So how did he do it then? How did Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan confound the pundits and the pollsters to secure a presidential election first-round victory that paves the way for a May 28 run-off win that would take him into a third decade of power?
There are those who see a conspiracy, insisting that his opponent, opposition unity candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, must be the victim of widespread ballot box fraud. When news came through on May 17 that Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) had filed a complaint with Turkey’s Supreme Election Board (YSK) over the results from 2,269 of the 201,807 ballot boxes in the presidential race, it seemed for a moment that such observers might be on to something. But the CHP itself pointed out that its objections related to only around 1% of votes cast—even if each objection was upheld it would not alter the fact that Erdogan won the contest.
Conspiracy dismissed? Well, hold on, say those most insistent that something doesn’t look right. The fact that the CHP has so few objections compared to the scale of the voting in the country of 85mn does not mean that the election day fraud was not of major proportions, they say, adding that all it proves is that the CHP’s voting surveillance operation was not up to the task. After all, didn’t the party wave goodbye to its official in charge of election surveillance two days after the depressing defeat? In other words, if the ballot box corruption was very large-scale, and perhaps intricate, nobody would have been capable of spotting it.
For those who feel such allegations smack far too much of sour grapes, an argument presented on May 17 by two academics in Foreign Policy, might appeal.
They took a look at the pre-election “irrational exuberance” that had a fair number of professional Turkey watchers and observers convinced that Kilicdaroglu, “Turkey’s Gandhi”—who leads a “disparate coalition of alleged social democrats, nationalists, technocrats and Islamists”—was about to knock Erdogan, the man who tanked Turkey’s economy and democracy, off his perch. And the academics—Sinan Ciddi, an associate professor of national security studies at Marine Corps University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Steven A. Cook, a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations—note that in the weeks before the vote “there was altogether too much focus on polls, too much Twitter navel-gazing, too much cheerleading, and too little attention to Erdogan’s advantages and Kilicdaroglu’s weaknesses”.
“After two decades in charge,” they write, “the president could instrumentalize the power of the state, leverage a friendly media landscape, and play Turks against each other with politically potent messages about identity. In fact, it is a credit to Kilicdaroglu that he did as well as he did against such odds, but making a good show of it was not the preferred narrative among Turkey experts. Instead, they hammered away at the idea that Kilicdaroglu was well-positioned to win.
“This was evident in the numerous op-eds, articles, podcasts, and television segments among seasoned policy analysts that drove the line that Kilicdaroglu’s victory was not just possible but the likely outcome of Sunday’s vote. For example, Medyascope is a Turkish internet-based television outlet that has a reputation for journalistic independence, but it lost its critical perspective some time before the elections. A variety of its programming featuring established Turkish analysts went on the airwaves explaining that Kilicdaroglu was the next president.”
Going into the second-round vote, say Ciddi and Cook, the Turkey-watching world should remember that “hope is not analysis” and that “it is a big no-no to read what one wants to read into events, which is why experts need to expand their universe beyond their immediate spheres of colleagues, friends, and family”.
Another reality to take on board, they continue, is that opinion polling is increasingly unreliable, while a third lesson is that “pocketbook issues are important, but identity may be more important”. “This is controversial,” say the analysts, “because elections are often framed based on whether people feel like they are better off now, which suggests that people vote based on their economic interest. We know that is not true.
“Maybe we should change the question or expand our understanding of how and why people answer the question. It is possible that a voter or voters may have less in their wallet but feel more secure as pious Muslims because of Erdogan’s policies. In that sense, they may very well be better off than before.”
Finally, advise Ciddi and Cook, “there is no wisdom of the crowds on Twitter because the platform—or any given person’s timeline—is not as diverse or varied as it may seem.”
They conclude: “There remain serious questions about whether large numbers of ballots were ever counted and the way Erdogan used the state to his advantage to gain the runoff. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the administration of the vote was ‘lacking transparency’ and criticized both media bias and ‘limitations to freedom of speech’ in the lead-up to the vote.
“All of this is no doubt true, but it is also not the entire story in Turkey. Against bad economic times, a devastating earthquake, and an invigorated opposition, Erdogan remains popular, and his message about piety, power, and prosperity continues to resonate.”