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Bottom Line: Erdoğan’s Reign Is Not Over

The first round of Turkey’s presidential election is set to begin shortly. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current president, has been in power for 20 years. Despite the opposition's attempt to unite to fight the ruling party, it will not be enough to end Erdoğan’s reign.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Tekirdag, Turkey – June 27, 2020: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Speaks at a Meeting © Mr. Claret Red /

May 06, 2023 10:05 EDT

Predictions of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s demise in the upcoming election have been pouring in for months. Since first becoming a member of the Turkish parliament in 2003, Erdoğan has been the defining politician of his generation. In 2014, he won the first Turkish presidential election, and has held the position ever since. Today, however, Erdoğan’s position has never seemed so precarious.

Erdoğan represents the ruling political party in Turkey, known as the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP is infamous for its unorthodox economic policies, which have resulted in skyrocketing inflation rates and crippling increases in the cost of living for Turkish citizens.The AKP’s dysfunction is further exacerbated by nepotism and widespread corruption.  During the decades-long reign of Erdoğan and the AKP, many of Turkey’s foreign relations have deteriorated, leaving the country isolated. At the same time, the administration is struggling to manage the huge influx of Syrian and Afghan refugees seeking asylum in Turkey.

To make matters worse, Turkey was hit with two high magnitude earthquakes in February 2023. The devastation wrought in southeast Turkey afflicted an already poor and neglected region of the country. The inadequate response from government agencies quickly piled pressure onto the shoulders of the embattled president. Turkish citizens took to social media to criticize Erdoğan and his administration’s response to the disaster. Erdoğan countered by placing a temporary ban on Twitter and allegedly arresting citizens accused of making “provocative posts” concerning the earthquakes.

The Turkish media has also criticized Erdoğan for his aloof response to the devastation. While surveying the aftermath in Pazarcık, the president stated that, “What happens, happens, this is part of fate’s plan.” His focus on God’s hand and destiny was hardly surprising. Erdoğan is a devout Muslim, and his connection to a religiously conservative base has been key to his success.

International media has deemed the recent earthquakes the final straw that will break the back of Erdoğan’s long grip on power. However, regardless of the ineptitude of disaster response and the degree to which the president is responsible, the earthquakes will not be the deciding factor of the presidential election. A focus on this as an election decider neglects the wider context in which Turkish elections take place. It is the wider context that will determine the outcome.

Winner Takes All

A long-running complaint against Erdoğan is that he is a majoritarian politician – meaning that when he wins, he governs not for the whole electorate, but for the constituency that voted for him alone. While there is much truth in this analysis, it is only half the story. It fails to acknowledge that Erdoğan is a majoritarian politician in an essentially majoritarian system.

It is easy for Western media to complain about the majoritarian instincts of faith-based politicians such as Erdoğan, yet it is striking how silent the same media outlets become when secular forces operate with the same majoritarian instincts. Majoritarian rule has existed as long as the Turkish Republic itself. The founding father of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and his ruling party, the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), maintained majoritarian control even after single party rule ended in the mid-1940s.

Either elections returned a secular nationalist party to power, which served a secular nationalist agenda, or the military stepped in to dictate a secular nationalist agenda. For decades, these were the only two choices, until the rise of the AKP in the 21st century.

The undeniable electoral success of the AKP has transformed the political landscape in Turkey, after retaining two decades of concentrated power. Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in many power struggles within the conservative establishment itself.

One such power struggle concerns the exiled religious leader, Fethullah Gulen, who Erdoğan openly blames for the orchestration of a failed coup in 2016. In the wake of the coup, Erdoğan’s politics turned sharply and decisively towards Turkish nationalism, and away from any accommodation of the country’s largest ethnic minority, the Kurds. This shift not only alienated the European Union and many of Erdoğan’s supporters in Turkey, but also angered some within the Islamist establishment.  

Former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, former minister of foreign affairs Ali Babacan, and AKP founder and former president Abdullah Gul have all left the AKP, forming rival, smaller conservative political movements. Unease about the direction of the AKP is not reserved for liberals and secularists alone.

A Weak Opposition

Erdoğan has always benefitted from a weak and divided opposition. No matter how irascible a politician the president has been, he has managed to stay in power simply by remaining the most popular choice.

As that popularity has diminished, Erdoğan has turned to uglier tactics.One example is the continued harassment and imprisonment of Kurdish politicians connected to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). However, the main opposition has remained the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), the traditional secularist party.

The trouble is, the CHP has a finite appeal. The party consistently returns from elections with about a 25% share of the vote. This number fluctuates only slightly from year to year. This could be because the CHP is the old establishment party, and often seems devoid of new ideas. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, long-term leader of the CHP, has now held the position for 13 years. Regardless, Kılıçdaroğlu is not known for his charisma. On the campaign trail, he is consistently outshined by Erdoğan. When the opposition bloc, known as the Nation Alliance, was trying to agree on a leader, the name of Ekrem Imamoglu was mentioned before that of Kılıçdaroğlu.

Imamoglu holds the position Erdoğan once held: Mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. He is a CHP politician, but younger and hungrier. However, in December 2022, a Turkish Court banned Imamoglu from politics and sentenced him to three years in prison for insulting election officials. The Nation Alliance – a disparate group of six parties – has instead turned to the CHP leader, Kılıçdaroğlu, as their presidential candidate. While Kılıçdaroğlu may be the obvious compromise candidate, he is not an obvious winner.

Regardless of who the opposition chose, the same majoritarian dynamic will persist in Turkish politics. Erdoğan knows that for the socially conservative electoral majority, the risks of not voting for him are too high. Even if many in his traditional constituency are unhappy with the economy, the arrival of Syrian refugees, or the direction of Erdoğan’s nationalist coalition, they are more unhappy with the thought of a CHP-led government.

In the majoritarian world of Turkish politics, there are only two sides, and whoever wins takes all. It is a pattern of democracy that is becoming increasingly familiar across much of the democratic world, and it will play a key role in the Turkish election on the centenary of the nation’s birth.
[Hannah Gage edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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