, and communication skills with the public, it becomes clear that Erdogan would not be replaced with the configuration of such a coalition.

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium, on May 25, 2017. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Populism reigns supreme in Turkey, what next for European Union?

While a new term for Erdogan will bring more challenges, Turkey will remain a crucial interlocutor for the EU on many issues, including migration, energy, and regional security, particularly against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Despite EU has clearly determined that Turkey under Islamist populist Erdogan has been less democratic and more authoritarian, the Union falls short of making serious warnings in this regard.

By Selcuk Gultasli

Turkey’s Islamist-populist president Recep Tayyip Erdogan beat his rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the chairman of the main opposition party CHP and the candidate of six-party opposition bloc in the elections held on Sunday. Despite the twin earthquakes that killed more than 50.000 people in early February, a looming economic crisis, and the deepening polarization, Erdogan managed to secure another five years at the helm of Turkey. Seemingly, his Islamist populism entrenched with authoritarianism paid off at the ballot box and enabled him to enter the third decade of his rule which means he will be ruling Turkey for a quarter of a century. While he received 52 percent of the vote, his challenger Kilicdaroglu got 48 percent. 

The Turkish Parliament, whose members were elected in the first round of the vote on May 14, 2023, is deemed to be the most conservative-nationalist House in the hundred years of the Republic. Combined with increasingly authoritarian regime of Erdogan, the future does not bode well for almost half of the population who voted for the opposition. As BBC put it ‘the strategic NATO nation’ had chosen its path, most voters opting for a seasoned autocrat rather than an untested democrat in the form of Kilicdaroglu. While Kilicdaroglu stressed the need to revitalize the relations with the European Union (EU) – which is frozen for almost a decade – and revise the migrants deal that was agreed in 2016, Erdogan barely mentioned the EU in his election campaign. For Erdogan, the relationship with Brussels is run on a transactional basis.

For the first round of elections of May 14, the joint observation mission from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) found that the legal framework did not fully provide a basis for holding democratic elections. Frank Schwabe, head of the PACE delegation, underlined that Turkey did not fulfil the basic principles for holding a democratic election. “Key political and social figures are in prison even after judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, media freedom is severely restricted and there is a climate of self-censorship. Turkey is a long way from creating fair election campaign conditions,” said he. For the second round, Schwabe reiterated his position that the second round also took place in an environment that in many ways did not provide the conditions for holding democratic elections. Selahattin Demirtas, the former leader of the second largest opposition party, pro-Kurdish HDP is still in jail despite the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that he should be freed with immediate effect.

The election on Sunday was closely watched by European Union, US, the Middle East and Russia. The point was made by Baroness Cathy Ashton, the EU’s former foreign policy chief. 

“What happens in Turkey in terms of its democracy and in terms of its place in the region has a huge impact on Europe, on Asia, and of course on all of the global issues that we’re all grappling with. So, it is really important,” said she. And the Economist, the British weekly announced on its cover that the Turkish election was the most important of 2023. “Most important, in an era when strongman rule is on the rise, from Hungary to India, the peaceful ejection of Mr Erdogan would show democrats everywhere that strongmen can be beaten,” wrote the weekly. There was hope if Erdogan could be defeated at the ballot box, it would send a message to all the populist authoritarian regimes across the globe. 

Although it was not unexpected that Erdogan would use a populist discourse to demonize his opponents, what is surprising was Kilicdaroglu’s embrace of populist rhetoric right after it became obvious that the presidential election would go to a run-off on May 28. Kilicdaroglu who lost the first round of presidential elections by almost 5 percent of the vote immediately changed his course and employing an ethnonationalist strain, swerved right. He promised to send home millions of Syrian refugees and doubled down the nationalist tone in his rhetoric. According to an Al Monitor/Premise poll which was conducted between May 19-23 across Turkey, 71 percent of the respondents favored an imminent return of refugees. The economy and refugees stood out as the top two issues that the respondents deemed challenges for the country. To win the nationalist votes, Kilicdaroglu signed a protocol with the leader of the far-right Victory Party, Umit Ozdag. Ozdag proclaimed the return of the refugees as the number one priority for his party. The protocol promised to return all of the refugees within a year. Right after the first round of elections, Kilicdaroglu claimed Erdogan had brought 10 million refugees to the country and that number would increase if he would remain in power. Adopting a fearmongering style, Kilicdaroglu implied that ‘our daughters’ would not be able to go around safely if the Syrian and other refugees would stay in Turkey.

While Kilicdaroglu was busy in forming alliances with the far-right parties, Erdogan, too, was seeking to enlist the support of religious populist and far-right parties. Erdogan who won five parliamentary elections, two presidential polls and three referendums, this time around, felt he could be beaten by the opposition. Thus, he agreed to create an alliance with the Islamist New Welfare Party and the Kurdish Islamist Huda-Par (Free Cause Party). Huda-Par is essentially the political projection of Kurdish Hizbullah, an Islamist organization, unrelated to Lebanese Hezbollah, known for its gruesome murders in the 1990s. These two parties have declared that they want Turkey to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention and the repeal of the Law 6284 which basically provides protection for women against violence. Moreover, Erdogan went ahead to court far-right leader Sinan Ogan campaigning heavily on terrorism. In the large meetings which hosted tens of thousands of people, he showed fake videos that falsely implied his opponent Kilicdaroglu had links with outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). 

Cultural Metamorphosis 

Besides politics, Erdogan has successfully pursued a populist political ideology together with cultural populism. Erdogan’s authoritarianism is more than ballot box as he employs television and music, monuments and memorials that have been prime levers of a political project, a campaign of cultural ressentiment and national rebirth. As the New York Times reported it, this cultural metamorphosis reoriented national culture and promoted a nostalgic revival of the Ottoman past ‘sometimes in grand style sometimes as pure kitsch.’.

What Next With EU? 

While a new term for Erdogan will bring more challenges, Turkey will remain a crucial interlocutor for the EU on many issues, including migration, energy, and regional security, particularly against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

Turkey has applied EU back in 1959, was declared candidate in 1999 and started accession talks in October 2005. It is the longest history of a candidate country ever. It has been 18 years since the accession talks started however barely16 chapters out of 35 have been opened and only one chapter has been provisionally closed. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel together with the Greek Cypriots have been instrumental in blocking the accession talks. Erdogan’s authoritarian populist streak has also been pivotal in European Council’s decision to freeze accession talks in 2018. This is due to Ankara backtracking on democracy and civil liberties, particularly following the 2016 coup attempt (whose details are still murky), and tensions over developments in Turkish foreign policy. Included were Ankara’s naval operations in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, as well as Ankara’s Syria policy and Cyprus. In 2018, after a similar decision by the European Parliament, the EU froze the accession negotiations, although they were already comatose.

‘The EU’s serious concerns on the continued deterioration of democracy, the rule of law, fundamental rights and the independence of the judiciary have not been addressed. There was further backsliding in many areas,’ said the European Commission country report of 2022. On most democracy indexes, Turkey has gone down dramatically. According to World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in the beginning of May, Turkey together with Tajikistan and India dropped from being in a “problematic situation” into the lowest category and now ranks 165 out of 180. “Turkey jails more journalists than any other democracy,” said RSF. After Erdogan’s win of the presidential election, it will not be surprising if he tightens his grip on fundamental freedoms and on freedom of expression, in particular. 

The relations between Turkey and EU have been transactional since almost 2013 when Erdogan embraced authoritarianism after a huge corruption scandal erupted implicating his son and several of his ministers. One of the milestones of this relationship has been the refugee deal of 2016 according to which Turkey would prevent the crossings of migrants to EU.

EU, without committing itself to any form of membership talks has openly called for ties based on mutual benefit. “The EU and Türkiye continued high-level engagement in areas of common interest such as climate, health or migration and security. This was in line with the EU’s offer to support a more positive dynamic in EU-Türkiye relations, expressing readiness to engage with Türkiye in a phased, proportionate, and reversible manner in a number of areas of common interest, subject to the conditions set out by the European Council. On energy, Türkiye continues to be an important and reliable transit country for the EU,’ said the country report of 2022. On the refugee deal, the EU has commended Turkey for hosting more than 3.5 million people.

EU has clearly determined that Turkey under Erdogan has been less democratic and more authoritarian, however, Brussels falls short of making serious warnings in this regard. “There are serious deficiencies in the functioning of Türkiye’s democratic institutions. During the reporting period, democratic backsliding continued. Structural deficiencies in the presidential system remained in place. Key recommendations from the Council of Europe and its bodies have yet to be addressed. Parliament continued to lack the necessary means to hold the government accountable. The constitutional architecture continued to centralize powers at the level of the Presidency without ensuring the sound and effective separation of powers between the executive, legislative and the judiciary. In the absence of an effective checks and balances mechanism, the democratic accountability of the executive branch continues to be limited to elections,’ remarked the country report. 

This transactional nature of the relationship has been confirmed by the messages of EU leaders in the wake of the presidential elections. While the foreign policy chief Josep Borrell congratulated Erdogan and called for the continuation of relations based on mutual interest, the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has invited Erdogan to Berlin without mentioning the serious backsliding on fundamental freedoms. 

The world order has been rapidly shifting from a unipolar to a multipolar one. The battle over Europe’s future and the emerging new security architecture will have major implications for the EU and Turkey. As a major security, political and economic actor, Turkey will have a vital role in the future of EU. Thus, Brussels should craft a clear strategy to address dramatic deterioration of fundamental freedoms on the one hand and deepen relations with a view to revitalize the accession process, on the other.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as watching August 30 Victory Day Parade in Ankara, Turkey on August 30, 2014. Photo: Mustafa Kirazli.

The short story of Erdogan’s election victory(!)

Erdogan’s primary adversary is no longer the opposition, but rather the anticipated deepening of the economic crisis. A climate of uncertainty, compromised rule of law, and suspended democracy hinders substantial investments. The potential for democratic change could arise if the nation reaches a state of ungovernability, prompting conservative voters to transcend their historical reservations against secularists. Alternatively, the Erdogan regime may solidify its support base irreversibly by effectively managing the economy to prevent social upheavals, ultimately establishing a system where elections serve as mere symbolic displays.

By Savas Genc*

Under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a span of almost 22 years, Turkey recently witnessed an election in which the opposition had a chance of victory for the first time. In a nation grappling with an official inflation rate of approximately 80 percent, opposition leaders united to form an electoral coalition with the aim of securing success in the election. Hinging on the fervor of the masses to bring an end to the Erdogan regime, the opposition parties engaged in lengthy negotiations and crafted policies that pledged a restoration of the parliamentary system. By emphasizing the strengthening of democracy, an independent judiciary, and transparent governance, the opposition diligently conducted extensive public engagements over several months to instill confidence in the electorate.

In various independent international indices, Turkey has steadily witnessed a decline in terms of justice, democracy, media freedom, human rights, and corruption, progressively exhibiting an authoritarian trajectory. The opposition formulated its entire electoral strategy around the backdrop of economic distress, the repatriation of over 4 million Syrian and Afghan migrants, and the disintegration of a modern state along with its liberal democratic institutions. They presented a vision of a democratic system in alignment with European Union (EU) standards, incorporating merit-based recruitment schemes for public positions, and advocating for gradual repatriation of migrants through negotiations with the Assad regime in Syria and the EU. The opposition introduced an election program that was virtually flawless in its technical details and captivated the public with its competent cadre of seasoned politicians and academics.

Discussions on Opposition Candidate

The coalition of six opposition parties, having conducted thorough deliberations on the political and economic agenda to be presented to the electorate, deliberately deferred discussions regarding the presidential candidate during their gatherings for months. This cautious approach was adopted to prevent any potential disintegration of the electoral alliance. The criteria for a viable candidate were well-defined. The candidate would originate from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the dominant party within the alliance, and would need to garner support from both Kurdish voters and conservative masses. Various opinion polling firms consistently indicated Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul, as the candidate who best embodied this criterion.

Recognizing Imamoglu’s growing popularity and his strong prospects of winning the elections, President Erdogan took notice and, having faced defeat in Istanbul twice before, invoked judicial mechanisms. It became evident that Erdogan had exerted influence over the judiciary to impose a political ban on Imamoglu. On the day when the decision on the political ban was announced, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who was anticipated to express support for Imamoglu, coincidentally had a scheduled trip to Germany. In the aftermath of the court’s verdict and the subsequent political ban imposed on Imamoglu, Kilicdaroglu, who had been contemplating a presidential candidacy, engaged in discussions of significance over breakfast with prominent figures from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a Kurdish party with close ties to the center. The Kurdish leaders conveyed their intention to field their own candidate if Kilicdaroglu chose not to run, citing concerns regarding the nationalist background of another potential contender, Mansur Yavaş, the mayor of Ankara.

Alliance Reaches a Critical Juncture as Kilicdaroglu Insists on Candidacy

Following Erdogan’s official decision to call early elections in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake on February 6, 2023, the opposition alliance initiated meetings with the objective of nominating a joint candidate. Kilicdaroglu successfully advanced the nomination process by offering each of the three smaller parties in the alliance a minimum of 10 parliamentary seats and a ministerial position. However, the Good Party (İYİ Party), which holds the second strongest position in the alliance and does not rely on the CHP’s support in the parliamentary elections, sought to halt this trajectory.

Meral Aksener, the leader of the Good Party, raised objections to Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy, citing doubts about his electability. Observing that her concerns were being disregarded, she issued a strongly worded press release announcing their departure from the alliance. This development shattered the hopes of opposition voters. Kilicdaroglu, who had made considerable headway in positioning himself as the preferred candidate for the Kurdish constituency, was taken aback by the fierce reaction of his nationalist partner. In the face of a vehement response from opposition constituents following the dissolution of the alliance, Aksener had no choice but to return to the negotiation table. Reluctantly, she declared their support for Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy, on the condition that the two mayors, Imamoglu and Yavaş, assume the role of vice presidents.

The Electoral Process

Kilicdaroglu embarked on the election with two formidable and popular vice-presidential candidates, resulting in a commendable performance. His campaign maintained a positive tone, refraining from responding to Erdogan’s provocations, while focusing on democratization initiatives. Conversely, Erdogan accused the opposition, which enjoyed Kurdish support, of being linked to terrorism. Employing deep fake videos, he asserted that banned PKK leaders were collaborating with Kilicdaroglu. The masses, initially distancing themselves from Erdogan due to the economic crisis, began to rally behind him again, fueled by concerns over Kilicdaroglu’s security policies. 

The opposition was taken aback when Erdogan secured 49.4 percent of the vote in the first round. Their hopes of outpacing Erdogan and even winning the election outright were drastically altered as they entered the second round with a recalibrated strategy. Kilicdaroglu, in a bid to appeal to nationalist voters, who were crucial for securing their support, made a significant shift by signing a memorandum of understanding with the ultra-nationalist and anti-immigrant Zafer Party. However, this move disappointed Kurdish voters and dissuaded their participation in the elections.

The Factors Behind Erdogan’s Re-election

It is widely recognized that Erdogan does not possess the qualities of an intellectual politician. However, his remarkable ability to win elections and retain power for 22 years showcases his prowess as an election-winning machine. Faced with the looming risk of electoral defeat, Erdogan strategically relied on identity politics as his trump card. He tapped into the deeply held sentiments of nationalist and religious conservatives who view the Turkish republic, once controlled by secular elitist forces, as a cherished possession they are unwilling to relinquish. By portraying the opposition as godless, Erdogan positioned himself and his party as the safeguarders of the religious masses’ interests and achievements.

The primary fault line in Turkish politics lies in the clash between secular/modern and conservative/traditionalist voters. Despite the nation grappling with a profound economic crisis, erosion of judicial independence, curtailment of media freedoms, and the failure to address the immigration problem, the broad conservative electorate rallied behind Erdogan’s leadership.

Erdogan’s prospects of securing re-election appeared highly improbable merely a year ago, given the prevailing deep economic crisis, as indicated by numerous opinion polls. However, he resorted to political tactics aimed at enticing voters, including the liquidation of all foreign currency and gold reserves held by the treasury. Additionally, the early retirement law was passed, granting hundreds of thousands of citizens under the age of 50 the right to retire. By increasing the minimum wage above the inflation rate, Erdogan successfully garnered support from the Anatolian masses, where the cost of living is relatively lower. Moreover, Erdogan’s position was bolstered by Russia’s decision to postpone Turkey’s $20 billion natural gas debt until after the elections, while countries like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia extended billions of dollars in loans to the Erdogan government through swap agreements, further consolidating his position of influence.

Erdogan’s Media Empire: An Unassailable Armada

Erdogan, leveraging his extensive media apparatus, has amassed an overpowering media presence that has transformed into an invincible armada. Through awarding substantial public tenders to crony companies, Erdogan’s administration effectively facilitated the acquisition of nearly all major media outlets in the country. For those private media outlets that could not be directly acquired, coercion tactics were employed to align them with a pro-Erdogan stance. Furthermore, the state broadcaster, TRT, funded by public resources, was fortified by the establishment of numerous television channels. During the electoral process, Kilicdaroglu, Erdogan’s opponent, was limited to appearing on a modest news channel, while Erdogan enjoyed the privilege of addressing the public for hours on 24 national news channels. Despite Kilicdaroglu’s repeated invitations, Erdogan refrained from engaging in a political debate on-screen, thereby obstructing his opponent’s visibility. By even impeding opposition advertisements on television through financial means, Erdogan effectively isolated Anatolian voters who relied predominantly on TV channels for news, limiting their exposure to a narrow political bubble.

The Election Turnout

In the context of the election, the opposition demonstrated its strength by securing victories in the metropolitan areas. However, Erdogan’s widespread support among the populace in the expansive Anatolian region played a pivotal role in determining the overall outcome. Through the formation of an alliance encompassing Islamist and nationalist elements, Erdogan exceeded expectations by attaining greater voter support. While Erdogan’s AKP party experienced a decline of 8-9 percentage points in votes, those who did not endorse his party redirected their support to other parties within his political alliance. In the second round, Erdogan, who narrowly missed a first-round victory, successfully gained the backing of his nationalist rival, Sinan Ogan.

The performance of Erdogan had a demoralizing effect on opposition voters, as the first-round results starkly diverged from the data projected by various polling companies. This perception of manipulated elections and the belief that their support for the opposition would be ineffectual led to a significant decline in voter participation during the second round. While the first round witnessed an 87 percent turnout, this figure dipped to 85 percent in the subsequent round. Remarkably, Erdogan maintained a 52 percent share of the vote, positioning himself to potentially govern uninterrupted for 27 years, coinciding with the centenary of the republic.

Erdogan employed strategies such as providing employment opportunities to the offspring of his party’s loyal supporters in roles such as teachers, policemen, watchmen, and salaried sergeant specialists in the Turkish army. Additionally, he bolstered the economic well-being of conservative masses by allocating tenders to his senior executives through his construction industry network. As aptly stated by Brezinski, “Just as oil is a decisive factor in Arab countries, the construction sector and real estate investments play a crucial role in Turkish politics.” Erdogan effectively generated jobs and wealth for substantial segments of the population through his wealth-sharing model centered around construction revenues. The masses, concerned about the potential collapse of the established order, disregarded the country’s institutional and economic crises, experiencing upward economic mobility under Erdogan’s leadership.

The Potential Success of the Opposition with a Different Candidate?

The question arises as to whether the opposition would have achieved success had they fielded a different candidate. In this context, it is crucial to examine Kilicdaroglu’s political track record, characterized by 17 prior unsuccessful attempts in general and local elections, during which he never ventured to challenge Erdogan directly as a candidate. Interestingly, Kilicdaroglu, confident in the prospects of his election chances amidst the deepening economic crisis and the earthquake’s impact, exhibited a reluctance to entertain discussions regarding alternative candidates. Seizing upon the political ban imposed on Imamoglu as an opportunity, Kilicdaroglu engaged in strategic deliberations with Kurdish politicians, aiming to obstruct Mansur Yavas, the mayor of Ankara, from pursuing candidacy. This particular course of action instigated dissatisfaction among opposition voters.

While it remains true that Yavas hailed from nationalist roots, it was precisely this background that rendered him a potential contender capable of garnering support from protest voters disenchanted with Erdogan. Multiple opinion polls consistently identified Yavas as the candidate most likely to secure victory against Erdogan in the initial round of elections. Yavas, with his history within nationalist parties, would have been well-positioned to effectively counter Erdogan’s accusations of association with “terrorists” and Kurdish support.

It is important to note that definitive assertions regarding Yavas’ victory over Erdogan cannot be made, given Erdogan’s prowess as an election-winning machine and his mobilization of state institutions to this end. However, it is reasonable to suggest that Yavas’ prospects of success would have been considerably higher compared to Kilicdaroglu, irrespective of the ultimate outcome.

The Future of Turkey Following Erdogan’s Re-election

Numerous political analysts and scholars contend that the recent election outcome in Turkey may represent the final opportunity for democratic reform. With another five years of governance ahead and parliamentary support, Erdogan aims to shape the opposition into a force that merely legitimizes his authority, akin to regimes observed in Central Asia.

Considering Erdogan’s advancing age and increasingly evident health concerns, he must also cultivate a new and trustworthy leader to safeguard his family’s political legacy. Similar to practices in Central Asian regimes, he may need to involve one of his sons or sons-in-law in politics, thereby paving the way for a future leadership transition and the preservation of his family’s influence.

In this process, Erdogan’s primary adversary will not be the opposition, which has encountered challenges in securing electoral victories, but rather the anticipated deepening of the economic crisis. Turkey currently grapples with significant debt, leading to borrowing at prohibitively high interest rates due to its credit default swap (CDS) scores. Although Erdogan managed to stabilize the exchange rate by injecting all available foreign currency reserves into the markets prior to the elections, attracting new investors to the country remains unlikely. A climate of uncertainty, compromised rule of law, and suspended democracy hinders substantial investments. The potential for democratic change could arise if the nation reaches a state of ungovernability, prompting conservative voters to transcend their historical reservations against secularists. Alternatively, the Erdogan regime may solidify its support base irreversibly by effectively managing the economy to prevent social upheavals, ultimately establishing a system where elections serve as mere symbolic displays.


 

(*) Dr. Savas Genc completed his doctoral studies at the esteemed University of Heidelberg and has been serving as a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Political Science at the University of Heidelberg since 2020, supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s PSI program. Prior to this, he held the position of Professor of International Relations in Istanbul, where he also served as an Erasmus Visiting Professor, imparting his knowledge to students at various European universities. Dr. Genc’s academic contributions encompass a wide range of research interests, including directing the “Research Center for Contemporary Civilizations” and leading notable projects such as “The Perception of Turkish Foreign Policy in the Middle East.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attended the rally in Izmir as part of the May 14, 2023 elections campaign in Izmir, Turkey on April 29, 2023. Photo: Idil Toffolo.

Erdogan’s winning authoritarian populist formula and Turkey’s future

After the election results, Erdogan is likely to feel vindicated, but being a vindictive populist, he will not forgive those who did not vote for him. In his celebratory speech, which was previously unifying and conciliatory in tone, he exhibited aggression, polarization, and securitization of the opposition. Despite his extensive efforts, 48 percent of voters remain “ungrateful” in his eyes. This narrow margin of victory makes him vulnerable and fuels his fury. Consequently, he will attempt to weaken the opposition both domestically and abroad.

By Ihsan Yilmaz 

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent electoral victory in Turkey exemplifies the winning formula of populism in deeply divided and polarized societies. His authoritarian populism has effectively tapped into the fears, grievances, nostalgia, and hopes of the Turkish people, enabling him to consolidate his authoritarian regime. However, it is important to note that Erdogan’s success cannot be solely attributed to his populist rhetoric, especially considering the ongoing economic crisis in the country.

In addition to his Islamist populism, securitization of the opposition, manipulation, and fearmongering, Erdogan has also employed tactics of electoral authoritarianism and manipulation of electoral processes. Furthermore, he has greatly benefited from economic populism and neo-patrimonialism. Understanding Erdogan’s winning formula allows us to examine the predicaments Turkey currently faces and consider what Erdogan may do in the future to maintain his winning streak.

After explaining Erdogan’s winning formula, I will try to look at Turkey’s predicaments from the lens of this formula. Unfortunately, there is no good news for Turkey’s educated, Westernized sections of society, as well as Kurds, Alevis, and other political minorities. Erdogan’s approach tends to marginalize and oppress these groups, leading to their continued exclusion and marginalization in the political sphere.

Electoral Authoritarianism and Manipulation of Electoral Processes

Erdogan’s regime is characterized by electoral authoritarianism, where the playing field for opposition parties is heavily skewed, resulting in elections that lack both freedom and fairness. Despite the presence of opposition parties, Erdogan utilizes the full extent of state apparatuses, including security forces and the judiciary, as well as his own party’s massive machinery, which boasts 12 million members (around 20 percent of the country’s adults). Additionally, his control over approximately 90 percent of the conventional media and a powerful digital authoritarianism machine enables him to manipulate information and disseminate disinformation to undermine opposition parties.

Erdogan employs various tactics of electoral authoritarianism to ensure that opposition parties are unable to secure a majority of votes, serving primarily to create a façade of legitimacy for his authoritarian political system. These tactics include gerrymandering, restrictions on opposition campaigns, and the suppression of independent media. Furthermore, the counting of votes is under Erdogan’s control, and opposition parties lack the capacity to substantiate their allegations of election rigging. They are unable to address issues such as the significant increase in the number of registered voters, which has outpaced the population growth of Turkey over the past two decades.

Since 2018, the deteriorating state of the political system in Turkey has led to its classification as “unfree” by organizations like Freedom House. Despite rulings from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) advocating for their release, many democratically elected Kurdish mayors and parliamentarians remain imprisoned. Journalists, academics, and activists critical of the government face intimidation, imprisonment, and media censorship. This has transformed Turkey into one of the most repressive regimes for journalists in recent history.

While Turkey lacks significant oil reserves like countries such as Russia, Iran, or Saudi Arabia, it still needs to remain open to tourists, businesses, and investments from the West. As a result, the regime cannot fully suppress opposition parties and civil society, as they need to maintain the illusion of a competitive political landscape. However, in the end, the regime maintains control, ensuring that the house always wins.

Despite some semblance of political participation and limited space for opposition, Erdogan’s regime employs a wide range of tactics to consolidate power and undermine the principles of democracy, ultimately resulting in the erosion of civil liberties, media freedom, and the ability of opposition parties to challenge the ruling party effectively.

Islamist Populism, Securitization of the Opposition, Manipulation, and Fearmongering

Populism often seeks to create a divisive narrative that separates society into two distinct groups: “the morally righteous people” and “the corrupt elite” who allegedly deny the people their rightful sovereignty. This aspect is fundamental to Erdoganism, the ideology associated with President Erdogan. According to this ideology, “the corrupt elite” consists of the educated, Westernized, and secular segments of society, who are often referred to as “White Turks” and represent around 30-35 percent of the population. On the other hand, Erdoganists consider themselves as “Black Turks,” even though many elite members of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) have lifestyles aligned with the “White Turkish” segment.

Given Turkey’s current challenges in competing with the West, both culturally and technologically, Islamists in Turkey harbor deep resentment towards the West, blaming it for the issues facing the Muslim world. To cope with this, they turn to a nostalgic yearning for the glory of the Ottoman Empire and project it as a Pan-Islamist vision, aspiring for a future Sunni caliphate under Turkey’s leadership. This narrative often involves the propagation of various anti-Western conspiracy theories. According to this view, Western powers and Jews are perceived as determined to impede Turkey’s rise to leadership in the Islamic world, using diverse instruments such as the Kurds, Alevis, Gulenists, secular Westernized Turks, academics, journalists, NGOs, and human rights defenders within the country.

During election campaigns, dissenters and opposition figures are frequently demonized and labelled as traitors, terrorists, internal enemies, non-Muslims, fake Muslims, hypocrites, deviants, or supporters of the LGBT community. Erdogan capitalizes on creating and perpetuating crises to instill fear among Sunni Turks and position himself and the AKP as the sole saviors capable of protecting the country and Islam.

By promoting this narrative and generating fear among his Sunni Turkish support base, Erdogan seeks to present himself and his party as the only reliable protectors of the nation and Islam. This approach helps to solidify his power and maintain a significant level of control, particularly through the marginalization and vilification of dissenting voices and opposition groups.

Economic Populism and Neo-Patrimonialism

Erdogan’s populist approach extends beyond politics and spills over into economic populism as well. Throughout his time in power, Erdogan has implemented various social welfare programs and policies aimed at assisting economically disadvantaged individuals. This strategy not only helps those in need but also cultivates loyalty among his supporters.

One way Erdogan maintains this loyalty is by providing neo-patrimonial public welfare, which can be seen as a form of “charitable patronage.” This involves the redistribution of public resources and the granting of preferential access to public jobs, healthcare, and housing. However, these benefits often come at the expense of marginalized ethnic, religious, and political groups who do not align with Erdogan’s agenda.

What sets Erdogan’s approach apart is his careful presentation of these benefits. He and his party have strategically framed them in a way that portrays the source of these benefits not as the state, taxpayers, or future generations burdened with loans, but rather as coming directly from the merciful and benevolent AKP and Erdogan himself. This messaging resonates particularly well with Erdogan’s Sunni Turkish pious support base.

Furthermore, thanks to the AKP’s extensive party machinery, they have a deep understanding of the demographics of each street and village. This knowledge enables them to target their assistance effectively and maintain a close connection with their supporters. As a result, even amidst economic crises, Erdogan’s supporters continue to appreciate him, while those from non-AKP backgrounds and educated middle classes often find themselves overwhelmed by the challenges.

This dynamic is evident even in regions devastated by natural disasters such as earthquakes. Despite clear failures in addressing these crises, Erdogan and his party have not faced significant repercussions at the ballot box. This can be attributed to the continued support from his loyal base, who remain steadfast in their backing of Erdogan despite any shortcomings or failures.

Erdogan’s populist neo-patrimonial economic model extends to his approach to interest rates as well. Despite the prevailing orthodox wisdom in economics, Erdogan argues that lower interest rates will lead to a decrease in inflation. He also invokes Islamic principles, stating that interest is considered haram (forbidden) in Islam. Many people perceive his stance on interest as stemming solely from his Islamist beliefs. However, there is a patrimonial populist dimension to this approach.

Firstly, it is worth noting that many of Erdogan’s associates and close allies are involved in the construction sector. This sector plays a significant role in Turkey, as they continually build houses to accommodate the country’s growing population. By keeping interest rates low, Erdogan enables his cronies in the construction industry to sell houses, while simultaneously catering to the desires of his supporters, who mainly come from lower-income backgrounds and aspire to own homes.

This policy of maintaining low interest rates benefits his cronies in the construction sector by stimulating housing demand. Simultaneously, it weakens the overall economy and has adverse effects on the middle class. While this policy serves the interests of his supporters by allowing them to afford housing, it comes at the expense of the broader economy and harms the middle classes. As a result, the middle class, who are not necessarily Erdogan’s core supporters, experience a weakening of their economic standing. This indirect wealth transfer through state policies contributes to the erosion of the middle class, consequently weakening the opposition as well.

By implementing such economic policies, Erdogan is not only pursuing his own interests and those of his cronies but also undermining the strength of the middle classes, which poses a challenge to his opposition. Ultimately, this strategy helps consolidate his power by weakening potential sources of dissent and opposition.

Overall, Erdogan’s economic populism, combined with strategic messaging and a strong support base, allows him to maintain political control and keep his voters loyal, even in the face of challenging circumstances and criticism.

What Does Erdogan’s Winning Formula Mean for Turkey’s Future?

After the election results, Erdogan is likely to feel vindicated, but being a vindictive populist, he will not forgive those who did not vote for him. In his celebratory speech, which was previously unifying and conciliatory in tone, he exhibited aggression, polarization, and securitization of the opposition. Despite his extensive efforts, 48 percent of voters remain “ungrateful” in his eyes. This narrow margin of victory makes him vulnerable and fuels his fury. Consequently, he will attempt to weaken the opposition both domestically and abroad using the methods described earlier.

His vindication and vindictiveness will work against the opposition, dissidents, and minority groups. Erdogan will continue to attack and suppress Kurds, Alevis, “White Turks,” Gulenists, and others. He will intensify his narratives about Western crusaders, Jewish lobby, and portray LGBT individuals as enemies of the Turkish people, labeling dissenters as traitors and terrorists.

Erdogan’s electoral authoritarianism and manipulation of electoral processes will persist without restraint. He may establish new so-called “opposition” TV channels and newspapers or capture existing ones to create a loyal opposition media. Additionally, digital authoritarianism will increase, aiming to curtail the influence of social media.

Due to growing repression and the negative impact of his economic populism and neo-patrimonialism on the educated middle classes, many educated Turks and Kurds will choose to leave the country, resulting in a brain drain. “White Turks,” fearing a fate similar to that of Gulen Movement supporters, whose businesses, properties, and homes were seized by Erdogan regime and transferred to AKP supporters, will transfer their wealth to Western nations.

To compensate for the decreasing population numbers and simultaneously decrease the opposition’s vote share, Erdogan will increasingly grant citizenship to Sunni Arabs, Afghans, and Pakistanis, not only in Turkey but also in Western countries and even in their countries of origin. Leveraging his party machine, Islamist pro-AKP NGOs abroad, and a trusted network of Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, these new citizens will be carefully selected.

BillWatson

COMTOG Interview with Bill Watson on ‘Path Out’

Bill Watson is an associate professor of learning design and technology and director of the Purdue Center for Serious Games and Learning in Virtual Environments. According to Dr Bill Watson, video games are extremely powerful in engaging students’ attention, but it is the role of the teachers to focus their attention. The game allows students to step out of the classical learning environment and interact with their subject material on a more personal level. Path Out successfully teaches people about the realities of conflict due to its well-researched background, appealing art direction, authentic storytelling and exploration opportunities. Path Out is a unique game providing students with an education in empathy and acts as an interesting template for how niche commercial games are able to find success in formal education.

FrederikSmets

COMTOG Interview with Frederik Smets on ‘Path Out’

Frederik Smets is a UNHCR Education Officer. Path Out is a part of the UNHCR’s broader catalogue of teaching materials on refugees, asylum, and migration. Frederik Smets, UNHCR Education Officer, noted that this initiative was a direct response to the requests of teachers. In 2015, the peak of the migration crisis, educators contacted the UNHCR for help tackling classroom discussions about why people are crossing the Mediterranean. Today, conversations on migration are still highly politicised and frequently misinformed, which makes education and open discussions on this topic vital.

GeorgHobmeier

COMTOG Interview with Georg Hobmeier on ‘Path Out’

Georg Hobmeier is Path Out’s lead designer. Path Out is an example of a successful game that employs its format to express the consequences of conflict effectively. The autobiographical adventure game recounts the story of a young Syrian man’s life before the war when the war started and how he had to flee his home country in the wake of the Syrian uprising and civil war. The game was created by Vienna-based production company, Causa Creations, in collaboration with its refugee protagonist, (now called) Jack Gutmann. The game’s playful yet honest tone has been very well received by players and critics alike and has even been adapted into a teaching aid by the UNHCR for lessons on refugees and migration.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as watching August 30 Victory Day Parade in Ankara, Turkey on August 30, 2014. Photo: Mustafa Kirazli.

AKP’s populist framing of Erdogan as the tough, macho, militaristic savior of ‘the people’ against the Western imperialists

To win another term as President in Turkey, incumbent Islamist populist Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been forced into externalizing and magnifying his populism, portraying not domestic enemies as ‘elites’ that defy the will of the people, but rather shadowy, non-identifiable international forces as the true elite that the Turkish people must struggle against. Thus, with his new nuclear reactor, “people’s car” and drone carrier ship, Erdogan portrays himself as the tough, macho leader the Turkish people require to stand against the international elite oppressing them at every turn. 

By Ihsan YilmazNicholas Morieson & Ana-Maria Bliuc*

Turkey holds its next presidential elections on May 14, 2023, and for the first time in two decades Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s long reign as Turkish President appears to be faltering, as opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu mounts a serious challenge to his rule. Turkey’s poor economic performance, largely the result of Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policies, has contributed to the decline in support for the Turkish leader. Equally, Erdogan’s apparent ill health, which has led him to appear via video link at events he would ordinarily attend in person, has led to growing concerns that he is ailing and no longer capable of running the country. To counter these issues, he and his supporters have sought to build the image of the President as a macho and virile populist who is the only one capable of protecting the Turkish people from their foreign ‘imperialist’ adversaries and leading the country toward a bright future. In contrast, Erdogan’s rival Kilicdaroglu, is portrayed as a physically weak and elderly man, often in domestic environments which can be associated with housework. This image is meant to communicate that Kilicdaroglu is not a worthy candidate as he cannot stand up to the shadowy international ‘elites’ who seek to undermine Turkey’s economy and diminish its power in the world. Part of this campaign involves the creation of memes, a trend encouraged by Erdogan’s online communications staff, who post images of the President on his official Twitter account appearing ‘tough’ and ‘in control’ and dressed in military clothing. 

When the Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) first won power in 2002, he promised his party would govern as ‘Muslim democrats,’ return power to the Turkish people, negotiate an end to the brutal conflict with Kurdish militant groups, and to seek membership of the European Union. More than twenty years later, the AKP has established itself as the authoritarian dominant political force in the nation, marginalizing its rivals and removing them from the military, bureaucracy, and media. 

Yet, despite Erdogan’s overwhelming power, polling consistently shows him trailing – albeit only by a small margin – CHP leader Kilicdaroglu in the battle to become Turkish president. Erdogan’s declining popularity among Turkish voters is chiefly the result of the failure of his economic policy, which saw him demand the Turkish Central Bank lower interest rates, a decision which, unsurprisingly, precipitated a period of high inflation. Inflation pressures have damaged Turkey’s economy by vastly depreciating the value of the Turkish lira, weakening Turkish purchasing power, and forcing Turkish businesses to spend more repaying foreign loans. The political result of Turkey’s growing economic problems is a tremendous loss of support for the AKP and Erdogan in Turkey’s major cities. For example, in June 2019 Erdogan’s candidate in the Istanbul mayoral election was soundly defeated by the opposition CHP candidate. No non-AKP candidate had won a mayoral election in Istanbul for a quarter of a century, this result has demonstrated the growing discontent with Erdogan’s Presidency and in particular with his handling of Turkey’s economy. 

Erdogan and his supporters, however, have not given up on winning another term as President. In the year leading up to the 2023 Presidential election Erdogan unveiled a number of projects intended to diminish the growing public impression of him as a man losing control of the country’s economy. Rather, Erdogan, ever the canny populist, sought to remake his image into that of a powerful, tech savvy, modern leader in total control of his nation’s destiny, yet as someone who always has the interests of his poorest citizens in his mind. 

For example, in 2022 Erdogan unveiled the first electric car produced in Turkey, the TOGG, which he promoted as the “people’s car.” TOGG is heavily promoted by Erdogan, who has used taxpayers’ money to fund its production and in turn used it as a symbol of the modern, technologically powerful Turkey he claims to be building. However, the car is likely to be prohibitively expensive, and it is difficult to imagine how the average Turkish citizen could afford to drive this “people’s car.” This has led some commentators to credibly accuse Erdogan of using the car to win another term in office, and to suggest that the project – so intertwined with Erdogan – will inevitably fail if Erdogan is not re-elected. 

In an even more obvious attempt to portray himself as leader of a great military power and defender of Turkey, Erdogan in April 2023 unveiled what may be the world’s first armed drone carrier ship, the multi-purpose amphibious assault ship TCG Anadolu. The ship, now moored in front of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, was described by Erdogan as a demonstration of his government’s defiance of “imperialists” and “interest lobbies”, insofar as it was built locally and from mostly Turkish materials. Erdogan also claimed that the opposition CHP “couldn’t have” built the ship, implying they were beholden to foreign imperialists and other anti-Turkish interest groups. In contrast, Erdogan claimed he was interested only in defending the interests of the Turkish people. 

Also in April 2023, Erdogan unveiled Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, built with Russian assistance. While Turkey’s relationship with several other NATO countries has been strained by Erdogan’s decision to maintain close relations with Russia, Erdogan appears to see cooperation with Putin as vital to his nation’s – and his government’s– interests. The nuclear power plant, the culmination of an agreement signed with Russia in 2010, provided Erdogan with another opportunity to portray himself as a strong leader providing for his people, and defending their interests. In this case, the nuclear power plant was described to the public as a way of giving the Turkish people greater autonomy through energy self-sufficiency. Moreover, Erdogan described that power plant as helping create a “Century of Türkiye” for the nation’s youth, who he claimed would benefit most from the construction of the reactor and two others planned. Intriguingly, Erdogan did not personally attend the unveiling of the reactor. Rather, the President was too ill to attend in person, and instead he and Putin appeared via video conference at the opening ceremony, perhaps undermining Erdogan’s attempt at using the power plant to burnish his credentials as a strong leader protecting Turkish interests from foreign adversaries. 

Erdogan’s supporters have naturally sought to help their leader win another term in office. Cognizant that their leader is in danger of losing office, AKP supporters and operatives have been hard at work creating memes intended to portray Erdogan as a tough and powerful leader who hears the voice of the people and acts always in their best interests. When on May 2, 2023 Erdogan’s Twitter feed posted an image of him dressed in air force clothing and wearing aviator sunglasses, as if he were about to fly a fighter plane, his dutiful supporters began constructing memes based on the image. For example, one prominent Erdogan supporter on Twitter with more than 150,000 followers, tweeted out the image with the caption “Tayyip Erdogan is today’s Abdulhamit,” referring to the last Islamist Ottoman sultan (r. 1876-1909) who held real power over the failing Empire. These media strategies are used to show Erdogan as a leader who is representative of all Turkish people but at the same time, he is powerful enough to bring Turkey to its former glory on the global scene. In contrast, another tweet by the same user showed the same image of Erdogan juxtaposed against a photo of Kilicdaroglu sitting in what is presumably his own kitchen, holding up an onion to the camera. The caption reads “kidding aside, who would you vote for?”

Another popular meme contrasted the image of a virile and powerful Erdogan against a ‘weak’ looking Kilicdaroglu sitting at a table in a white singlet, eating a meal on his own. Discussing the image first tweeted by Erdogan’s Twitter feed, journalist Sevilay Yilman remarks upon the curious decision to portray Erdogan as a powerful military leader, when Erdogan himself sought to end the military tutelage that plagued Turkey throughout much of the 20th century. The photo, she argues, reminds voters that Erdogan may have ended secular-nationalist military tutelage, but that he subsequently inaugurated an even more insidious and all-encompassing form of military tutelage. Indeed, the photo seems to be telling voters that Erdogan has now supplanted the military leaders of the past, and that Turkey remains a deeply militarized nation rather than one ruled by civilian leaders. 

Why, then, would Erdogan promote himself using images of this kind? The answer lies in his ever-present desire to promote himself as a populist savior of ‘the people.’ To win power, Erdogan – in an era in which the Turkish economy is crumbling, relies more and more on personalistic rule, and by portraying himself as the chief defender of the Turkish people from their ‘imperialist’ (i.e., American, European, Zionist, international banker) enemies, and from domestic collaborators with imperialists (i.e., the CHP and their allies Kurds and Gulenists).

If in the past Erdogan has sought to make Turkish people feel nostalgic for the glory of the Ottoman Empire, he now attempts to portray himself as leading the Turkish people toward a bright future in which they build and drive their own cars, become energy self-sufficient, and command the waves with their own home built armed drone carrier ships. In doing so, they can effectively thwart the destructive desires of unnamed ‘imperialists’ who hate Turkey and its people. 

It is interesting to consider how, for decades, the literature on populism has predicted that populists, once they formed governments, would fail to win office on successive occasions because, first, populists could never deliver on their promise to ‘save’ the nation and give all power to ‘the people’ and, second, because once in government they would automatically lose their ability to portray themselves as fighting governing ‘elites.’ The AKP has proven the populism theorists wrong by ruling for twenty years as populists. They have done this largely through the construction of a personality cult around Erdogan himself, and his portrayal as a mighty protector of Turkey, who loves his nation and defends it from its ‘elite’ enemies. However, having vanquished domestic elites long ago, Erdogan and the AKP now portray shadowy foreign forces as an international ‘elite’ that despises Turkey and its people, and Erdogan as the only man capable of defending Turkey from imperialists. The CHP, once the ruling party of Turkey, is reduced in these circumstances to a local collaborator with these foreign ‘dark forces’ attempting to destabilize Turkey and prevent the flourishing of its people. 

Erdogan’s self-portrayal as a macho military leader thus at once seeks to strike fear into Turkish citizens, by reminding them that they are in some way at ‘war’ with foreign imperialists, foreign NGOs, the ‘interest rate lobby,’ and internal collaborators with these groups, but also attempts to reassume voters that Erdogan is ready to meet these enemies in combat. In a similar way, as the economy falls apart around him, Erdogan seeks to reassure voters that he is fully in charge, and the nation’s economic woes are the product of foreign forces attempting to undermine Turkey. It is striking, then, that in order to win another term as President, Erdogan has been forced into externalizing and magnifying his populism, portraying not domestic enemies as ‘elites’ that defy the will of the people, but rather shadowy, non-identifiable international forces as the true elite that the Turkish people must struggle against. Thus, with his new nuclear reactor, “people’s car” and drone carrier ship, Erdogan portrays himself as the tough, macho leader the Turkish people require to stand against the international elite oppressing them at every turn. 

The image of Erdogan dressed as a fighter pilot and the Turkish navy’s new flagship and technological tour de force, the TCG Anadolu, perhaps best represent Erdogan’s 2023 presidential campaign strategy of portraying the President as a mighty Sultan protecting his people from foreign threats. Evoking in his supporters’ nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire, but also feelings of hope for a similarly glorious future in which the Turkish people – and not foreign imperialists – are the authors of their own destiny, Erdogan uses his new ship as a symbol of his defiance of foreign ‘elites’ and ability to defend his own people. It is a strategy that may well be working. For example, one Erdogan supporter, Necati Tan, is quoting as saying “This warship is our national pride” and that with its unveiling “The president has brought back the glory of the Ottoman Empire.” 

Will the carefully crafted image of himself as a tough, militaristic leader who, through technological innovation and a drive toward economic and energy self-sufficiency, is saving the Turkish people from the largely imagined foreign forces attempting to undermine Turkish power be convincing enough for the Turkish people to give him another mandate? How commonplace these sentiments are remains unknown, but the result of the May 14 elections will tell us much about Erdogan’s success of this strategy and his ability to distract voters from the collapsing economy.


 

Funding: This work was supported by the Australian Research Council [ARC] under Discovery Grant [DP220100829], Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation.


 

(*) Ana-Maria Bliuc is a social and political psychologist who joined Psychology at the University of Dundee in 2019. She has a PhD in Psychology from the Australian National University, and prior to her current appointment she held academic positions in Australia at Western Sydney University (2016-2019), Monash University (2012-2016), and the University of Sydney (2006-2012). Her research examines how people’s social identities influence their behavior in a range of contexts including health, environmental (climate change), and socio-political (collective action and social change). More recently, she has focused on research on online communities looking at how collective identities and behaviors are shaped through online interactions. This research has been conducted in online political communities (mostly far right and white supremacist) and online health communities (recovery from addiction). Dr Bliuc’s received funding from the Australian Research Council, and she has published in a wide range of high-quality international journals such as Nature Climate Change, WIREs Climate Change, Computers in Human Behaviors, and Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.

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