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Erdoğanism Could Live On Even If He Fails

Polls say Turkey’s president could lose in May elections but his legacy will outlast him.
Increasing poverty amid dire economic problems has raised hopes among Erdoğan’s opponents at home and abroad that his reign is almost over

Turkey’s elections are all but certain to be held on 14 May but those expecting to finally see the back of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan if he loses office after 20 years in power could be in for a shock: The survival of Erdoğanism without Erdoğan.

Two elections will take place on the same day – one for the presidency and another for parliament – and campaigning has become even more intense as a result of the horrendous earthquake that struck southeast Turkey and north Syria on 6 February, killing at least 25,000 people, though that number could more than double

Sensing the electoral tide turning against him, Erdoğan has reacted angrily to public criticism of shoddy construction standards and claims of a slow disaster response – both of which the opposition is trying to capitalize on. The government has declared a three-month state of emergency in the ten impacted provinces, and speculation is rising that it will seek a way to delay the election at any point if the public mood looks like swinging the result the opposition’s way. 

Opinion polls before the quake showed the alliance between Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) still holding strong, which would mean that even if the six-party opposition coalition manages to take the presidency, it would fail to win control of the legislature. That would make it difficult for the opposition to bring back the previous parliamentary system that Erdoğan removed through constitutional changes approved by plebiscite. 

The big question is the presidential election. Erdoğan is still the single most popular candidate in a diverse field. His problem is that if voters unite around a single personality in a run-off, he trails behind most of the potential opposition candidates in the alliance to defeat him. Following the recent judicial ban from further office of popular Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu for “insulting election officials”, the road has been cleared for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to become that single candidate.

But the opposition includes numerous figures who think they should be the anointed one to challenge Erdoğan, including Good Party leader Meral Akşener and Ankara mayor Mansur Yavaş, from the CHP. As the oldest among them Kılıçdaroğlu has made clear in recent months that he sees it as his right – especially since he agreed to allow the younger Muharrem Ince to run as the CHP candidate in 2018.

Born in 1948, Kılıçdaroğlu projects himself as Turkey’s elder statesman, the adult in the room. But the opposition knows that as soon as their unity candidate is announced – likely in early March, when the election day is set to be formally declared – the government media machine will go after him ferociously. They will target him as old, weak, and out of touch, the opposite of everything the government will say Turkey has become under Erdoğan – whether young people come out to vote for Kılıçdaroğlu is a serious question. They will also brand him as a soft-on-terror risk to national security secretly wooing the pro-Kurdish Democratic People's Party (HDP), which recently said it will run its own presidential candidate. 

Finally, the government is likely to play the sectarian card. Kılıçdaroğlu is an Alevi of Kurdish origin and the AKP has made heavy use of Sunni identity as a political weapon in the past, especially during the Syrian civil war when Erdoğan and others implied the Alawite-led Assad regime was led by deviants in faith.

The other big question hanging over the election is, will the government try to rig the vote in any way? The trend of recent elections has been to push the envelope as far as possible. The voting process is heavily monitored in the major urban centres. But out in the provinces, especially the southeast, it becomes difficult to follow what’s happening inside polling stations during and after voting hours. The government also has complete control of the process through its electoral commission, which has made a habit of providing immediate announcements to the state news agency that become etched in stone. And there is the wild card of not only the high numbers of undecided voters but Turks abroad, whose votes could be made to take Erdoğan over the line if things are looking dubious.

Despite all that, the AKP lost two significant elections in 2019, for the mayorships of Istanbul and Ankara. In the case of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu won even after the government convinced a court to overturn the first vote and hold it again. Turkey’s elections still operate within the broad margins of what happens within the functioning democracies, without slipping into the kabuki theatre of countries like Egypt.

Beyond that, how significant would Erdoğan’s fall be? On foreign policy, the “sea change” that sees Turkey throw itself back into the arms of NATO and Washington after a tense two decades seems far-fetched, as the popularity of Erdoğan’s stance over Swedish Quran-burning suggests. A whole generation of Turks have grown up used to a country that presents itself as a regional if not global power, and one that like Nasserist Egypt operates within diverse spheres of influence – in Turkey’s case, the Muslim Middle Eastern, the Eurasian and the Western. No government can just toss that thinking out overnight. For one, Eurasianism was already a strong current in the military and has only gained ground under Erdoğan.

Second, fixing Turkey’s dire economic problems via Western financial institutions will come at a price that compromises the newly won foreign policy independence. Even if a new government yanks up interest rates to rein in the spending power of ordinary people, it may well baulk at a return to hot money in Turkish financial markets and the thought of IMF help to deal with debt. Membership of a Global South that wants to dedollarize could still count for something in official thinking, although the temptation to follow the neoliberal script will be real.

Thirdly, few Turks want a return to the system of military guardianship and occasional overt junta-rule that Erdoğan scored a historic success in overturning, including its fascistic rules against conservative religious values in public space.

The stakes are perhaps greater than ever before. This year marks the centenary of the Turkish republic, and enormous prestige will accrue to the government ruling at this important juncture in history. Victory would give Erdoğan and the AKP a green light to push ahead with their project to shape Erdoğan as the de facto founder of a second republic, the most important figure since Sultan Abdulhamid II – forget Ataturk. It would also consolidate the AKP as a permanent party of power, save Erdoğan from corruption trials, and prevent a purge of the Islamist movement.

The ultimate irony in Erdoğan’s remarkable longevity has been the chutzpah of stealing from Kemalism itself, despite hailing from an ideological movement based on debunking much of Ataturk’s legacy. The alliance with the MHP ultranationalists that he opted for in 2015 when waning popularity first began to threaten the AKP’s electoral dominance has proven resilient and tough to beat. Despite frequent predictions of its demise, breaking that Turkist-Islamist nuclear bond remains the opposition’s biggest challenge.

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