An analyst on a visit to Turkey has related how she was “taken aback by the fact that nearly everyone had convinced themselves” that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will lose the country’s upcoming elections, now six weeks away.
“In interviews with journalists, opposition officials, and even bureaucrats, there was almost a blind conviction that this was Erdogan’s last stand,” writes Asli Aydintasbas in a “Letter from Istanbul”, adding: “So over-confident were they about the possibility of an opposition victory that of the dozens of friends and acquaintances I met in Istanbul, only two — one journalist and one media executive — said they believed Erdogan would win it in the end.”
Between the concern about the possibility of a massive Istanbul earthquake—brought on by the devastating earthquake catastrophe that struck parts of southern Turkey in early February—and the nearing elections, the country seemed to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown, adds Aydintasbas, a visiting fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington DC, in her missive.
She also observes: “Turkey will face difficult years ahead no matter who wins. My recent visit made me realize that the country, once a rising star on the periphery of Europe, was broken — broken by earthquakes, economic hardship, and above all, polarization. If the opposition wins, there will be a chance to restore democracy and perhaps even effective economic governance. But the bare-knuckle politics of the last few years will make it hard to build national consensus on key issues.”
Aydintasbas also describes how on her visit she was struck by “how deeply scarred folks were from the February 6th earthquake — having been hit not only with grief but also the realization that at the end of his 20-year reign, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hyper-centralized and dysfunctional governance system was partly to blame for the high number of casualties. Erdogan’s re-election is no longer a foregone conclusion, which makes this election consequential not just for Turkish citizens but for the global balance of power.”
With the six-party Nation Alliance opposition bloc leading in the polls, Erdogan’s “authoritarian bargain with Turkish society seems to have collapsed — and younger people want change,” says the academic, also noting: “With double-digit inflation, the once-efficient system of patronage is now openly criticized for nepotism. The government’s inadequate response to the earthquake has revealed that behind the omnipotent facade of the state, institutions were hollowed out, money was tight, and corruption was rampant. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is no longer able to monopolize politics as it had a decade ago, and as a reflection of that, has seen a lower number of applicants than in previous years to run for parliamentary seats.
“But there are reasons to be cautious. Elections are still six weeks away and a lot can happen in Turkey in that time frame. I worry about this certainty about change and its implications for Turkish society if Erdogan is able to hold onto power. For many, that would mean something bigger than losing an election — a sense of being cheated, possibly public outrage, and nihilism about the country’s future. For people on both sides, Turkey’s political fight has come to represent a deeply personal and existential battle.”
In the second half of his two-decade rule, Erdogan, assesses Aydintasbas, skillfully instrumentalised culture wars, nationalism and identity politics, giving Sunni conservatives a voice in Turkey’s destiny. “With a unique combination of neo-Ottomanism and Islamism, he rebranded Turkey as an unstoppable rising power. To the AKP base, Erdogan is the only man who can ‘Make Turkey Great Again.’”
“But for others,” says Aydintasbas, “Erdogan is responsible for Turkey’s authoritarian drift and economic despair. For them, world-order issues are secondary to economic survival. Many will be asking themselves, ‘Who can run the country better?’ — or rather, ‘Under which government am I better off?’”
That the opposition bloc has survived “despite a daily barrage of government propaganda and fake news in a highly authoritarian setting is in itself an important testament to Turkish society’s desire for change,” she continues. “But the opposition’s Achilles’ heel may well be its candidate — the 74-year-old Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The former civil servant is a soft-spoken social democrat who hails from Turkey’s Alevi/Alawite minority. The debate around Kilicdaroglu resembles the deliberations among U.S. Democrats prior to the 2020 elections. Yes, he is nice and all, but can he slay a dragon? After a year of infighting and drama, the opposition parties finally settled on Kilicdaroglu, with the strategy that his ticket would be strengthened by the popular mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, who would serve as his deputies.
“Kilicdaroglu is not trying to be another version of Turkey’s mercurial leader. If anything, he has positioned himself as the antithesis of the strongman — the ordinary family man making anti-corruption videos from his middle-class kitchen, the quiet uniter of the many different factions in Turkish society. But his task is not easy — as this is the country that exported the concept of the ‘deep state’ to the world lexicon, with a long-standing tradition of self-appointed guardians of the regime.”
The Kurdish vote could be key to the outcome of the parliamentary and presidential elections and, as Aydintasbas reminds, “voter suppression is a reality in the Kurdish countryside and controlling the ballots during the counting process is critical to a win”. Turkey’s new election law is, meanwhile, untested. “I suspect,” says Aydintasbas, “this will make things harder for the opposition both in monitoring the vote and in attaining a parliamentary majority”.
She concludes: “A lot of people ask me if it is even possible to dream of free elections in Turkey and if Erdogan would ever concede if he lost. The answer is: yes. If the difference is narrow, say 1% to 2%, forget it. The elections would be contested à la U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. But if the opposition win is bigger than 2%, then it is irreversible. Erdogan has built his legitimacy on elections and could not contest a decisive win.
“The scariest outcome for Turkey would be a neck-and-neck situation, in which both sides claim victory. An effective organization to monitor the ballots across the country on May 14th will be critical for the opposition. In the 2019 local elections, the opposition won Istanbul (and other big cities) due to its vigilance; some observers slept on sealed ballot boxes to prevent rigging. The opposition would have to replicate that across the country, including in the conservative hinterland and the Kurdish countryside.”