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."