Turkey: Why Erdogan is ahead, Kilicdaroglu’s mistakes -Spyros A. Sofos (LSE) writes for iefimerida

By | May 15, 2023

On May 14, 65,000,000 Turkish citizens went to the polls en masse to approve the project to redefine the Republic of Turkey in the image and likeness of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) during the past two decades, or to decide whether the country will follow a different path.

The elections revolved around a confrontation between opposing conceptions of ‘democracy’, referendum, majority and authoritarian, on the one hand, and a vision of a democracy based on diversity, dialogue and respect for the ‘other’, on the other. .

The first proposal has been adopted by the AKP leadership for the last fifteen years. After initially supporting the country’s fragile parliamentary system, the AKP slid quickly towards adopting a personal model of presidential leadership, free from the mediation of parliamentary “niceties”, as seen in Erdogan’s references to the summary will of the nation as a legitimizing factor of the systematic questioning of the Constitutional Court, the last institution that opposed his illegitimate elections.

Erdogan tends to prioritize the rights of the nation/people, a collective that is difficult to define, over the individual rights of citizens and the “selfish interests” of social minorities, whose representation was detrimental to the “unity of the people.”

These perceptions are at the heart of a centralized presidential system and an authoritarian approach where expressions of dissent, such as the Gezi Park protests in 2013 or the Academics for Peace initiative, were criminalized and violently repressed.

The AKP presided over the persecution and imprisonment of pro-Kurdish leftist leaders and cadres of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the repression of civil society, the mass purges following the 2016 coup and the state of war against the Kurds of Turkey. citizens after the collapse of the peace process between the government and the Kurdish movement.

Turkey Official Results: Erdogan 49.62%, Kilicdaroglu 44.89% – Second Round Announced May 28

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Signs of an alternative, more pluralistic vision were seen in the case of “democratic enclaves” such as the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (İBB), under Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu.

Recently, a similar approach to democracy was visible in the speech of Erdogan’s main opponent and leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who – setting aside his party’s repressive and authoritarian tendencies and mistrust of minorities – expressed his solidarity with the Kurdish citizens of Türkiye and stated that he envisions a Türkiye open to diversity.

The vote count shows that Kilicdaroglu failed to prevail in the first round of the presidential race, with Erdogan in the lead, obtaining 49% against 45% of the opposition, which you probably won’t be able to raise your rates in the second round. That said, the AKP, which has a history of irregularities in vote counting and the electoral process, has this time filed objections in districts where the opposition appears to have a significant advantage, in order to gain traction.

In 2022, in cooperation with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), it implemented reforms regarding the selection of judges of the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK). The YSK was also involved in the prosecution of until recently presidential hopeful İmamoğlu for insulting state officials, which led to his imprisonment and a ban on “political activity”. An impeachment of the left-wing, pro-Kurdish HDP is underway, with the party facing a five-year ban and its political staff banned from politics.

In October 2022, a so-called “censorship law” was passed to criminalize “disinformation” (essentially criticizing the government) and impose strict control over online news sites in an information landscape where all major news outlets communication are already controlled by the AKP. .

But, apart from the AKP littering the path to the presidency with procedural obstacles, other factors must be taken into account to understand not only the result of the first round of the elections, but also the political landscape after the elections.

The opposition, a motley coalition of parties united in their desire to end the Erdogan era, managed to agree on some vague policy directions, but lacked a coherent positive vision beyond dismantling Erdogan’s policies.

Kilicdaroglu tried (quite late in the campaign) to make up for this shortfall through a series of speeches about the Turkey he imagines, but his coalition does not subscribe to his vision. His own party, the CHP, is divided, historically driven by a vision of a unified Turkey, where Kurdish activism is a threat. Many party supporters prefer the charismatic Imamoglu, whose undoubted appreciation for Turkey’s diversity is complemented by a more personal leadership and populist flair at a time when the institutions of parliamentary democracy are in dire need of revitalization.

More Imamoglu-inclined İYİ (second party coalition) leader Meral Aksener hesitated to support Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy and expressed her party’s reservations about an opening to the country’s Kurdish population. İYİ, a branch of the hypernationalist MHP, represents for some a more civilized version of the latter’s atavistic nationalism and is accused for xenophobic intimidation and against minorities.

And then, on the other side of the political divide, there is the AKP, a party effective in building an atmosphere of crisis and a sense of injustice, constantly raising the (not unfounded) issue of contempt and marginalization of its voter base. by the “establishment”. and elites who identify with the opposition.

Erdogan has successfully portrayed his party as the party of the oppressed, excluded from the benefits of economic progress, educational opportunities and political expression afforded to “White Turks”, beneficiaries of the order he set out to overthrow, and has cultivated a strong fear of previous status quo. This fear, combined with the relative prosperity that the AKP’s policies have brought to the Anatolian provinces, appears to have mobilized a significant percentage of its electoral base and undermined the opposition’s reassuring messages.

The opposition does not seem to have been able to offer an effective alternative, let alone counter Erdogan’s vision and populism. He has not been able to convince himself that he has abandoned his own authoritarian tendencies, his distrust of the “people” to whom Erdogan successfully appeals: the “Muslims”, the “poor” and “oppressed” inside Turkey, and he has not been able to calm their fears so that they will abandon his “protective”, paternalistic embrace.

In the field of foreign policy, the coalition of six opposition parties understood that reversing the directions set by Erdogan is a complex undertaking: the goal promised by Kilicdaroglu of full integration into the European Union has no prospects in the short or medium term. The opposition’s assurances regarding its Western orientation do not rule out continued dialogue with Russia, while a withdrawal from Syria and a change in policy in Libya (and the eastern Mediterranean) are not immediately possible or desirable, according to some members of the coalition. Marginal differences with the AKP in this area allowed Erdogan to retain among his supporters the advantage of his long experience and his status as the author of a “successful” and multidimensional foreign policy.

On the other hand, the rise of Erdogan should not overshadow the slide of Turkish politics towards nationalism. The ultranationalist MHP, led by Devlet Bakhceli, an ally of Erdogan, strengthened his position in the formation of the government, just as the İYİ in the opposition, Sinan Ogan, coming from the same nationalist space, attracted more than 5% of the voters, acquiring a role of regulator of developments.

The consequences of the strengthening of the extreme right will be felt in the field of foreign policy (including relations with Greece and Cyprus, the Kurdish question and the continued withdrawal of Turkey from the Euro-Atlantic architecture).

Within the country, the position of women, LGBTI+, ethnic and religious minorities will continue to be undermined. As the management of the economy will require austerity policies, the production of crises in the domestic and international sphere can play a central axis in a strategy of distraction and disorientation of the citizenry.

For the opposition, in a post-election scenario like this, what is required is a revision of its attitude towards social groups that are hesitant to abandon Erdogan and the abandonment of its nostalgia for an already unattainable Kemalism.

*Spyros A. Sofos is Senior Fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His books include Turkish Politics and ‘The People’ Mass Mobilization and Populism (Edinburgh UP 2022), Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks (Palgrave 2013) and Tormented by History: Nationalism in Greece and Turkey (Hurst 2008) translated as The Suffering of History (Kastaniotis 2008).

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