FTP: Let’s start with the overall view. We have three weeks to go until the existential elections, which have been defined as a referendum for Turkey’s future in its centennial. Your views and sattements have been cautious, questioning, skeptical—have your views changed regarding the outlook of the upcoming elections?
Sinan Ciddi: That’s a good question. I think tmy underlying cautious to pessimistic perspective on the outcome of Turkish presidential elections is still there. I am obviously on record suggesting that Tayyip Erdogan still maintains a healthy ability—and a likely ability—to remain in power. I am more certain about the outcome of the parliamentary elections, whereby the opposition Nation Alliance will fail to gain the 400 minimum seats required to ensure that they will have enough seats to change the constitution, so that Turkey can be reinstated to a parliamentary democracy.
Many obviously thought that the political fallout from the earthquake, which obviously inflamed a lot of public opinion even further against the government and Tayyip Erdogan’s rule, suggesting that it was just incapable, but that it was also maybe symbolic of its inability to govern the country, and that it would have detrimental consequences at the ballot box. I say that because if we go by recent polling data, which I obviously do not necessarily lend a lot of credibility to, it suggests that the race is neck and neck, that despite the public anger after the earthquake, Erdogan does maintain a considerable amount of performance and inspires confidence on the part of the electorate, as we get into the final stretch of the race.
FTP: Let’s stay with the parliamentary elections. You mentioned the objective as 400 seats, which is crucial for a constitutional amendment. But I don’t hear any voice from the central opposition bloc [talking] about this objective anymore. It’s rather [about] gaining a majority in parliament. And a lot of people, with three weeks to go, are speaking about the next elections, maybe within a year or so, because if the opposition gains a majority, they will have inherited a massive rubble as a result of economic mismanagement. So that seems to be a more realistic scenario regarding the parliamentary elections. Neck and neck, as you mentioned, but it is still an open-ended race, whereby the AKP and MHP—the current ruling coalition—may also gain 300 plus seats. So it’s open.
Sinan Ciddi: I absolutely believe that’s the case. Since the earthquake the government is on record for essentially taking provisions to ensure that, for example, the earthquake-stricken zones where voters have been dispersed and sort of relocated to other cities…measures have been put in place such that their votes will not necessarily be counted in the place where they were once domiciled. There are structural measures being taken to ensure that the distribution of seats based on the…system of voting, will not translate to a favorable outcome for the opposition.
And the opposition knows this. And the reason why they don’t seem to be too concerned about the distribution of seats in Parliament, is because they don’t really care about changing the constitution back to a parliamentary system. They care about how many seats they’re gonna get. If the goal from the outset for the political opposition under the umbrella of the Nation Alliance, was returning Turkey back to a democratic system of governance that undercut the rule of one person or one man, then we would have seen several things.
Voters should be on some level disappointed with the opposition; they’re not prioritizing democratic governance
First of all, we would not have seen such a big concentration of effort in determining who the presidential candidate was. Specifically, the amount of effort that has gone into trying to nominate Kilicdaroglu. Because he’s not the best candidate to run against Erdogan. If the goal was democracy, and democratic governance under a parliamentary system, they would have nominated Ekrem Imamoglu, who stood a greater chance in turning out voters in favor of the Alliance, which may have helped them get 400 seats in parliament. But for the opposition its all about who’s going to become president. Because I don’t altogether believe they want to give that up either. Voters should be on some level disappointed with the opposition, simply because they’re not…prioritizing democratic governance as represented by a return to a parliamentary system of government.
FTP: Let’s go to the presidential candidates. Credible pollsters find that Kilicdaroglu is only two points ahead of Erdogan. Which means if you take the margin of error it looks like a neck and neck situation there as well. How do you explain this seemingly solid backing behind Erdogan [even after the devastating earthquakes]?
Sinan Ciddi: That is a difficult question to answer overall, but I have two major points.
First, as the election date gets nearer, and the electorate looks forward to the future in terms of who is likely to be able to deliver Turkey into a better situation politically or economically or socially, I think what’s prevailing right now is this view that Erdogan is the devil that we know. These palliative measures such as retirement bonuses, not wanting to charge people for the last month of natural gas bills, the increase in the minimum wage, but also just this sort of turning on of monetary taps, seems to be resonating with the electorate.
But they also look at Kilicdaroglu as a presidential candidate and wonder if he has the gravitas, the experience, even the confidence that is required to take Turkey out of its rut. And I think the answer is no. So that’s the first analysis I have.
The second point is slightly more serious. To my knowledge, only Ersin Kalaycioglu, the professor of political sience has brought this up and I wholeheartedly agree with him because his view on this is based on data and research, that suggests—quite convincingly I might add—that the Turkish electorate is not primarily interested in governance issues or rule of law issues. It’s basically asking: which candidate is gonna give more for me? And that’s quite a damning perspective if you take it at face value. They (the majority of the electorate, not the whole electorate) are not evaluating Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu in terms of which one will provide the best democratic governance and uphold Turkey’s rule of law…if that was the case then I think the numbers would be much more heavily skewed and in favor of Kilicdaroglu’s presidency. They’re looking primarily to Erdogan because they think that if they go to the ballot box, Erdogan’s going to be the best choice for their pocketbook considerations, above and beyond (possibly) what Kilicdaroglu is offering them.
Turkey is primarily about—we’re not really concerned with rule of law. People just want to forget about this and concentrate on the fact that, at the ballot box, people will vote with their conscience and mind for a better, democratic Turkey. I think that’s not a reality.
FTP: That seems to explain the wave of populism, and the discourse based on populism on both sides. The promises and pledges like raising retirement wages etc. Maybe this is an election where we see populism reaching its peak in Turkish political history. Would that be a correct assessment?
Sinan Ciddi: It is, but we should come to expect that. I also just see that as part and parcel of electioneering, right? There were a lot of voices raised back in November saying we should be cautious because Erdogan is gonna turn on the populism taps, the monetary taps to satisfy the voters. But I’ve always said that’s fair game, this is an election and governments are allowed to take advantage of incumbency, make outrageous promises, even to the detriment of the country’s economic stability. It’s always been part and parcel of Turkish elections and campaigns.
What I think viewers have to understand is the degree to which Erdogan will use that to bully the state into actually moving beyond just promises, but also printing money, bolstering pensions, and above all tasking government agencies within the state to actually back his candidacy. I’m more worried about the stuff he’s doing in the background such as the Supreme Election Council (YSK), his constitutional court appointments, how he’s institutionally preparing the election to basically ensure his victory.
FTP: This subject is interesting, because I know you are very concerned about election safety and the potential for election rigging, etc., and you just mentioned the control of the institutions, which makes me think that you think Erdogan has the upper hand regarding control of the election system. Does this have to do with his relative silence, that he knows what he’s doing? Do you share those concerns that people expect a shock for the opposition?
Sinan Ciddi: I do share those concerns. I am on record for thinking Erdogan does have the upper hand. I should say, I sincerely hope I am proven wrong. That they will put me in the dustbin of opinion-holders. I believe Tayyip Erdogan is not only a threat for the democratic future of Turkey, I’ve also come to believe he’s a major threat to democratic stability throughout the world, and I do believe he’s a regional threat to stability for western interests. I would love to see him go because of the nature of the threat he continues to present. So that’s just by the by.
I believe Tayyip Erdogan is not only a threat for the democratic future of Turkey, I’ve also come to believe he’s a major threat to democratic stability throughout the world, and I do believe he’s a regional threat to stability for western interests.
People who think like me have been pushed aside as pessimists. I’m not just a pessimist with my head buried in the sand, wallowing in sadness and fear and anger. There is an entire body of political science and literature which basically tries to project how authoritarian regimes can and are resilient. There are deep structural problems and impediments in the way of not just a free and fair election, but also a change of power form Erdogan to Kilicdaroglu.
They [the AKP] have figured out, since the Ankara and Istanbul elections of 2019, what to avoid at the local level. The appointment of the YSK members and constitutional court members is likely to ensure that an Erdogan victory, should it be contested, will come about. These are not just made-up structural factors. These are deeply ingrained.
And I should also add. What does it say about the YSK when they have accepted and promulgated the candidacy of Tayyip Erdogan. Why has it allowed a candidate to become a candidate, who is breaching constitutional requirements, whereby every candidate that stands for president has to be a graduate of a four year higher education institution, which Tayyip Erdogan is not. The Turkish press has not highlighted this enough because they see this as kind of like a red herring, or something they don’t want to agitate, but it is staring us in the face. Erdogan is not a university graduate. It has been proven he is not, yet his candidacy has been accepted by the highest authority, who will determine who is going to be the winner in this election.
I throw that out there because its been forgotten about. And we’re expecting a free and fair election. We have seen foreign correspondents dismissed from Turkey, we have seen the end of Deutsche Welle’s existence in Turkey. We don’t need to talk about the relative state of press freedoms in Turkey.
We also don’t necessarily know if foreign observers will be allowed to come and participate at the ballot box. So, when we talk about election security in Turkey, what I’ve seen on Turkish television, on good programs with good journalists, is that they’ve been discussing it a little bit more recently, but initially election security as far as they were concerned was, are they going to use the ink on people’s thumbs at the end of the voting process. I mean, come on.
And then to be dismissing people as pessimists? I find this really disingenuous, and ignoring both literature, but also the significant number of structural impediments that have been put up to ensure an Erdogan victory. Now I’m not saying regardless Erdogan will prevail. I’m just saying that an Erdogan third term is more likely than not, and we should be very wary of this going forward.
FTP: Yet the perceptions are that Kilicdaroglu is having an impact with these short spots that he posts every day on social media, every night at a specific time, every night a different subject, which observers have the perception of being effective. Even if you disagree with the perception of efficiency with Kilicdaroglu’s spots, what do you think the opposition is not doing that it should do? What is missing there?
Sinan Ciddi: That’s a good question. I think if Turkey was a country where relative free and fair elections were going to be held, what Kilicdaroglu is doing is the right formula—just hitting hard on economic, pocketbook issues, is starting to resonate. But that’s not the reality. What we are seeing right now unfortunately is a messaging that won’t necessarily be enough to carry him over the threshold because the country is going forward in a less than free and less than fair manner.
What else could he be doing? My primary suggestion to the opposition would be to ensure provincial party representatives are as capable, aware, and involved as possible. Put into position people who can monitor elections and electioneering at the ballot box and precinct level to ensure that malfeasance does not happen.
The other thing on the perspective of campaigning is to continue to hit home on the issues of pocketbook and corruption, because voters are still convinced that given a choice, they still think Erdogan may be the best choice to deliver and raise them out of this economic malaise that the country is in.
FTP: Regardless of who is victorious, do you expect any changes in foreign policy?
Sinan: I do and I think regardless of who it is we should expect some sort of change. Even if Erdogan stays in power we expect to see some placatory measures put out to Washington and Europe, that indicate a desire to turn a new leaf with the West. One of the things that I’ve heard they might do is divest the country of its S-400 missile system, and also ratifying Sweden’s NATO membership.
Under a Kilicdaroglu presidency I expect similar things, but I’m also tempering my expectations because regardless of who is president there is a widespread belief within the Turkish electorate that we should not be too conciliatory towards Western demands vis a vis Syria and the US’s relationship with PYD/YPG. But I also think a Kilicdaroglu presidency would be much better at turning down the antagonistic rhetoric towards the United States and the West, towards Greece and Cyprus, a much more constructive tone with the EU, and immediate moves on Swedish membership of NATO. These will be necessary if Turkey seeks to reengage with the West, particularly because if Turkey is going to face some very difficult economic circumstances following the election, regardless of who is in power, Turkey will need the assistance of Western creditor institutions like the IMF, and for that to happen Turkey needs to substantively engage in rebuilding its relationship with the West.