After two decades in power as prime minister and as president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hoping to win a final mandate in the 2023 presidential election next month. But amid mounting anger over his handling of the economy in recent years, the seasoned Turkish politician could be in for a tough fight against his main rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Turkish political scientist Ahmet Insel looks back at Erdogan’s time in power.
A talented orator and wily politician credited with lifting millions of Turks into the middle class, Recep Tayyip Erdogan transformed the country as only Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, accomplished before him. The 69-year-old Turkish president is now running for a third term. But the upcoming presidential election in May is no cakewalk for the seasoned politician with polls suggesting he could be defeated by opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
A profound economic crisis coupled with skyrocketing inflation, deep political tensions and mounting anger over his handling of the February 6 earthquakes, which killed more than 50,000 people, could cost Erdogan his place in the Ak Saray presidential palace. Turkish political scientist and publisher Ahmet Insel spoke to FRANCE 24 about Erdogan’s political legacy and the stakes in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections.
FRANCE 24: After two decades of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in power, do Turkish voters still trust him?
Ahmet Insel: He is not as popular as he was in 2020. In 2018, he won the first round of the presidential election with flying colours, getting 52% of votes. But surveys now show that only 40% or 42% of respondents would vote for Erdogan in the first round of the upcoming election. After 20 years in power, it’s a relative drop but not an insignificant one, given the democratic erosion that has taken place and the ongoing economic crisis.
He could lose this election because of his decision to change Turkey’s political system to a presidential one, where a candidate needs over 50% of votes to win. If he had kept the parliamentary system, he would certainly win. Despite how he handled the earthquakes, Erdogan still has a surprisingly strong level of support. People also fear the change that would come should the opposition win these elections.
How would you assess his track record as prime minister and president?
His track record is negative on three counts. First, he came into a rather authoritarian democratic regime with the promise of establishing a conservative parliamentary democracy and expanding rights. What we see today is an extremely repressive presidential regime that has gutted civil society, gagged the media and made way for an autocracy, justifiable only because elections still exist. Turkey hasn’t made any progress on the democratic front.
On the economic front, Erdogan implemented a neoliberal stabilisation policy in the 2000s, taking advantage of a very favourable international situation. With the prospect of Turkey joining the EU in a 15-year timeframe, there was plenty of foreign investments. The average income per capita rose from $3,000 in 2002 to $12,000 in 2012, a record high. But since then, it has been declining and is now at $9,000 – the same as it was between 2007 and 2008.
Turkey’s ongoing economic crisis is largely a consequence of policies that Erdogan has implemented since 2018. The Turkish lira has lost more than 200% of its value in relation to the euro in just four years, which is an astounding rate. Turkey has the second-highest inflation rate worldwide. We reached an official rate of 80-90% last year, but unofficial estimates say the rate was much higher. Our current rate is around 60%. The middle class has become poorer. When Erdogan first came to power, Turkey had been part of the G20 for four years and had the 17th highest GDP in the world. That ranking has now dropped to 20th. There could have been more positive outcomes, but the president wasted the assets he had in his first 10 years as leader.
Lastly, there is the ideological shift Erdogan made. In the early 2000s, he was culturally conservative and politically liberal, especially regarding gender issues. He supported an open-minded policy on education. But from 2010 to 2011 onwards, he changed his policies and adopted a more nationalistic, “authentic” position, to use his own words. He described himself as a Turkish nationalist who embodies Sunni Muslim values. He started saying his goal was to train a “pious youth”, something unheard of ten years earlier. His nepotism was blatant, he appointed people from “imam schools” – or preachers – to senior positions within his administration. He implemented more religious education in school curriculums. He used the Directorate of Religious Affairs in Turkey (Diyanet) to spread religious ideology. And he transformed the historic Hagia Sophia into a mosque, which was symbolically a big move.
What about his foreign policy?
Turkey has become a regional power feared by its neighbours, including Syria, Iran, Greece … Contrary to what Erdogan promised in the 2000s, the country has become a source of many problems, not a solution. He uses the country’s location to position Turkey as an intermediary between Ukraine and Russia. But while Erdogan condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he still cooperates on trade. His stance on NATO is ambivalent. Relations between Erdogan and the EU are completely frozen regarding Turkey’s membership. And he doesn’t respect the decisions made by the European Court of Human Rights.
How can you explain Erdogan’s ideological shift, especially in terms of religion?
He was trained in political Islam. He was the first mayor of Istanbul to be a member of the [Islamist] Welfare Party. In the late 1990s, he realised his stance on political Islam would limit him to the political fringes. Along with other politicians such as Abdullah Gul, who became president in 2007, he realised it was necessary to refocus his political agenda and occupy the centre-right. His success in both the 2002 and 2007 parliamentary elections was a consequence of his altogether authoritarian, culturally conservative, economically liberal, and politically rather democratic stance. It’s also what garnered him international support.
From 2011 onwards, he had a majority in parliament and began implementing religiously conservative policies. And then came the Arab Spring. That’s when we found out he had been in close contact with the Muslim Brotherhood. He saw the Arab Spring as a moment to become the rising star of “democratic” Muslims in the region, from Algeria to Syria. He wanted to be the democratic older brother. He strongly supported Mohamed Morsi [in Egypt], Syrian opposition groups, and Ennahda [in Tunisia]. I think that’s the moment he started changing his stance. When Morsi was overthrown, when the US and France supported [army chief Abdel Fattah] al-Sissi, when Ennahda became an enemy of the state, he became suspicious of western allies. He is very paranoid.
Then in 2014, he was elected president. After the June 2015 parliamentary elections, he lost his majority. He realised he could no longer win elections on his own and formed an alliance with the far-right nationalist party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). They were once fierce opponents, literally hurling insults at one another. In 2018, their interests converged, they joined forces and went on to win a parliamentary majority. Since then, he has associated himself politically with extremist nationalist and religious views.
Will the February 6 earthquakes impact how people vote in May?
The way he handled the earthquake may slightly weaken his chances. According to the polls, those who were convinced they wouldn’t vote for Erdogan are even more convinced now.
On the other hand, the earthquakes took place in regions where Erdogan has a reserve of back-up votes (aside from Antioch). There may be a loss, but on a national level, the impact seems to be minimal.
What will happen if his opponent Kemal Kilicdaroglu wins? Will Erdogan admit defeat?
Erdogan was the one to appoint all the judges of the High Electoral Council, so people are afraid they will declare his victory before the opposition appeals are filed. All the opposition parties have mobilised on the issue of election security to ensure their observers are everywhere. There are 192,000 voting stations in Turkey, the objective is to have observers in at least 160,000 of them.
What would dramatically change if the opposition wins?
The government will start sending more positive messages to the EU and, if they have a parliamentary majority, take the necessary measures to change the nature of the regime. It’s possible to change the criminal code, for example, and go back to a system that ensures fundamental freedoms. Foreign policy wouldn’t change that much because the international situation won’t be shifting drastically anytime soon. Turkey’s [foreign policy] position will go from aggressive to calm. Relations with NATO members will be less tense, Sweden’s membership will no longer be blocked. The opposition would probably cancel the purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, a source of major conflict with the US. And there will be a sense of freedom in the air for a few months. After that, it’ll be up to the ruling parties to play their cards right.
This article was translated from the original in French.
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