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A Real Challenge to Erdogan's Rule
Inflation, Onions, and Refugees Loom Large in Turkish Elections
“One should bear in mind that there is nothing more difficult to execute, nor more dubious of success, nor more dangerous to administer, than to introduce new political orders. For the one who introduces them has as his enemies all those who profit from the old order, and he has only lukewarm defenders in all those who might profit from the new order.”
- Machiavelli [The Prince, VI]
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Introduction: Two Paths for a Nation on Two Continents
The first round of the Turkish Presidential and parliamentary elections are on Sunday, May 14th, Erdogan having chosen to call early elections instead of holding them at the previously scheduled time in June. The main candidates are Turkiye’s long-time leader President Recep Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party [AKP] and Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the of the Republican People’s Party [CHP] who is representing a coalition of six opposition groups known as the “Nation Alliance” or “Table of Six.” Neither candidate is expected to win over 50% in the first round, and the May 28th runoff is in a dead heat. In 2017 there was a referendum on constitutional reform within Turkiye which greatly expanded the power of the Presidency, and this is Erdogan’s first re-election campaign after serving in the newly empowered position. The opposition wants to give power back to the parliament and return to more pluralistic government and society in ways such as increasing media freedom and judicial independence. Further, Erdogan is proudly Islamist and Eastern, while Kilicdaroglu is a secularist who wants to Westernize the country and restart the process of trying to join the EU. However, what has become most important to the Turks is the economy, where runaway inflation is causing daily price increases in staple goods such as onions, which are a major part of Turkish cuisine. Erdogan has pursued a policy of low interest rates [though on paper they remain much higher than the US or Europe, but they are lower than inflation, so in practice there are below zero interest rates.] His economic policies are widely described as “unorthodox,” whereas Kilicdaroglu, an accountant by trade would return the country to more “conventional” economic policies. Further, Erdogan’s response to a severe earthquake in early February has been widely criticized, both for the slow response speed and for the Erdogan administration having been lax on building code compliance to stimulate economic growth. Perhaps most important for the world at large, Kilicdaroglu intends to pursue a less aggressive foreign policy and improve relations with Turkiye’s NATO allies, which have severely deteriorated over the last few years. At the same time, Turkiye’s economic reliance on Russia and China and key foreign policy interests guarantee that either candidate will pursue some policies out of line with the West.
The international media is firmly in the tank for Kilicdaroglu, and promoting a strange sort of rhetoric that the election is unfair but the counting will be honest, seemingly in preparation of saying Kilicdaroglu rightly should have won the election whether or not he does. This is the most contentious election fight of Erdogan’s career and he is pulling out all the stops, presenting a cool military commander sort of persona, making wild claims about the opposition, and offering free Black Sea gas to homes, ostensibly in celebration of the project coming on line. As the modern nation of Turkiye passes 100, it is caught between the liberal secular “Kemalism” of its founder Ataturk and a sort of Islamic populism championed by Erdogan. Many, myself included, consider the Turkish elections the most important of 2023, and the results will impact international relations in the region and world for years to come.
Background: The Rise and Decline of Secular Democracy
Turkiye has had democracy in one form or another- despite multiple coups- since 1922 when the Turkish Parliament abolished the Sultanate after 623 years and proclaimed the Turkish Republic. At the time, the Ottoman Empire had recently been defeated in World War I and much of the region was occupied by a variety of foreign powers. The Turkish Republic’s founder was a man named Mustafa Kemal Pasha, later given the surname Ataturk. Ataturk was a nationalist and and staunch secularist who worked to rebuild the country based on Enlightenment ideals after centuries of Ottoman decline. This was a drastic change for a country which had previously considered itself the leader of global Islamic Caliphate until Kemal abolished the position of Caliph in 1924.
Though Turkiye joined NATO in 1952 to protect itself from the Soviet Union, it has primarily followed an independent, if somewhat meek, course. This was necessary to balance its position between the East and West and its role as the controller of the important Turkish Straits which provide access to the Black Sea. The country’s politics and culture had been defined by Kemal’s secularism for 80 years when Erdogan took power and increasingly brought Islam into public life. For one prominent example, Ataturk banned women in government positions from wearing Islamic headscarves, something which the AKP reversed after 90 years in 2013; Kilicdaroglu and the CHP- Kemal’s party- have said they support a constitutional right for women to wear headscarves in government institutions, showing the country as a whole has moved away from militant secularism in the 20 years that Erdogan and the AKP have been in power. However, the secular parliamentary system founded by Ataturk remains popular among Turkiye’s large class of well-educated professionals who lead the opposition. At the same time, Kilicdaroglu has tried to make the CHP something more like a European social democrat party instead of a party of secular urban elites.
Erdogan: The Islamic Populist
Recep Erdogan, 69, has led Turkiye since 2003, first as Prime Minister, then as a ceremonial President, and then as a powerful President. Erdogan grew up in a working class family in the rough Kasimpasa neighborhood in the European part of Istanbul, though he spent some of his childhood in his family’s ancestral hometown of Rize, on the east coast of the Black Sea. Erdogan’s father was a Coast Guard officer. As a young man he played semi-professional football; he remains an avid fan of Istanbul’s Fenerbahce football club and is regularly seen wearing a football scarf with his fashionable suits. In 1994 Erdogan became the Mayor of Istanbul running with the pro-Islamic Welfare party. In 1999, Erdogan was sentenced to four months in prison for reading a poem in 1997 that was said to violate Turkiye’s secularism laws. A man of many talents, Erdogan released an album of lyric poetry before going to prison; it became a best-seller in Turkiye. As part of his sentence, Erdogan was banned from running for Parliament, but it was annulled after the AKP, which he founded despite not being allowed to run for office, won the 2002 elections. After the rules were changed to allow him to run for office, Erdogan ran in a special election in 2003 and became Prime Minister days after winning.
When Erdogan first took power, he was seen as someone that the West could “work with.” In an article for Politico Christian Oliver writes,
“It’s now easy to forget that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was once hailed as the paragon of a “Muslim democrat,” who could serve as a model to the entire Islamic world…Finally, there was a master-juggler, who could balance Islamism, parliamentary democracy, progressive welfare, NATO membership and EU-oriented reforms.”
I certainly had forgotten that, if I ever knew it in the first place. I did remember that it was Turkiye’s priority to join the European Union, something which faded over the years until the process was suspended over Turkiye’s record on human rights, media freedoms, and other such matters. After taking power Erdogan quickly got a reputation in the West for being difficult to work with when he would not allow US troops to be stationed in Turkish or Iraqi Kurdistan during the Iraq War. Over the years Erdogan consolidated power, first through a 2010 referendum which made the President directly elected instead of selected by Parliament. Erdogan became the first directly elected President of Turkiye in 2014. Then there was the 2017 referendum making the Presidency a position with many legal powers. In 2016 there was a coup attempt, allegedly by supporters of US-based exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen. Many have been highly skeptical of the Erdogan regime’s story about the coup, with some suggesting it was entirely staged. What is undeniable is that Erdogan used the coup attempt to remove an enormous number of political opponents; the 2017 referendum took place under a state of emergency.
Over the past several years, especially since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Erdogan has been taking Turkiye on an increasingly independent course. Tensions had already been high due to the war in Syria, where Turkiye had been fighting a sort of proxy war against its own NATO allies. Currently, the West opposes reconciliation with Syria, something both Turkish candidates want to pursue. The continued presence of Syrian refugees has become deeply unpopular in Turkiye, and both candidates are looking to send them home. However, Assad has been hesitant to work with Erdogan, both because Turkiye continues to occupy much of northern Syria and further Assad has expressed concern about giving Erdogan a “win” in the lead-up to the elections.
Last May, I wrote about the many moves which Erdogan had been making, all of which indicated a newly empowered Turkiye:
However, in the last year Turkiye has worked to improve relations not only with Syria but also with Greece, particularly following the earthquake. Further, Turkiye accepted Finland’s NATO membership, though continues to hold out on Sweden; Kilicdaroglu intends to immediately approve Sweden’s membership if elected. Erdogan has also continued to employ diplomacy regarding the Russia-Ukraine War, though maintaining the Turkiye-brokered grain deal has proven tenuous. All of these things have infuriated the United States and Europe and their scribbling class, who continue to view NATO as a sort of “Gentleman’s Club of liberal democracies” and ignore Turkiye’s incredible geopolitical importance and enormous military. The clumsy foreign policy of the Western liberal internationalists plays into Erdogan’s hands, who has claimed his opponents are, “in hock to terrorists, the imperialist West, murky international high-finance and LGBTQ+ organizations.” One is left wondering if a publication such as The Economist publishing that they “warmly endorse” Kilicdaroglu does more to help Erdogan than it does Kilicdaroglu; besides the terrorist part, it appears to be factually accurate that the latter three prefer the opposition.
For all he has done to consolidate power and restore the nation’s pride, Erdogan remains at serious risk due to economic issues. Though many support his modernizing the military, you cannot eat fighter jets. The President using a religious justification to ignore “mainstream” economic advice during an ongoing inflation crisis must be maddening to educated, secular Turks. However, what matters more to the public than economic ideas are what we call “bread and butter” issues in the United States [though perhaps “onion and potato” issues is more appropriate for this election.] It is very bad for an incumbent when the price of staple vegetables becomes a major campaign issue. One Erdogan supporter went so far as to write a song saying, “We will eat dry bread and onions but we will not abandon Erdogan.” That is perhaps true of his devotees, but many will abandon a political leader if he must eat his bread without oil. For his part, Erdogan has vacillated between denying the problem and downplaying it’s significance, saying “you wouldn’t sacrifice your leader for onion and potato.” In Erdogan’s defense, exports have gone up a substantial amount, which is a goal of his economic policies, and average wages and the legal minimum wage have gone up a healthy amount. Unfortunately, none of this is enough to balance out the severe inflation. Still, there is a plausible argument to be made that this is just a sort of economic growing pains. However, being as it is considered that the earthquake response was badly mismanaged, it is difficult to sell the narrative that Erdogan has things under control.
Kilicdaroglu: the Secular Liberal
The opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, 74, is everything that Erdogan is not: conventional, polite, professional, and secular. He has a sort of humble professorial demeanor in contrast to Erdogan’s bombastic flair. He has been described as “soft-spoken” and “low key.” One international diplomat with experience in Turkiye, speaking to Time on the condition of anonymity, called Kilicdaroglu the “anti-Erdogan,” and further said, “There are points… when a grayer personality is exactly what people want.” This certainly can be true of politics, especially if the public has grown tired of a large personality like Erdogan who has held power for many years. Kemal Kilicdaroglu is appropriately named: he is a staunch Kemalist, who wants to return Turkiye to the secular parliamentary democracy envisioned by its founder Ataturk. He is pledging to be a less powerful President than Erdogan- somewhat unusual for a politician- and has said he will only serve one term and then retire to spend time with his grandchildren. An accountant by trade, he intends to follow the economic advice of experts, and certainly would not set financial policies based on his religious views. He is on message, talking about inflation and returning to a more pluralistic political system. Further, Kilicdaroglu wants to have much more NATO-friendly policies, but Western analysts are warning that he won’t make the West’s “dreams come true.” The reality is that though he will be more measured in his speech and behavior, Kilicdaroglu will most likely continue to pursue a largely independent foreign policy which includes resisting the Western sanctions regime against Russia, immediate normalization with Syria, and working to deport Syrian refugees from the country. It is not clear how possible it is to implement Kilicdaroglu’s Syria policies:
Few articles mention Kilicdaroglu’s personal background and upbringing, in large part because he is almost intentionally uninteresting and does not talk about his personal life. His wife once said he is so soft spoken “You can’t even have a decent argument with him.” [I personally find that untrustworthy, as some of the most sociopathic people can always maintain pleasant demeanor.] According to a profile in Time magazine [the only of several I consulted for this article to contain the story of his childhood] Kilicdaroglu was “born into a family of 9” [so the 8th child?] in a the remote mountain village of Ballica in eastern Anatolia. His family raised goats and he walked to school without shoes. Later, his father got low-level civil service postings which caused them to move to different towns. He was a studious child who played an instrument called the saz and dreamed of becoming a teacher. In college, he got involved in left wing protests and graduated to become a tax inspector. He married a cousin from his hometown, an ancient tradition in that region. While raising his family he worked his way up to the director of the national social security institution [he was, after all, one of the nation’s top rated bureaucrats.] Kilicdaroglu is from a family which follows a minority sect of Islam known as Alevi, which is considered to be a non-mainstream branch of Shia Islam with similarities to Syria’s Alawites. Alevis have been historically oppressed in the Anatolia; it was considered to be breaking a major taboo for him to publicly discuss this religious background.
Kilicdaroglu entered politics in 2002 at age 53, in what has been referred to as a “retirement hobby.” He began to rise up the ranks of the CHP by using his tax inspection skills to expose corruption in the AKP. In 2010 he became the leader of the party after the head of the party had a sex tape scandal- this was probably an example of the party wanting a “grayer personality.” Though Kilicdaroglu has been unsuccessful at increasing CHP’s parliamentary seats, he has raised his personal profile through a series of non-violent protests, such as a “March for Justice” from Ankara to Istanbul in 2017. Kilicdaroglu models himself after Gandhi, and is sometimes called “Turkiye’s Gandhi.” Further, he has been successful in making in-roads into the nation’s large Kurdish community, who one politician said used to consider the CHP “non-votable,” due to Ataturk’s Turkish nationalism.
Kilicdaroglu finds himself in a difficult position. He is backed by a disparate coalition while trying to increase parliamentary power. Further, though Kilicdaroglu has been polling ahead in the first round polls, the AKP alliance is ahead in parliamentary polling. The opposition wants to revert back to the old system of governance, or at least make wide-ranging reforms empowering the parliament, but there is no real way to do that without an strong parliamentary majority. Even if the coalition can hold together in the legislature, there is no expectation they will have a large majority. As an anonymous opposition official told journalist Ragip Soylu, the opposition may end up in an ironic position where the only way they can rule and try to reduce the unitary Presidential power is by Presidential decree.
Kilicdaroglu may not be the most dynamic man, but he can win if enough of the public wants less “exciting” government than they have had from Erdogan. Further, while this sort of constitutional reform may not seem like a campaign issue that will connect with the public, Erdogan’s consolidation of power is unprecedented in modern Turkiye and the public has noticed. Since Erdogan has taken so much power it makes it easy to blame all of the country’s problems on him. İlke Toygür of the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid said, “Parliament has a very strong symbolic value in Turkey…One of the biggest complaints now is that people lost their links to decision-making candidates.” In this election, it is in some ways true that “democracy is on the ballot.”
The Campaign: In and Above the Fray
Though the candidates could not have more different styles, the campaigning seems to be going quite well for both of them. Erdogan, the kid from Kasimpasa, is a brutal political pugilist who feeds off of public support. Kilicdaroglu, on the other hand, is a man of great self control who cannot be baited to engage with Erdogan on his level. They are both probably greatly enjoying themselves and have the support of segments of the population who want very different things out of a leader. It is similar to what we’ve seen play out all over the world where a populist faces a “mainstream” “respectable,” candidate who has the support of the media as well as global finance. However, the difference between Kilicdaroglu and, for example, Hillary Clinton is that Kilicdaroglu seems to actually be honest, competent, and well-mannered, whereas we had decades of evidence that Hillary Clinton was corrupt, incompetent, and nasty and the media was simply trying to gaslight us into not believing what we all knew. I personally don’t care for these sorts of inoffensive, technocratic politicians, but they have appeal with many voters in times of economic or political crisis. As with so many political campaigns, it is incredible the public could be evenly split between men who are so different, and it does raise questions about the wisdom of the direct election of Presidents.
Both candidates have been holding large, enthusiastic rallies [which would look much better if I could still embed tweets.]
This is more impressive for Kilicdaroglu given his style and demeanor. Erdogan, on the other hand, is a populist demagogue and long-time leader, so it is to be expected he would have this kind of support. One has to assume it is opposition to Erdogan which is driving the size of his opponent’s rallies as well. This is a stark contrast to what we have seen in other elections that pit a populist who targets the poor against a candidate of affluent professionals. For example, despite how much some of the public hated Donald Trump, his opponents could never draw crowds anything like this. However, there is one difference between the rallies that would be unimaginable in America: at least some of Erdogan’s rallies have been gender segregated. The Turks as a whole have strong feelings about this election, and when one realizes that one candidate gender segregates rallies and the other does not it is easy to see why: it is a battle for the nature of their country.
Erdogan is attacking his enemy from all angles. In a weird version of giving your opponent an insulting nickname, Erdogan has started calling him “Bay Kemal,” which simply means “Mr. Kemal” in Turkish. It is meant to imply that he is affluent and elitist, and must be addressed as a servant would address a master. Kilicdaroglu has himself adopted this name, probably because it is so silly, given that the candidates are from similar economic backgrounds and Kilicdaroglu lives in a simple home whereas Erdogan lives in a vast Presidential Palace he had built as soon as he became President. Earlier in the campaign Erdogan said that Kilicdaroglu was such a bad leader that he “could not even herd a sheep” which is also funny being as “Bay Kemal” grew up in a goat-herding family in the hills. Erdogan also keeps going on about a time Kilicdaroglu accidentally stepped on a prayer rug with shoes on, appealing to Erdogan’s Islamist base. On top of saying his opponent is a tool of the global financial and political powers- which the West does quite a bit to enforce, such as endless pro-opposition op-eds and US Ambassador Jeff Flake meeting with Kilicdaroglu- Erdogan has also accused the opposition of being supported by terrorist groups. This rings pretty hollow if you know much about the sort of people Erdogan has supported in Syria. He is primarily accusing them of being close to the Kurdish Marxist group the PKK, though in reality both candidates are actually hostile to the PKK but still courting other Kurdish voters.
Most of all, Erdogan is making what he can of the Western powers being obsessed with the gays, such as the Biden Admin saying LGBTQ rights are at the “forefront” of US foreign policy. While Kilicdaroglu hasn’t said anything in support of gay rights, he does want to rejoin the Istanbul Convention on violence against women, which Erdogan withdrew from in 2021 after the European states involved decided that transwomen are women, saying the convention has been “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality.” For his part Erdogan has cast a wide net, accusing all of his opponents themselves of being LGBT. The same Politico article includes the line, “Mainstream rival parties are dismissed as fascists and perverts, and he predicts his voters will “burst” the ballot boxes with their tide of support on May 14.”
Kilicdaroglu, on the other hand is running a “kitchen table” campaign, quite literally. He regularly releases videos where he addresses the public while drinking tea in his small kitchen or sitting in front of books in his home library. Most of all though, it is the onions. The cost of living crisis is severe, and much of the public wants a technocrat who can bring Turkiye’s economic policy back within established norms. Still, there are great concerns about the opposition’s ability to stay together and govern. To ease these concerns, the heads of all six coalition parties and their spouses, as well as the opposition Mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, appeared on one stage together and made hearts with their hands in a picture that has been widely used to promote Kilicdaroglu. There isn’t a lot to say about Kilicdaroglu’s campaigning, and he clearly wants it that way. He portrays himself as a morally good and patient figure above the fray with the competence to solve Turkiye’s economic crisis and bring it back into good standing with the “respectable” “international community.” In many ways, it is enough for him to act like a well-behaved regular person.
Conclusion: A Dead Heat
This is a rare occasion where an election is so close I can’t even get a feel for who I think might win. I do find it difficult to believe Erdogan could lose, but it is entirely possible. Usually, such a man profits from a split opposition, but they have managed to come together. It appears the minor parties who did not join the coalition are closer to Erdogan’s side, and thus he is the one whose support is split, if only a small amount of it. One of the most interesting components is that for all that has been said about Turkiye’s democracy being in trouble, it appears that everyone expects an honest election, at least as far as the actual voting and counting goes. The same Politico article includes this explanation,
“Seyrek at the Brussels School of Governance stressed that voting itself in Turkey should never be compared with Russia or Belarus. He argued the vote in each polling station would be closely monitored by all the political parties and other civilian observers. “I still feel in Turkey, what you can do against the result of elections is quite limited,” he said.
The consensus is that Erdoğan will be unable to fix the result in the case of a significant defeat. The greater danger, as noted by several analysts, is that he could attempt some high-risk stratagem in case of a tight result, demanding a recount or calling a state of emergency in case of some diversionary “incident.””
This is another example of something I have noticed for a long time, which is that things such as “the Deep State” or starting conflicts to win an election are treated by the Western media as something true and to be expected in Turkiye, but are called a baseless conspiracies in the United States. Really, they are setting this up so that regardless of what happens they can promote their candidate and attack Erdogan. However, there is one very interesting scenario in the Politico article for if Erdogan loses: he could become an opposition leader and be out of power while Kilicdaroglu languishes trying to deal with the problems that Erdogan bears responsibility for creating. At the same time, I want to see if Erdogan’s “unorthodox” economic policies will ultimately work out if followed, whereas if they are switched to what economists want it is sure to cause an enormous amount of economic pain which will be described as necessary to correct course.
While this is an important election, both candidates would pursue some similar policies as far as international relations are concerned. Kilicdaroglu may be less “close” to Putin, he will still most likely play the role of the middleman and peacemaker. He will pursue policies towards Syria and the Kurds that are not what the West wants. He will try to re-start the process of joining the EU, but it isn’t clear that the EU wants Turkiye, so that might not amount to much. However, in international relations posturing is significant, and Kilicdaroglu will be far less antagonistic to Turkiye’s NATO allies and won’t be using rhetoric about revanchism and Islam for political points. Regardless of which candidate wins, that a serious democratic challenge to Erdogan’s political power has taken place will have a major impact on Turkiye going forward.
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