The following panel was hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on May 18, 2023. Featuring Steven Cook, Howard Eissenstat, and Sibel Oktay, and moderated by Sinan Ciddi, the panel discussed the uncertainties and implications of the May 14 Turkish election.
President Erdogan’s Justice and Development-led People’s Alliance is likely to hold its parliamentary majority, but the presidential election results are still unclear. The election will go to a runoff, as neither candidate achieved the necessary 50 percent threshold.
Cook is senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies and director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Eissenstat is associate professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University.
Oktay is associate professor and former director of the School of Politics and International Affairs at the University of Illinois, Springfield.
Ciddi is non-resident senior fellow at FDD and associate professor of national security studies at Marine Corps University.
For months now we’ve been waiting for [these elections]. Will this be the last stand for President Erdogan, who has been in power, either as prime minister or as president of the republic, since 2003? The opinion polls suggested that he was going to be severely challenged, not least of all because of the state of the Turkish economy, which is plagued by rampant high inflation.
On top of that, we’ve seen vast allegations of corruption, nepotism and mismanagement of the country’s political scene. And finally, the devastating earthquakes of February in Turkey suggested that Erdogan’s rule was coming to a firm and abrupt end.
On May 14 President Erdogan came at approximately 49.5 percent. And immediately trailing him by about 4.5 percentage points is Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s party.
So this is going to a runoff.
What we do have complete certainty of right now is the composition of Turkey’s parliament, unless a few seats change because of objections to the final results. President Erdogan’s People’s Alliance of the Justice and Development Party, the AKP; the Nationalist Movement Party of Devlet Bahceli (MHP), and a few other sort of fringe parties that were part of the alliance will have a seat majority in parliament, approximately 320 or 322 out of the total of 600.
What this shows is President Erdoğan and the AKP’s majorities have narrowed. Mr. Erdoğan has lost some votes as president since the last election. The AKP has lost a sizable amount of votes since the last election. The MHP seems to have remained relatively stable.
By conrast, the CHP has gotten the highest percentage of votes in the party’s modern history.
So his goal has increased, but the big question remains, does he have what it takes to defeat Erdogan in the runoff election?
Sibel, what do you make of it? Are the results we’re seeing unexpected?
It was both unexpected and expected. We have to come back to the understanding that this is a competitive authoritarian regime. And the playing field has been uneven for years and including in the run-up to this election.
And so, considering the fact that the government controls 90 percent of the media; it has a well-established crony capitalist network; it has a well-established network of handouts, of social gifts and services. In that kind of an uneven playing field, I think it was expected that he would come out on top.
There were a couple of things that were unexpected.
Number one, the fact that Erdogan could still get 49.5 percent of the vote, considering the earthquakes of February 6, considering the terrible economy, considering the fact that the lira has lost 80 percent of its value over the last couple of years– the fact that he remained at 49.50 is still quite unexpected.
CIDDI: There are a relative number of disputes coming out suggesting was there foul play, what do you make of these?
What to make of this versus the narrative that the CHP’s clearly mishandled this, the organization, the tabulation of results, the ballot box monitoring, but the results are essentially a fairly accurate representation—what’s your sense of the two sides there?
OKTAY: So there are about 200,000 ballot boxes across the country, right? And let’s hope that in the second round, the CHP will have, let’s say, three, four, five people monitoring each and every ballot box across the country. That makes about a million people. The CHP’s registered members are more than a million, so in an ideal circumstance, the entirety of the party apparatus should have been mobilized to oversee.
Across those 200,000 ballot boxes, the [opposition parties] have disputed some 5,000 ballots out of 200,000.
And so that’s not enough. Even though some of these numbers might have gone to the incumbent parties, they are not significant enough to alter the results. We didn’t observe an outright, blatant fraud. And I don’t think it’s possible, given the way the election monitoring system has been set up in Turkey.
Turks really value their elections and they value their integrity and they consider it’s a sort of sacred practice of democratic will. [So I don’t think the vote was fraudulent enough to reverse the results].
CIDDI: Steven, let me move on to you. What went wrong in terms of the polling? There’d been a lot of writing and analysis to suggest this was a done deal, and that Erdogan will be done and we’d have President Kilicdaroglu. What went wrong?
COOK: Thanks, Sinan.
There’s a lot that went wrong in terms of the expectations regarding the outcome here, and it began actually months ago. I think there was too much focus on polling. We know from our own experiences here in the United States that polling is faulty, that people don’t necessarily tell pollsters the truth, and that polling only captures certain things at certain moments in time, and that no question is foolproof.
And secondly, I do think that there was a bleeding of hope into analysis. There was this sense that how could it possibly be, after all of these years, after the terrible economic years, after an earthquake, after this slide… But I think that the idea that people vote on their pocketbook,is wrong. I think it’s wrong in the United States, I think it’s wrong in Turkey.
The earthquake was supposed to devastate Erdogan—the response was bad and it was bad because of this centralization of power. But at the same time, in those AKP strongholds that were in the quake zone, people said it was God’s will, not that it was the fault of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
A whole host of things went into a narrative about Kilicdaroglu’s victory that overshadowed the fact that Erdogan is an entrenched authoritarian who can weaponize and instrumentalize the state. Look at what he did. He threatened Twitter. Controls the media, and in general, has a potent message that still resonates with large numbers of Turks. Those are significant advantages.
And then Kilicdaroglu imposed himself on the Nation Alliance. He was the one who consistently polled the weakest against Erdogan, which was the reason Meral Aksener bolted briefly in March. More people should have listened to her. She understood the weaknesses of the candidate. But he still did well because of countervailing things. But again, Erdogan is entrenched. We should have paid closer attention to his advantages rather than his weaknesses.
CIDDI: Onto the historian here. Howard, it seems that President Erdogan’s polarizing electoral campaign, his anti-LGBTQ [rhetoric], fear-mongering against Kurds, that mosques would be shut down if the CHP came to power… seems to have paid off, especially in the first round.
So going into this runoff, given the strength of the identity message and that Erdogan’s succeeded in getting nearly 50 percent, who do you think has the advantage? And what strengths or weaknesses do you see as particularly salient?
EISSENSTAT: So I guess I would start out by saying, you know, I agree. Turkey’s an electoral authoritarian regime, but we don’t actually know for sure how much of it’s electoral and how much of it’s authoritarian. Is it Vegas, where you don’t bet against the house, or is the game entirely fixed?
I don’t actually have an answer to that, and I think that my Turkish colleagues point to the strength of the Turkish electoral tradition and the way Turkish citizens feel about elections. And I look at other elections elsewhere that also had strong electoral traditions but were nonetheless questioned or rejected. So I don’t know for certain that there was anything that the opposition could have done.
I think that the LGBTQ stuff and the mosques was meant to cement the base. I think the Kurdish stuff was to bring in the nationalists. Those are the two legs of Erdogan’s political character at this point.
We see Kilicdaroglu today making a case for the nationalists, and he obviously can’t attack the Kurds because that’s a big part of his coalition, so he’s doubling down on anti-Syrian, anti-refugee stuff, and you know, those folks by and large can’t vote, so they’re a relatively safe target.
I always thought it was an uphill battle. I think it is more of an uphill battle now, and I think that we can see that in the degree to which the AKP has talked less about, “this is an attempted coup.” This was really worrying rhetoric in the first round, that this is an attempted coup, this is the West trying to overtake the Turkish government. This is FETO — whatever. All of that stuff laid the ground, it seemed to me, for a potential rejection of the election.
They’re not doing any of that now. They’re saying this is the people’s will. We’re going to have a debate. They’re relaxed, and I think that that speaks to the perception on Erdogan’s part that he — he’s not in any great danger anymore. I think he felt like he was in real danger for Sunday’s election. I don’t think he feels that way anymore.
CIDDI: Gonul Tol from the Middle East Institute wrote an interesting piece suggesting that Turkey in its authoritarian stage may not necessarily resemble Russia or China in that elections do still have possibly uncertain outcomes.
Given what you just said, Howard—and this is something for you to consider, Sibel—is Turkey beyond the point of a peaceful transfer of power following an election? It’s an uphill battle to overcome Erdogan electorally. Is it too uphill? Would he recognize it, even if he is electorally defeated? Or another way of putting this is, will we look back at this election and the subsequent one coming up, if Erdogan’s successful, as a sort of hinge moment, the day that electoral democracy just finally died?
CIDDI: … until Erdogan is out of the picture, voluntary or otherwise? That — that, you know, power transition doesn’t happen by electoral means anymore in Turkey?
OKTAY: Right. So I think a peaceful transfer of power is possible, in the event that he gets defeated. However, it hinges on three different things. Number one, defeating him in this system that favors him structurally and institutionally is very difficult to begin with. Despite our best hopes or optimism that the opposition got a lot of traction, still it fell behind four percentage points.
That speaks to the structural opportunities that Erdogan enjoys. But let’s assume that, you know, something great happens in two weeks, and he gets defeated. He’s not going to go down quietly, right?
And so first we will see a long, drawn-out battle in the courts, taking several thousands of ballots for a recount. Several different districts and cities will have re-elections, right?
And so just, you know, let’s think about the Istanbul election of 2019. The contestation of the initial vote, which Ekrem Imamoglu won by 14,000 points, that process was drawn out 3 ½ months. And that’s just one city for a local election.
So the stakes for Erdogan himself in that election are relatively lower. And that still took almost four months for Ekrem Imamoglu to reclaim the rightful mandate that he had gained the first time.
And so that is not going to be an easy process for Turkey. That’s going to be a very messy battle if it comes to that. And we might see something like January 6th in Turkey. I think that’s also in the cards, if he gets defeated by an electoral vote and then he contests the integrity of the election.
So I don’t think it’s going to be an easy path forward for either side if that scenario plays out on May 28th. As far as the hinge moment question–how much of this system is electoral; how much of this system is authoritarian, and whether democracy is only about free and fair elections…the political scientists in the room will say no, right? It’s more than that. So as far as this election happens in any which way, I think democracy has been on life support for years.
So I think that the constitutional referendum and the transformation of the political system from a parliamentary one to what we would call a super-presidential one—this decree-based presidential system that really revolves around one man—that’s when democracy died in Turkey. If you want to call it a hinge moment, I think that was the inflection point.
And so I think what’s really important for both Turkey observers and Turkish parties, particularly those on the opposition, to think about going forward is not necessarily the democratic practices, which I think are are well-entrenched for the most part [vis a vis elections], but the staggering and unexpected rise of Islamism and ultra-nationalism that were proven by the parliamentary results I hope we get to talk about.
That has dire consequences for, firstly, women in Turkey, children in Turkey, but also the society as a whole. And so I think, if we’re talking about a hinge moment, I think this is a hinge moment not necessarily for democracy but certainly for what the Turkish society and social fabric will look like going forward.
COOK: Just a couple of comments, and I’m sorry that Gonul is not here. I don’t mean to criticize her while she’s not here. And this isn’t a criticism. But I don’t think that Russia and China are the best analogies for Turkey. In fact, I think Turkey was a leader edge in the reversal of democratic practices.
You know, before even Hungary, Turkey sort of perfected this and blew away all of the data sets about what makes consolidated democracies.
What it strikes me is that there has been this kind of development of this thing, competitive authoritarianism, and the fact that the moving forces that have resonated with at least half of Turkish society are nationalism and Islamism, may point to another hinge. I think 2017 was a hinge. And they point to this potential hinge, which is that these are two inherently anti-democratic worldviews, and that Erdogan is going to, if he wins, seek legitimacy out of those two things, something that’s not unheard of in Turkey, but [it will be] through an election.
I don’t think elections are going to go away in Turkey. But Erdogan gets another five years. The AKP and MHP dominate the parliament. You’ll see the continued innovation of institutions that will ensure the trajectory of Turkey is not, maybe not even competitive authoritarian, even with — with elections. And I think that the — the kind of societal undercurrents of nationalism and Islamism. And that doesn’t make Turkey unique at all. I mean, nationalism in some sort of, kind of, religious chauvinism is something that we’re seeing throughout the world. And democracy’s under threat throughout the world.
EISSENSTAT: I think that Islamism, for a Western audience, isn’t a great way to understand Erdogan’s politics.
CIDDI: Right, I agree.
EISSENSTAT: He’s not particularly Islamist within the context of the Middle East. A better way of thinking about him is as a religious conservative, using cultural Islam as a sort of symbol for tradition, for the nation. Islam’s really important to Erdogan his voters but only rarely do I see his politics as Islamist in the way that we tend to use it sort of comparatively.
It really reminds me more of social conservatism in the United States than it does the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
COOK: Well, I’m going to disappoint you because I don’t necessarily disagree with you on this. You’re right that Sisi is the Islamist, if you put the two together, and if you took Turkish Islamists and you put them in a genuinely Middle Eastern context, they wouldn’t even be on the religious wing the ruling party.
However, the context here is Turkey, and there is this religious conservative Islamist world view that is at the base the AKP. I think it’s important. I don’t think we should totally dismiss those ideas as a moving force for people—that they resonate society-wide and give him a certain legitimacy.
CIDDI: Turks have been justifiably proud of the fact that over 90 percent of people turned out and voted, which immediately made me think of the first book I ever read in grad school—Seymour Martin Lipset’s Political Man.
[He argues that] strong turnout is not a good representation of consolidated democracy. More representative countries have lower voter turnout because there are other institutional safeguards for democratic governance, etc.
What’s left in Turkey, other than elections? What are the remnants of democratic governance outside of elections, and that’s why people just turn out?
OKTAY: Well…Twitter is still up. Sometimes it gets slowed down, but people can still access it and you know, these Virtual Private Network apps still work. But when there isn’t a flourishing civil society, where there isn’t a media where people can get their news freely and fairly and factually, where there isn’t a freedom of assembly, around protests, around people basically being free to express their minds, the ballot box becomes the only way in which people can express their rights.
And to this day, it’s still a closed vote—it’s something that you can do anonymously.
And especially in a country like Turkey, which is quite authoritarian and quite polarized, having the opportunity to reflect your true preferences behind a trifold, where no one can see you and you can be anonymous, I think that’s still something that Turks cling onto.
And so I think, considering the absence of other democratic practices and sort of pressure valves that can let out this steam, I think the elections are the only way in which Turkey can express its true preferences.
CIDDI: Does it really matter what the outcome is in the election, in terms of the relationship between Turkey and the United States? Does it really matter at this point whether Kilicdaroglu wins, or whether Erdogan wins on May 28th? Steven?
COOK: No. I think if you had asked me that question in January or February of 2021, I would have said that — possibly because this was a moment in which the Biden administration was talking very much about values and having a value-forward foreign policy.
[But] you don’t see any real infusion of American values in our approach to countries around the region in general. It’s rare actually that a President is consistent with this idea of values in foreign policy.
Maybe during the Cold War, because we were concerned about the Soviet Union, it was a useful wedge, but if you look at what the United States has done, it has been: how is country X going to help advance our strategic interests?
And so to the extent that Erdogan wants to carve out a more independent foreign policy from the United States, there has been friction. Kilicdaroglu, to the extent that he will play ball, improve coordination with NATO, walk away from that gray area policy that the current government has pursued in Ukraine and Russia, that would improve relations between Turkey and the United States.
There have been moments where a State Department spokesperson would say “it’s very bad, what’s happening to the LGBTQ community at Bogazici University and we strongly condemn it.” That’s the extent of it. And I would expect that there would be similar types of criticisms for other transgressions but no real consequences.
What I think sometimes people don’t understand is that as perniciously anti-American as Erdogan and the AKP have been at times, that the opposition is, as well. I remember having this argument with someone who’s now a senior U.S. government official who said, “Well, we can’t be so critical because what about the tens of millions of people who don’t vote for Erdogan?” I said, “Well, they hate the United States also.”
So I think that Kilicdaroglu’s instincts will also be to carve out a policy that’s independent of the United States, which I think is perfectly appropriate for Turks to do, but it will create tensions. There will be tension if President Erdogan is reelected, and there’ll be tension if Kemal Kilicdaroglu becomes the next president of Turkey.
Now I’ve filibustered long enough, and Howard would like to disagree with me.
EISSENSTAT: So, will there be tension? Of course, there’ll be tension. There’s Turkey’s position on Cyprus [for example], which is not going to be the American position on Cyprus for the foreseeable future.
That said, I imagine that under Kilicdaroglu, Sweden would be brought into NATO. I imagine that some deal would be finessed on the S-400s. I imagine that Turkey would cease to engage in the sanctions-busting with Iran and with Russia. I imagine that Turkey’s increasingly large role in the drug trade would decrease as institutions were reestablished, and I imagine that in general, Turkey would be more concerned about FDI from the European Union and work to reassert basic institutions, which simply makes it easier for us to work with them.
COOK: I think you have an active imagination, I will point out that Kilicdaroglu has made no commitments on any of those things; been very cagey on S-400s, been very cagey on Sweden. And of course, if he were to win, he’d have the politics of this issue, with a fierce majority in the Grand National Assembly ready to attack him for his being soft on important nationalist issues.
So you may very well be right, but I think that you’re sanitizing out some of the politics of this, and I think you’re sanitizing out some of the actual worldview of Kilicdaroglu.
CIDDI: But aren’t all sides, whether it’s Kilicdaroglu or Erdogan, fundamentally seeking some sort of reset with Washington? We’ve heard indications that even Erdogan may be willing to divest the country of S-400s. They’ve already made some overtures with designating certain entities and persons with the U.S. Treasury who’ve been terrorist financiers. Aren’t both sides actually heading for a reset because they have to? I mean, Turkey fundamentally has to engage with the West, no?
EISSENSTAT: I think there’s truth to that. I think that fundamentally Erdogan sees all resets as temporary. I don’t have any great faith that a change in tone with Israel or the United States is necessarily going to last longer than is convenient. [Whereas] Kilicdaroglu is imagining a different country.
The challenge with Erdogan is first of all how personalized the decisions are. It’s not his nationalism that — that got him into the S-400s; it’s the personalization. No bureaucracy would have gone along with that. The other component is the fundamental breakdown of institutions within the country. That’s where we see the sanctions-busting. That’s where we see this growth in the drug trade. We tend to think of corruption as a local problem, but it is a problem that has global implications.