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.