Turkish voters went to the ballot box again this past Sunday, and despite an economy in dire straits and the tragic corruption and mismanagement that likely led to tens of thousands of additional deaths in the early February earthquakes, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was reelected for another five-year term.
Why, despite the initial optimism of the opposition, were they not able to dislodge him? There are electoral as well as authoritarian reasons for why he won; both sides of the equation matter.
On the electoral side, the opposition had a lackluster candidate and a wobbly coalition that shared little other than a desire to end Erdoğan’s rule. In the aftermath of their defeat, a flood of information about the mismanagement of their campaign is coming to light. For his part, President Erdoğan is a master of polarization and was able to hammer the opposition as clumsy, out-of-touch, effete, and unpatriotic.
That said, given Erdoğan’s gross mismanagement of the economy, his electoral skills would mean little without the authoritarian components: His control of 90% of the media, his use of the courts to limit the opposition, his jailing and prosecution of rivals and critics, and his use of government resources to support his own campaign all fundamentally shaped the electoral landscape. While there were some irregularities on election day, they were mostly within the usual margins for a Turkish election.
The key issue is that Erdoğan controlled nearly every aspect of how the election was contested, and that is the main explanation for why he won. There is a saying that “only amateurs steal elections on election day”; Erdoğan is not an amateur.
Why did so many observers — in Turkey and abroad — overestimate the opposition’s chances? First, because many thought that the poor economy and the corruption that was laid bare in the earthquake would overwhelm Erdoğan’s capacity to control messaging. They underestimated both the effect of his control of the media environment and the extent to which identity politics and ideology can trump personal experience at the ballot box.
Second, they were affected by the opposition’s own overestimation of its chances.
Third, while almost every observer acknowledges Erdoğan’s authoritarianism, too many underestimated its effects.
Erdoğan’s victory speech included a minute or so of unity followed by a long, angry tirade against the opposition strewn with homophobic attacks. At a very basic level, the speech was less a celebration of his victory than an opening salvo for the upcoming municipal elections, which are scheduled for March 31, 2024. In particular, he focused on retaking Istanbul, the city he governed as mayor for many years, the country’s economic hub, and an important source of rent for his government and for allied businesses.
The mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, is a charismatic speaker and, like Erdoğan, rooted in the urban migration from the provinces that defines much of Turkey’s developing political culture. Not surprisingly, he is currently facing a jail sentence (for criticizing the Supreme Electoral Council when it initially overturned his election in 2019). He is free on appeal.
Ironically, given how long Erdoğan has been in power, the next few years are likely to be distinctly unstable. The economy is in shambles. Moreover, Erdoğan is, most likely, facing his last term in office. He will either need to groom a successor (his son-in-law Selçuk Bayraktar being the most likely candidate), change the constitution (not an easy task), or face internal squabbling as others vie for position.
Meanwhile, the nativist right, anti-Kurdish, antagonistic to the West, and ascendant in this election, will face its own internal challenges. Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), is, at 75, unlikely to hold onto power for many more years.
Finally, the opposition parties are going to have to face the repercussions of this election. If they could not win in these economic circumstances, under what conditions can they do so? Turkish citizens, already suffering from the poor economy, are likely to see more, not less, instability in the next few years; the desperate search of young people for opportunities abroad will only intensify.
As leaders across the political spectrum vie to demonstrate their nationalist bona fides, no “reset” with the West is likely to be long lasting.
This article was originally published by the Middle East Institute.
The views and opinions expressed above are the author’s and do not represent those of the Free Turkish Press.