“Erdogan the demoniser and brutaliser” will emerge in Turkey’s election campaigning and “events that transpire… might shock us,” according to the assessment of a top analyst of Turkish politics.
“I think [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s game plan is to deny [the] opposition an outright victory [in the presidential election] on May 14 and force the race into a runoff. Then we’ll see Erdogan the demoniser and the brutaliser. You know, he’s gonna come out in full force, even by the standards of how autocratic he has become,” Soner Cagaptay told an episode of the Financial Times’ Rachman Review podcast, entitled “Is Turkey about to see the end of the Erdogan era?”
Cagaptay—of The Washington Institute of Near East Policy and author of a recent book about Turkey’s president called A Sultan in Autumn—also foresaw Russian leader Vladimir Putin stepping up his efforts to help get fellow strongman Erdogan re-elected, saying: “Right now, the race looks very competitive for the presidency. [Main challenger Kemal] Kilicdaroglu is leading Erdogan by only a few points, that could narrow down.
“There are so many white swans or black swans going forward, one of which is Putin — he wants Erdogan to win. Putin doesn’t want to see a pro-transatlantic government in Ankara in place. He’s already helped Erdogan last year by transferring large sums of money to Turkey. Those funds that came in helped stabilise the economy and Erdogan has picked up favourability since.”
“Putin could also engage in information operations to create fake news, to undermine the opposition or to boost third-pole candidates,” Cagaptay also told the podcast interviewer, the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman.
Cagaptay, who said that Erdogan is basically “messaging… that he’s making Turkey great again” on a “post-truth platform”, would look to defeat Kilicdaroglu in a May 28 head-to-head second round vote after surviving the first round poll partly by boosting the presence of third-poll candidates such as Muharrem Ince, a defector from Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Ince’s “social media presence far outsizes the financial holdings of his party,” noted the analyst, adding: “So it looks like somebody is opening him social media space. If it’s not Putin, I think it’s Erdogan; perhaps both. And that’s helping.”
For the first time, said Cagaptay, Erdogan faces the challenge of winning national elections while not delivering growth, “so that means Erdogan’s dark side will surface.”
“Erdogan,” he suggested, “might come out with new allegations of deep state that’s about to conspire against him. It used to be so difficult for me to explain the concept of deep state to American audiences. People would say, what do you mean? Erdogan is democratically elected; he’s a democrat, respected, even though he goes after his opponents, saying that they are a deep state about to undermine him. Now, of course, following the rise of [Donald] Trump, I think we’re seeing that Turkey invented this kind of jargon and the rest of the world borrowed it.”
Signs of the dark side of Erdogan—back on the campaign trail on April 30 after three days away due to illness—were already evident, Cagaptay said, noting: “He started to label opposition leaders and those who worked for the opposition as terrorists, perverts, usurers. And I think we’re gonna see more of this coming up, going down. He is the master of this kind of politics, both in Turkey but also globally. And I think there’s nothing Erdogan won’t do to win elections.”
Describing the huge significance of the Turkish elections, Cagaptay said that “if Erdogan lost, I think the whole world can take a deep breath that this is the bookend of nativist populist politics globally”.
Erdogan, he said, was among the inventors of nativist populist politics in the 21st century, together with Hungarian Prime Minister Orban. “Since, effective leaders elsewhere have copied this model, you know, from Trump and [Narendra] Modi to [Jair] Bolsonaro. But what makes Erdogan and also Orban unique is that these two leaders have never been voted out.”
Though there are fears that Erdogan administration officials could attempt to fix the election result in Erdogan’s favour if the outcome between him and Kilicdaroglu was just one or two percentage points, Cagaptay said he was “pretty certain” that if the opposition achieved a margin of victory of around five points, “Erdogan will have to accept the outcome”.
“I think that at that stage,” he continued, “the opposition has probably done some thinking that in order to avoid a scenario for Erdogan pulling a Trump, a position is probably going to go to amnesty to Erdogan with an offer to provide him, his family members and people in his administration with an amnesty offered that they won’t be prosecuted against. So it’s kinda like the transition in Chile after [Augusto] Pinochet, not that Erdogan is Pinochet, but basically going to him and saying, you know, don’t worry about it, leave power. Let’s have transition.”
If Erdogan was declared the election winner, he would probably rebrand his job to allow himself an indefinite number of presidential terms “so be Turkey’s sultan for ever”, concluded Cagaptay, adding: “If he loses, that’s very significant also, two decades of Erdogan rule will come to an end. Turkey will revert back to democracy. The new government will release political prisoners, including jailed politicians and philanthropists. It will re-establish the new government, that is, freedoms of assembly; access to these freedoms such as assembly, expression and media; Turkey will reset ties with Europe and US; investment environment will improve. Markets will rally. The lira will stabilise. So Turkey will go in two very different directions if Erdogan loses or he wins.”