Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is an ‘election machine’. The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), acknowledges that without hesitation. As far as the election is concerned, his track record is really fascinating. Within his more-than-two-decade-long reign, Erdoğan had been elected President twice, surmounted three rounds of referendums, and successfully dealt with seven more elections at the parliamentary and local levels. This year, another round of national elections is looming over Turkey and without any doubt, Erdoğan wants to be re-elected. But this time he is facing a tough challenge, both from inside and outside.
Apart from the national elections, this year is significant for the Turkish people for another reason. 2023 marks the centenary of modern Turkey which was rejuvenated under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Erdoğan is definitely longing to celebrate such a historic occasion with victory. Right now, the spotlight is on Erdoğan and the other presidential candidates, largely because the President is the executive head, as decided in the 2017 referendum. The upcoming election will also decide the fate of the 600-member parliament.
A hard fight ahead
On paper, Turkey is being governed by the people’s representatives. In reality, the last two decades of Erdoğan’s rule have been summed up as a centralized personalist rule, and adequate voters seem to like it. This is exactly why Erdoğan is relying more on his own image than that of his party, the AK Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi), in the coming election. In his early days of power, he initiated a number of social security programs. He managed to show a glimpse of economic prosperity for a while. Now that glimpse has vanished due to persistent inflation, the pandemic, the civil war next door, and the recent devastating earthquake.
Nobody exactly knows who will win in the end. But after being in power for 21 years, Erdoğan is still willing to put up a fight because his political base has not yet been fully eroded. The main opposition party, the CHP thinks that it might have a better chance this time. It sets aside its hard-to-solve differences with five other opposition parties and forms an opposition bloc called ‘National Alliance’. Young voters and Kurds are largely supporting this alliance. Meanwhile, Muharrem İnce of the newly formed Homeland Party, a heavyweight former member of the CHP, has recently declared his Presidential candidacy. Experts fear that he will share a cut of the anti-Erdoğan vote.
Anti-refugee sentiment and the earthquake
Erdoğan’s popularity in Turkey might be questionable. In the Arab world, however, he is the most popular leader. They see a powerful ‘Muslim strongman’ in him. Arab Muslims may have such a reaction because they are tired of living for ages under despotic puppet rulers. But this time, Turkey is really in need of an efficient leader. The economy is in jeopardy right now.
Inflation is sky-high. The lira has also fallen significantly against the dollar. The country is facing the biggest current-account deficit in four decades, thanks Erdoğan for slashing interest rates. The February earthquake that killed over 50,000 people increased the economic toil of an already overburdened economy. People are not happy at all about the way the government is dealing with the overall economy and the recent calamity. Given the economic hardship, Turkish people are not willing to support the Syrian refugees anymore, whom they have supported for the last 12 years.
But in practice, democracy can be a funny business. Voters often go to the center on election day, forget their appalling living conditions and long-held grudges, and submit themselves under the feet of their long-standing allegiance. Even in times of economic emergency, when casting their votes, people often stress upon issues like religion, ethnicity, and the public image of the candidates. To many of the Sunni Muslims, who are the majority, Erdoğan is the best and only choice. Through numerous popular dramas and movies, the media-in-pocket and submissive institutions, Erdoğan has carefully crafted his image as a modern ‘Sultan’ who is worthy of resurrecting the age-old Ottoman glory.
Standing on this attitude, Erdoğan poked his nose into Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan. Over the years, he helped various groups on different continents of the world. He mocked the five permanent members of the UN Security Council by saying “the world is bigger than five”. The ‘Alevi’ Muslim identity of Erdoğan’s main opponent, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, can be proved to be a deciding factor in the election day. Moreover, while Erdoğan apparently holds a Strongman personality in public, Kemal lacks it.
Still, the latest polls have dimmed Erdoğan’s prospects. Opposition presidential candidate Kemal is tied or slightly ahead of Erdoğan in many polls. The gap is not yet insurmountable for Erdoğan. Perhaps that is why he has not postponed the election showing the earthquake as an excuse. Instead, he sent a large number of party MPs to the earthquake-hit areas to oversee rehabilitation initiatives. Erdoğan, a veteran politician, knows very well that the earthquake will be a decisive factor in this election campaign.
Many predict that the current election will face a second round. To win the presidency, one has to get more than 50% of the vote. If that does not happen, the two candidates who receive the highest number of votes will fight again in the second round. One will surely win in this case, but there is no definite solution to the age-old conflict between conservatism and pluralism in the already divided Turkish society.
Almost all of the leading Anglophone newspapers are more likely to condemn Erdoğan than to objectively analyze the situation in Turkey. To them, his future is quite bleak. But deep down, they also know that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a battle-hardened, cool customer. He knows how to turn the tide in his favor and win.
[Photo by Astro medya Org. Ltd. ŞTİ., CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
Zoltán Vörös is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Pécs, Hungary, with a special focus on Chinese politics and society. He holds a PhD from the University of Pécs.
Khaled Imran is currently pursuing his postgraduate studies at the University of Pécs. His research focuses on authoritarian politics, digital authoritarianism, and authoritarianism in small states.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.