President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defeated opposition challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu in Sunday’s Turkish presidential election runoff – a victory analysts ascribe to Erdogan’s focus on identity issues and use of the government’s resources, as well as Kilicdaroglu’s tepid leadership of a precarious coalition.
The first round was a shock to many Western observers who thought they might finally see the back of Erdogan. But after the Turkish president came within a whisker of re-election in that ballot, his second-round victory surprised no one. He defeated opposition challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu with 52.1 percent of the vote.
“I will be here until I’m in the grave,” Erdogan said as he addressed jubilant supporters from an open-top bus in Istanbul.
These polls belied the Western cliché that elections are about “the economy, stupid”. Along with his much-criticised response to February’s devastating earthquakes, Turkey’s economic woes looked like a big weakness for Erdogan at the outset of the campaign.
While growth remains robust, five years of an inflation and currency crisis has seen the cost of living soar for many Turks – a major reversal after the abundant economic gains after Erdogan first took power in 2003. Experts blame this crisis on Erdogan’s unorthodox belief that cutting interest rates helps reduce inflation while all mainstream economic theories hold that higher interest rates are required to calm rampant inflation in an economy.
But culture war has been at the heart of Turkish politics ever since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk made the country a modern nation-state in 1923, introducing strict secularism as he transformed Turkey along Westernising lines. Erdogan’s traditional constituency of socially conservative Muslim voters in the Anatolian heartland have always seen him as their champion in this culture war. A gifted orator and political strategist, Erdogan has already gone down in history as the leader who smashed secular Kemalism’s long hegemony over Turkish politics.
“Erdogan won primarily because he was once again able to shift the focus from socio-economic issues to identity issues,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara bureau.
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Erdogan also instrumentalised Turkey’s long fight against Kurdish militant group the PKK, which has waged a guerrilla war against the Turkish state punctuated by ceasefires since 1984 and is classified as a terrorist group by the EU and the US as well as Turkey.
Kilicdaroglu won the support of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Erdogan then accused the opposition of having links to terrorism, saying opposition leaders went into “dark rooms to sit and bargain” with militants.
“He was particularly successful in directing the anger of Turkish society towards the PKK [against] the opposition,” Unluhisarcikli noted.
Meanwhile, Kilicdaroglu’s big-tent approach was always going to be a tremendous challenge. The opposition contender had to juggle the Nation Alliance – the heterogenous six-party coalition behind his candidacy, which included the nationalist Good Party – with the HDP’s endorsement of his candidacy.
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After Kilicdaroglu’s disappointing first-round performance, he won the support of the nationalist Victory Party’s Umit Ozdag and adopted his hard line on the Kurdish issue – which evidently risked alienating the millions of Kurdish voters Kilicdaroglu needed.
“The diversity of the opposition alliance was both an advantage and a disadvantage,” Unluhisarcikli observed. “It was an advantage because it made it possible for Kilicdaroglu to address a wider audience. It was a disadvantage because it led to an image of dysfunctionality. Moreover, while most voters could find an element they could identify with in the opposition alliance, they could also find one that they could not tolerate.”
When he was performing well in opinion polls ahead of the first round, Kilicdaroglu’s unassuming, professorial demeanour looked like a potential boon after two decades of Erdogan’s often mercurial style. But in reality Kilicdaroglu’s image was that of a “lacklustre candidate” backed by a “wobbly coalition”, said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St. Lawrence University and the Middle East Institute in Washington DC.
Beyond the issues and personalities, Erdogan was able to mobilise resources surpassing the typical advantages of incumbency. He made lavish offers to voters using the state’s largesse, notably promising discounted gas bills for a year. Erdogan’s presidential power was helpful to his campaign in other ways, as the government controls 90% of the national media and has effectively curtailed the power of the independent press, seeing Turkey fall to 165 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index.
Highlighting restrictions on press freedom, observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe found during the campaign that the polls were “marked by an unlevel playing field” even if they were “still competitive”.
“There are electoral reasons why Erdogan won and there are authoritarian reasons why he won,” Eissenstat said, emphasising that both sides of this equation are crucial.
“Given Erdogan’s gross mismanagement of the economy, his electoral skills would mean little without the authoritarian components: his control of 90% of the media, his use of the courts to limit the opposition, his use of government resources to support his own campaign,” Eissenstat continued. “As the saying goes, ‘only amateurs try to steal elections on election day’: Erdogan is no amateur. Election day had some irregularities, but nothing wildly out of the ordinary. Erdogan controlled every aspect of how the election was [run] and that is the key explanation for why he won.”
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All that said, Kilicdaroglu came closer to defeating Erdogan than any previous opposition standard-bearer. In the 2018 presidential elections many Western observers thought Muharrem Ince had a decent chance of winning. But Erdogan clinched re-election in the first round, despite a lively campaign from the candidate representing Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party.
“The second round was closer than I thought it would be,” Eissenstat said. “The opposition did very well given the limits it was working under, and the voter turnout was higher than I expected.”
“I am in Turkey right now and my sense from conversations before the run-off [was] that opposition voters were demoralised and that many would stay home,” Eissenstat continued. “In the event, the Turkish electorate’s belief in the moral importance of voting trumped their hopelessness. The exception was the Kurdish vote, which clearly was dampened by Kilicdaroglu’s swerve to the right in the second round.”
But there is no mistaking the sense of jubilation among Erdogan and his supporters as he enters his third decade in power. This year is symbolic, too, as Turkey is marking a century since Ataturk made it a nation-state.
Beneath the congratulations pouring in from Washington to Moscow, there is a clear divide between the perspectives of Western governments and those of Turkey’s geopolitical partners, pre-eminently Russia. After the Western commentariat hailed Erdogan as a reformer in the 2000s, their attitudes soured during the following decade, as he ramped up an assertive foreign policy amid his turn towards illiberal democracy at home.
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Yet the West’s most pressing geopolitical priority, the war in Ukraine, demonstrates that Turkey is both troublesome to the Western alliance (as shown by Ankara blocking Sweden’s NATO accession) and a valuable partner (as shown by Ankara brokering Ukraine’s Black Sea grain export deal).
Russia will “celebrate” Erdogan’s victory as Moscow sees his “transactionalism as convenient” – while “for the West, he will continue to be a challenge, but they will try to make the best of it”, Eissenstat said. “They won’t be happy, but in the end, they want to work with Turkey and Erdogan is its president.”
On foreign and domestic policy alike, Eissenstat expects Erdogan is unlikely to make any major changes during this new presidential term.
“He will likely make some half-hearted nods at a reset with some Western powers and with the markets to try to help stabilise the economy, but I think the general trajectory of his rule is set,” Eissenstat said. “I don’t expect him to become wildly more repressive and I certainly don’t expect him to liberalise.”
Nevertheless, both analysts foresee one key difference in the 69-year-old Erdogan’s third term: he’s likely to hand-pick his political successor.
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