Do you remember the evening of 27 May? It’s a difficult question for someone living in a country which follows the orbital velocity of Mercury — where 1 day is equal to 59 days. By this calculation, 531 days have passed since 27 May, so you probably don’t remember that you were engaged in a bitter fight with AKP supporters that very night over the acceptance speech of Merve Dizdar, who dedicated her Best Actress Award at Cannes Film Festival to her “sisters who never give up hope no matter what, and to all the rebellious souls in Turkey who are waiting for the good days they deserve”. You interpreted this as an auspicious sign for the second round of elections, that the stars finally aligned with you, and that the opposition was going to win. Of course, the Erdoğanistas disagreed with you, calling Dizdar “a pathetic slave of the West”, but you didn’t care. After all, the Erdoğan era was over.
Well, not quite. The stars tricked you again, and our almighty President extended his rule into a third decade. If we were to believe what you said on 27 May, Turkey was supposed to cease to exist. Most of you were making plans to leave the Chernobyl of the Middle East and go West, or settle in a remote coastal town, devoting yourselves to your family, your pets, your baking.
But for some odd reason, Turkey didn’t vanish into thin air, and even more oddly, you weren’t surprised. On the contrary, you adapted. You adapted so well that you started to see your erstwhile nemesis in a new light — a benevolent pater familias who showed signs of mellowing down as his new, “moderate” cabinet showed. The economy? No need to worry, now that the messiah is here, Turkey will return to “rational” economics. Imperialist foreign policy? Our new foreign minister, a very “transparent” and “mild-tempered” man, will make it right. The earthquakes? Only Erdoğan could fix it anyway. The prisoners? Excuse me, who?
Sorry dear reader, I am not going to be part of this charade. And I am not here to sprinkle you with more platitudes and “I-told-you-so”s. If you want to read candidate-based analyses, refugee- or Anatolia-bashing or the nationalist-deep-wave mythologies, this is not the right address. I suggest you don’t waste your time here, and go back to where all answers can be found (!)—Twitter, of course.
Instead, I’ll tell you why it was very difficult, if not impossible, to beat Erdoğan at the ballot box, by drawing on the oft-cited political science concept of “competitive authoritarianism” — one that even the most ardent İmamoğlu eulogists cite. Then I’ll share the three secrets of Turkish politics with you, or greed, narcissism, and compliance.
Competitive authoritarianism is a concept developed by political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in the early 2000s to describe hybrid regimes, where democratic institutions are still seen as the principal means of obtaining and exercising power, but those in power abuse them so often and to such an extent that electoral competition is anything but fair. In a talk he gave in 2011, Levitsky uses the analogy of a football match where goal posts are of different lengths and of different heights, where one team has 11 players plus the referee and the other team has a mere 6 or 7 players. There were 35 competitive authoritarian regimes in 2010, according to Levitsky and Way’s book Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War. Some of these democratized; others slid into full-scale authoritarianism; still others remained competitive authoritarian regimes.
Levitsky and Way revisited their original thesis in 2020, and pointed to two worrying trends since the publication of their book. The first was the decline of Western liberal hegemony; the second was the emergence of a new form of competitive authoritarianism in countries such as Hungary, the Philippines, Venezuela, and of course Turkey. What set these countries apart were stronger democratic traditions and institutions than the earlier countries, where conditions had been less favorable for democracy.
And it’s here that the story becomes more interesting, at least for the purposes of this piece. “Tilting the playing field in countries such as Hungary, the Philippines, Turkey, and Venezuela requires greater skill, more sophisticated strategies, and far more extensive popular mobilization than in, say, Benin, Madagascar, or Moldova”, the authors told us. Prospective autocrats must first command sizable electoral majorities and “This is often achieved via polarizing populist or ethno-nationalist strategies”.
This portion of Levitsky and Way’s theory is extremely important for understanding the repeated failure of the opposition in toppling the AKP. Erdoğan didn’t only manage to tilt the playing field in his favor: he convinced a large part of the population, including the opposition, that this is the new normal. These are the rules, and we will continue abiding by them. In other words, if competitive authoritarianism is like football, then Erdoğan is the UEFA. He sets the rules, and nobody challenges him (and the few that do, for example Selahattin Demirtaş, get a lifelong ban from the game).
But that’s not all. Erdoğan is not only the UEFA; he is also José Mourinho (who once called himself “The Special One”). He is a mastermind of the game; he adapts to new circumstances, changes his tactics, recruits new players to shore up his support base. And when he occasionally fails, just like Mourinho, he resorts to “dirty tactics.” He yells at his opponents, he provokes, insults, and asks for a rematch. His opponents not only fall for his tricks, but secretly admire him. They try — and almost always miserably fail — to become like him. They fail because they don’t understand that they cannot be populists and represent the establishment at the same time; they cannot claim to be democrats while refusing to sit at the same table with the Kurds or while dancing with the wolves; they cannot win by aping their rival and adopting his tactics. They don’t seem to be aware that if they are going to play on an uneven playing field, they should at least be able to motivate their 5-6 players and mobilize their supporters. And when they lose, they should go to the post-game press conference, admit to their mistakes, and resign.
They never do any of this, for they are part of the system. They benefit from the system. They are driven by greed — for power, for material gain or other intangible benefits. And greed leads to compliance. Who cares for the supporters as long as they continue to get their handsome salaries by raising hands every now and then to approve The Special One’s policy choices? After all, they are also narcissists who are in love with themselves. They cozy up to the perpetual winner, and pose for selfies. After all, they know that cameras follow the winners, not the losers.
I could end things here, of course, and blame it all onto the system or the opposition. You already know the drill: the opposition should have announced the candidate earlier; Kılıçdaroğlu was the wrong candidate; the smaller parties played an outsized role; the election campaign was too short, too vague, focused on the wrong themes, so on and so forth.
But these are all speculations, and we don’t know whether the outcome would have been different if things were done differently. But greed, narcissism, and compliance come into play here too, and steer political commentaries and analyses. Opposition-bashing is as much motivated by greed as genuine dissatisfaction — greed for a position in the “new” CHP, in Akşener’s İYİP, and who knows, maybe even a chance to run in the next elections. The so-called opinion leaders and experts are as resilient as the politicians they criticize. The same names, the same tired clichés, and worse, the same sense of infallibility—the hallmark of narcissism. How many “We were right” tweets have you seen since 27 May? How many “I told you so” commentaries have you read? Can you even count them? And did you notice how many of those are now praising The Special One’s moderate cabinet — the equally Special Minister of Finance or the Minister of External Affairs?
Other than — rightly — asking for Kılıçdaroğlu’s resignation, what are we doing to not lose the next elections? Are we taking to the streets? Are we engaging in acts of civil disobedience, going on a strike, or protesting the price hikes? Sure, it’s not easy to confront the state and its security apparatus. But small acts of everyday resistance? Simply showing that we do not accept the results of a rigged game?
No, we’re not doing any of this. We’re not, because we are also greedy, in love with ourselves, and fully compliant. We love the game, and we dream of being an active player one day. My humble advice is, if you are sincere in your wish to change the system, by no means criticize all the actors who abide by it. But first, take a good and long look at the mirror. Because İmamoğlu is not going to save you. He is part of the system too.