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Erdoğan’s Electoral Victory Imperils Democratic Forces in Turkey

The far right’s ascendance will affect both domestic and foreign policy in Turkey.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks at the presidential palace after winning reelection in a runoff on May 28, 2023, in Ankara, Turkey.

On May 28, Turkish citizens went to the polls for a second round of voting in the presidential election. On the ballot, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) were challenged by a six-party opposition alliance purporting to stand for an alternative politics embracing all Turks regardless of political views, religious affiliation, ethnic background, gender identity and sexual orientation. After an inconclusive first round saw Erdoğan receive just under the crucial 50 percent of the vote, Turkey’s president mustered 52.14 percent of votes in the second round on Sunday, beating his challenger, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who won 47.86 percent.

The AKP’s Majoritarian Authoritarianism

The AKP’s politics can be described as antagonistic, plebiscitary, majoritarian and authoritarian. The majoritarian authoritarianism of the AKP manifested itself in its track record of censorship and interfering in elections. In 2022, with its coalition partner, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), it introduced reforms that undermined the impartiality of the country’s supreme election authority (YSK) and reduced the possibility of appeals against irregularities during the voting or counting process being investigated and upheld. In October 2022, the so-called “censorship law” was passed to criminalise “misinformation” (effectively criticism of the government), rein in Twitter accounts critical of Erdoğan and establish tight control over online news in an information landscape where all major media are already controlled by the AKP.

Moreover, during the past 15 years, the AKP adopted a presidential leadership model with a substantially weakened parliament. Often ignoring the diversity of interests and voices within the parliamentary system, Erdoğan instead appealed to a mythical “national will of the people” to discredit and contest supreme court decisions that would uphold the rights of individuals, especially those within Turkey’s marginalized communities.

This aversion toward the expression of diversity has characterized the AKP’s crackdown on dissent. Consider the 2013 Gezi park protests, in which a localized protest near Istanbul’s Taksim Square against government plans to develop a mass shopping mall on space occupied by an urban park, and its violent suppression by the police, transmuted into a wave of mass protests throughout Turkey expressing widespread disquiet over Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian governance style; or the mass purges of suspected dissidents in the public sector and civil society after the 2016 coup d’état. Don’t forget when members of Academics for Peace criticized the government’s violent suppression of the Kurdish movement in southeastern Turkey were vilified and criminalized, leading to a crackdown on civil society later that year.

This emphasis on the unity of “the people” also proved to be an obstacle in the relatively brief period of negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that started in 2013, only to be abandoned in 2015. The end of this process ended the dialogue with the PKK. It also led to a protracted campaign to ban the leftist, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) whose vision of a diverse Turkish society, relative electoral success and competition with the AKP for the Kurdish vote has challenged Erdoğan’s own narrative and strategy. A court case against HDP is ongoing with the party, which faces closure, and its politicians face a five-year ban.

Alternative Visions?

An alternative, more pluralistic, vision has been discernible in “democratic enclaves,” especially at the level of local government authorities controlled by the opposition, such as the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (İBB) under Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu. In these, communication strategies designed to reach the diverse communities sharing the urban space have been complemented with experimentation with more sustained, inclusive decision-making processes enabling urban citizens to express their views and inform policies such as the creation of women’s refuges, rendering recreation facilities accessible to all, co-designing neighbourhoods and creating neighbourhood forums.

More recently, in the run-up to the first round of the presidential elections, the main challenger and leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, attempted to project a more tolerant vision of Turkey, and a democratic commitment untypical of his party’s customary repressive and authoritarian leanings and distrust towards minorities.

In his addresses, he reflected on his Alevi identity and the diversity of Turkish society, and expressed his solidarity toward Turkey’s Kurdish citizens, urging voters not to succumb to the scapegoating of their Kurdish compatriots by the AKP. Kılıçdaroğlu’s Kurdish opening, although welcomed by the pro-Kurdish HDP that urged its supporters to vote for him, was not enthusiastically accepted by everybody in his opposition coalition, the Nation Alliance. A motley group of parties with ultranationalist, statist and Islamist standpoints, tentatively united in their determination to end Erdoğan’s rule, the Nation Alliance lacks a coherent, positive vision beyond rolling back Erdoğan’s reforms, apart from an agreement on some vague policy directions.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s CHP is itself divided, historically guided by a vision of a unitary Turkey in which Kurdish activism is deemed a threat. Party supporters were more inclined to opt for backing charismatic İmamoğlu, whose appreciation of Turkey’s diversity is complemented by a more personalistic leadership and populist style at a time when the republic’s institutions are in dire need of reinvigoration and relevance.

Meral Akşener, the leader of İYİ (the second largest coalition party), also favoring İmamoğlu’s personalistic style, hesitated to endorse Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy and expressed her reservations regarding an opening to the country’s Kurdish population. İYİ, an offshoot of ultranationalist MHP, represents for some a more socially acceptable version of the atavistic nationalism of its parent party and has been implicated in xenophobic, anti-minority intimidation. These unresolved issues have not deterred opposition supporters from casting their votes for Kılıçdaroğlu.

Yet, the fuzzy policy directions — and talk of return to a status quo ante whose contours the parties have not been able to agree on — have deterred ambivalent voters of pious and even conservative Kurdish backgrounds who feel that the CHP’s historical militant secularism, combined with the ultranationalism of İYİ, threaten the opportunities that Erdoğan’s rule afforded them through welfare and employment networks. These voters also benefited from legislation that allowed covered women to access public universities and employment in state agencies, and the expansion of the country’s health and welfare infrastructure.

It is this dimension of Turkey’s polarization –– the fear among those who had felt excluded from the benefits of the economic development and the politics of the pre-Erdoğan era, and who worry that they will be once more “left behind” — that has impacted on the outcome of the presidential election. Kılıçdaroğlu’s attempt to attract the nationalist vote in the second round by adopting a more uncompromising stance on the issue of the repatriation of Syrian and other refugees exposed him to criticism by Erdoğan, who reminded his supporters of the secularist nationalism of the CHP and its endorsement of military meddling in politics.

The Election Aftermath

The election outcome is unlikely to resolve the pressing challenges that Turkey is facing. The society remains bitterly divided, with the opposing sides not trusting each other. The campaigns of both coalitions primarily addressed their most faithful members. Attempts of both contenders to reach out to “the other side,” meanwhile, have not been sustained and did not reassure the intended recipients. The opposition coalition has already experienced aftershocks. Akşener has already expressed misgivings about Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership and politics. Other voices have expressed criticism of Kılıçdaroğlu’s political style and lack of charisma and of his “imposition” as Erdoğan’s challenger. In 2024, municipal elections will occur in which the important metropolitan municipalities of Istanbul and Ankara will be bitterly fought over. Perhaps the opposition’s need to defend them from an AKP challenge and retain them might delay a split in its ranks although the centrifugal forces are already testing its coherence.

The woes of the opposition aside, it needs to be noted that the winner of this election has been the nationalist far right. Candidates had to adjust their campaign messages to woo nationalists both within their coalitions and among those voters that supported the third candidate, Sinan Oğan, or abstained in the first round. The far right’s ascendance will affect both domestic and foreign policy.

Erdoğan cannot afford to remain on bad terms with the U.S. as the success of his regional policies, including the isolation and weakening of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (Rojava), depends on navigating between the U.S. and Russia and utilizing each of them as a counterweight against the other. His military needs technological upgrades (F-16 upgrades and purchases as an interim option to build up Turkey’s air capability) and wants to be included in the F-35 program from which it was kept out as Turkey bought the Russian-manufactured S-400 missile air defense system in 2019. U.S. President Biden has shown he is willing to cooperate with a “more reliable” Erdoğan with him agreeing to Sweden’s NATO accession for example.

Yet, Turkey’s relations with its former Western allies are going to be transactional. It would thus be wrong to assume that Turkey will relinquish its relative autonomy vis-a-vis the U.S., as nationalists have been pushing for greater distancing from the U.S. and the EU in favor of a more Eurasianist orientation, and as Turkey’s foreign policy depends on tactical alliances or convergences with other actors — mainly Russia.

Nationalism is also sure to inform Erdoğan’s approach to Turkey’s Kurdish population. The AKP has always been ambivalent toward the Kurdish issue as it has been enjoying the support of a large segment of the country’s conservative Kurdish population — with Erdoğan having received more than 40 percent of the vote in the southeast of the country in the presidential elections of 2014 and 2018.

The Peace Process that the AKP government embarked on between 2013 and 2015 depended on a militarily neutralised PKK and a politically weak HDP, especially after the latter’s 2015 strong election performance in the region. The emergence of Rojava and Turkey’s treatment of the Kurdish self-determination experiment there as a PKK-orchestrated existential threat led to the termination of dialogue and the securitization of the Kurdish issue.

Although Erdoğan has not shied from making appeals to his “Kurdish brothers,” and although he has embraced the Kurdish Islamist conservative HUDAPAR (Free Cause Party), any relaxation of the security measures in Kurdish populated areas will presuppose the banning and effective neutralization of the HDP and the isolation of the PKK, which is also a central goal of Erdoğan’s main nationalist ally MHP. The current impasse in the southeast of the country will thus not reach a solution anytime soon.

Turkish presence in Syria will also not easily end, as Turkey has invested considerable resources and effectively replicated the administration and infrastructure of Turkish provinces in the 9,000 square kilometers it has been occupying just as it did in the non-internationally recognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus after its 1974 invasion.

Any withdrawal in the longer term is likely to follow some degree of demographic engineering with the (re)settlement of Syrian Arab Sunni refugees in Kurdish or Kurdish-settled areas, and will be conditional on some sort of Turkish “guarantee” of demographic and political arrangements amenable to Turkish state interests.

On the domestic front, Erdoğan’s election campaign heralded the start of a series of culture wars with regards to the rights of women, the LGBTIQ+ communities, and ethnic and religious minorities, whose position will continue to be undermined, especially as the production of crises may play a central role in a strategy of distractions and disorientation of the public.

But the continued ability of Erdoğan’s administration to govern Turkey and to pursue a successful foreign policy effectively depends on the economy. The policy of negative real interest rates that Erdoğan followed against the established consensus among economists, the lack of independence of the Central Bank has already reached its limits.

Short of resorting to a policy of austerity, Erdoğan is likely to seek investments and temporary support from the Gulf monarchies, deferred debt repayment from Russia and bet on increased tourism revenues but, in the longer term, he will need to address the country’s low-quality growth, propped by the construction sector, credit expansion and government spending.

Although much of the international community — weary with the war in Ukraine, with Russian aggression and with increasing Chinese influence — appears to be ready to embrace a resilient Erdoğan, governments and international civil society groups need to urgently develop strategies to support the forces and communities that have created and protected Turkey’s democratic enclaves. Moreover, they should extend their hand to refugees and to the democratic forces within the country’s Kurdish movement that are increasingly under attack, persecuted, silenced and disciplined.

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