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13 May 2023

The twilight of Erdoğanism

How the authoritarian model that remade Turkey over the past two decades has reached its limits.

By Jeremy Cliffe

ANKARA AND ISTANBUL – At 4.17am on 6 February, an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale struck southern Turkey and northern Syria. It was followed by another measuring 7.7 nine hours later, and thousands of smaller aftershocks. Tens of thousands of buildings collapsed, partially or entirely, killing many inhabitants in their sleep and trapping others for days in the freezing winter weather. Emergency response teams and humanitarian aid for the hundreds of thousands left homeless were often slow to arrive. Such was the outpouring of public anger that Turkey’s government temporarily suspended Twitter – a move that further hampered rescue efforts by silencing calls for help shared on the platform.   

No government could have coped easily with such a disaster, the largest quake to hit Turkey in over eight decades. But it soon became clear that the devastation had been significantly worse than it needed to be. Corruption and a wider culture of impunity during the county’s long construction boom had resulted in substandard buildings that could not withstand the tremors. Hollowed out public institutions had a limited capacity for action. And the hyper-centralisation of power had left the state brittle and unresponsive. The death toll – officially 50,783 in Turkey but in practice probably well over 100,000 – stands as a withering indictment of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s two decades in power.

On Sunday 14 May the country goes to the polls in presidential and parliamentary elections. It will not be a fair vote: especially in his second decade in power, Erdoğan has battered the country’s democracy and cowed many of its checks and balances. But it will be a largely free one. As I witnessed on a recent reporting trip to Ankara and Istanbul, the debacle of the earthquake response was just the most emphatic of many signs that the political formula that has sustained him in power since 2003 is breaking down.

“This is the most important election in the history of the country,” says Hişyar Özsoy, an academic, opposition politician and member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Such claims are often made by politicians in the heat of a campaign, but in this case it is entirely justified. The vote on 14 May– and if it goes to a runoff, the subsequent one on 28 May – will make the difference between a change of course for this country of 85 million, and one more term of Erdoğanism that may well ​​finish off its ailing democracy. As such, it also stands as easily the most important election in the world this year, a prospective turning point for a crucial geopolitical pivot state between the West and the rest, and a litmus test for the fortunes of international populism.  

If the earthquake of 6 February comes to mark the beginning of the end of the Erdoğan era, it will bookend a story that also began with a terrible earthquake. On 17 August 1999 a tremor almost as strong (7.6 on the Richter scale) struck the eastern edge of the sprawling Istanbul conurbation, centred on the industrial city of Izmit. Erdoğan spearheaded the criticism of then-prime minister Bülent Ecevit’s government for its adequate response, helping to build his profile and with it the platform that would carry him first to the ​​office of prime minister, then the presidency and finally almost total political hegemony.   

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Erdoğan was born in 1954 to a poor and conservative Muslim family, outsiders in the strenuously secular, modernising and pro-Western state forged by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923 from the rump of the former Ottoman Empire. His father, a ferry captain who moved his family from Güneysu in the republic’s eastern provinces to the working-class Istanbul district of Kasımpaşa, sent his son to an İmam Hatip high school, part of an educational network established to train imams. During that time, the teenage Erdoğan sold watermelons and simit on the streets to help the family pay its bills. An abortive career as a semi-professional footballer gave way to politics when, in 1976, he joined the Islamist National Salvation Party. Politics in Istanbul taught him to hone a middle way between his conservative Islamist roots and the cosmopolitan secularism of middle-class urbanites, a balance that carried him to the city’s mayoralty in 1994 as a pragmatist and bridge builder.  

His authoritarian streak was evident even then, however. In 1996, Mayor Erdoğan told an interviewer: “Democracy is like a tram. When you reach your station you get off.” The following year he strayed too far from the strictures of the secular Turkish republic by quoting the Islamist poet Ziya Gökalp: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” This saw him stripped of the mayoralty and imprisoned for four months, granting him hero status among conservative voters. The Izmit earthquake struck three weeks after his release and two years later, in 2001, he founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a moderate conservative big-tent modelled on Europe’s Christian democrats. It went on to win a resounding victory at the following year’s election. Initially blocked from becoming prime minister by his criminal conviction, Erdoğan clinched the role in 2003 thanks to a constitutional amendment.  

His time in power since then can be loosely divided into three phases. The first, from 2003 to about 2009, saw him emerge initially as a moderate reformer steering Turkey towards the European Union and then turn sharply away from that trajectory.   

[See also: Europe lost Turkey once, it cannot afford to make the same mistake again]

Turkey had been recognised as a candidate for full EU membership at the 1999 European Council summit in Helsinki, and initially Erdoğan cleaved to that course with a series of liberalising reforms. The death penalty was abolished; new safeguards for free speech were introduced; the military’s influence over the judicial and education systems was curbed; and restrictions on teaching and broadcasting in Kurdish were lifted. Formal negotiations began in 2005 but immediately ran up against new obstacles. The failure of the EU Constitution at referendums in France and the Netherlands, followed by the ascent of Angela Merkel in Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy in France (both sceptics of Turkish membership), and then the economic crisis plunged prospects of new enlargement ever further into the deep freeze. That reduced the EU’s leverage over Erdoğan. At home, meanwhile, he perceived new threats to his rule, with secularists marching against his more conservative policies and swirling rumours of military plots. The early reformism was dead by the end of the 2000s.  

So began the second phase of the Erdoğan era, which might be said to have run from about 2009 to 2016. This was marked by two mutually reinforcing shifts: a creeping authoritarianism at home and a more muscular Turkish role in the country’s increasingly turbulent neighbourhood.

Domestically, a rapid recovery from the global economic slump was driven by the debt-driven construction sector – with skyscrapers, apartment blocks, new motorways and railway lines, and a new Istanbul airport all rising as the prime minister’s relations with the judiciary, media and other independent centres of power declined. With Georgia and later Ukraine under Russian attack to the north, and Islamic State on the march in Iraq and Syria to the east and south, Turkey became a newly essential (if unpredictable) geopolitical partner to the West. The West, in turn, became more willing to ignore Erdoğan’s power grabs as he ascended to the now-elected presidency in 2014 and cracked down on rival forces in Turkish public life. In the parliamentary election of June 2015, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a new left-wing force popular among Kurdish voters, surged into third place and deprived the AKP of its majority; a shock to Erdoğanism that subsequently saw the Turkish-Kurdish peace process collapse, a renewed crackdown on dissenting voices, and fresh elections in November 2015 restoring the AKP’s majority.  

The country was, then, already sliding towards autocracy when, in summer 2016, an event struck that greatly accelerated that process and marked the beginning of the third and, pending the upcoming election results, potentially final phase of Erdoğanism. On 15 July that year, a faction within the military launched an unsuccessful coup attempt, citing the erosion of democracy, secularism and international credibility under Erdoğan.  

Its failure was met with a merciless and sweeping response. A state of emergency was declared and over 40,000 people were arrested, including journalists and opposition politicians (especially Kurdish ones like the leaders of the HDP). The military and other branches of the state like the education system were purged of anyone remotely suspected of harbouring anti-AKP sympathies. In April 2017 a constitutional referendum approved the abolition of the republic’s parliamentary system and its replacement by an all-powerful presidency in 2018. That year also saw the AKP seal an alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), confirming its transformation from a big-tent force of the centre-right into a hard-line Islamist-nationalist one. That scared away some of Erdogan’s more moderate allies and supporters. In 2019, two of his formerly loyal AKP lieutenants, Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ali Babican, both quit the party and subsequently formed their own new parties. Meanwhile, municipal elections saw the opposition, led by the centre-left, pro-European and secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), surge to victory in municipal elections, unseating AKP mayors in major cities including Istanbul and Ankara.  

The limits on his power stripped back and yes-men appointed to many once-independent institutions, Erdoğan has intensified both his foreign-policy adventurism and his domestic authoritarianism since his centralising constitutional overhaul. Turkey has pivoted away from the West towards the Middle East – and what some have called a “neo-Ottoman” expeditionary role, ranging from Africa to the Caucasus, and from south-eastern Europe to central Asia – with the president forming close bonds with fellow strongmen such as Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. At home he has imposed his unorthodox views on the Turkish economy (including the theory that inflation can be cured with low interest rates), causing soaring inflation. Dissent has been ever more restricted, with opposition politicians and journalists languishing in jail and Reporters Without Borders now placing the country 165th out of 180 states on its ranking of press freedom. “When people have absolute power they think they can do anything,” remarks one former ally.

To visit the country today is to travel through a palimpsest of Erdoğanism’s two decades. New high-rises, mosques and highways have sprouted up haphazardly across its cityscapes. In Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia has been converted from a museum back into a mosque. The new Turkey is a highly securitised one, in urban areas at least: airport-style metal detectors, CCTV cameras and armed guards protect the entrances of shopping malls, hotels and train stations. Military recruitment centres screen Hollywood-esque videos proclaiming the glamour of life in the country’s armed forces. The president himself is an unavoidable presence: his 1,100 room palace (which was inaugurated in 2014, and is over 30 times the size of the White House) looming over the treetops in Ankara’s western Gazi district; his face beaming out from government advertising hoardings and from television screens on public transport – looped video showing him cutting the ribbons on new bridges, tunnels and metro lines.  

Away from the propaganda cameras are the abandoned and half-finished building sites rendered suddenly unviable by Turkey’s economic crisis and, most powerfully of all, the apocalyptic scenes in earthquake-scarred southern cities where sporadically remaining buildings stand out, like broken teeth, surrounded by freshly bulldozed ground. Over 2m survivors are now living in tents, many of them without adequate sanitation. 

[See also: The anger and hope the earthquake left behind]

Monday 10 April was a revealing day on the election campaign trail. Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, the unassuming 74-year-old former civil servant who has led the centre-left CHP since 2010, sat at the table of his modest kitchen and held up an onion. In a video entitled simply “Onion” the opposition’s presidential candidate addressed the electorate plainly: “Now, one kilogram of onions is 30 lira (£1.22); if [Erdoğan] stays it will be 100 lira.” It was quite literally kitchen-table politics: a bid to pin the soaring cost of living on Erdoğan and his unrestrained exercise of power. That same day, the president was at a naval dockyard on the Sea of Marmara to unveil a new amphibious-assault ship, the TCG Anadolu, the largest vessel in the Turkish navy and – Erdoğan boasted – one capable of deploying not just helicopters to war zones but also drones. It was a typically bombastic display from a leader synonymous with national boosterism.

The contrast speaks not just of the gulf in personal styles between the two politicians, but also of the evolving fundamentals of Turkish politics. Over coffee in Istanbul, the political scientist Evren Balta of Özyeğin University explained to me the structural shifts underway. “Under Erdoğan the traditional left-right divide in politics disappeared and was replaced by the secular-conservative divide and a new contest between competing nationalisms, some more exclusive and others more pluralistic.” The president, she went on to observe, succeeded by riding the economic boom (with the rising tide reducing the political centrality of distributional conflicts) and building a conservative, nationalist bloc united on cultural issues that divided the opposition. This formula gave Erdoğan political hegemony, which he used to amass power.  

In Balta’s telling, the story of the past five years is that of the breakdown of this formula. The over-centralisation of power wrecked the economic boom (unsustainable in any case) and propelled kitchen-table issues back up the agenda. The earthquake, too, has contributed to a new focus on managerial competence. Meanwhile the shift to an all-powerful presidency forced the opposition to bridge its own divides on cultural topics. Kiliçdaroğlu is running as the candidate of a six-party Nation Alliance built around his centre-left CHP but also including Islamists (the pious Felicity Party), nationalists (the Good Party) and the two AKP splinter parties founded by the erstwhile Erdoğan allies Davutoğlu and Babican. Under Kiliçdaroğlu’s low-key leadership, says Balta, “the CHP has found a language of respect for religious conservatives”. A member of the minority Alevi community, a heterodox branch of Islam, Kiliçdaroğlu has managed to reach out to Kurdish voters without alienating the more nationalist elements of his own coalition. So, while he may not be able to compete with Erdoğan on bombast, he makes an inoffensive figurehead for a broad, anti-Erdoğan alliance.  

There have been wobbles. In March, the Good Party briefly abandoned the alliance in protest at Kiliçdaroğlu’s emergence as its presidential candidate, demanding that one of the more charismatic CHP politicians elected to the mayoralties of Ankara and Istanbul (Mansur Yavaş and the comparatively youthful Ekrem İmamoğlu) take on Erdoğan instead. Under a deal brokered to resolve the crisis, Kiliçdaroğlu agreed to give both men leading roles in the campaign and make both vice presidents in his government.

The election campaign has played out as a contest between his Nation Alliance’s bid to keep the focus on household finances – and the related topic of restoring parliamentary rule and checks on power – and Erdoğan’s attempts to resurrect the divides over religion and national identity that served his AKP so well in the past. As polling day neared, with polls putting Kiliçdaroğlu ahead of Erdoğan – on 48-49 per cent to the president’s 44-45 per cent – the latter’s efforts have become increasingly extreme. Erdoğan and his allies have attempted to stir up pious voters by branding the opposition leader and his supporters as drunkards and perverts. He has sought to rally nationalists with militarist displays like the unveiling of the TCG Anadolu and, in a less orthodox move, screening a deep-fake video falsely showing the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (classified by Turkey and the West as a terrorist organisation) endorsing Kiliçdaroğlu’s CHP. Tensions have mounted: at one rally on 7 May İmamoğlu was pelted with stones and several of his supporters were reportedly injured. Still, Kiliçdaroğlu also received a late boost when on 11 May Muharrem İnce, a minor candidate who had broken from the CHP and threatened to split the opposition vote, withdrew from the race. 

Then there is the question of what Erdoğan and his supporters might do on election day and beyond. Some in the opposition are concerned about possible electoral fraud in rural areas, especially in those hit by the earthquake, where the large numbers of dead and displaced create opportunities for meddling. But a bigger concern is how Erdoğan might attempt to overturn any narrow win by the opposition by pushing for a rerun or simply refusing to accept it, as Donald Trump and his supporters sought to do after America’s presidential election in 2020. One senior opposition figure warned of a particular danger if, as many polls indicate, Kiliçdaroğlu comes out ahead in the first round on 14 May but short of 50 per cent. That would put Turkey on the path to a run-off two weeks later, on 28 May – two weeks during which, the source fretted, “Erdoğan would be dangerously unpredictable”. So the margin of any Kiliçdaroğlu lead matters a great deal. So too does the result of the parliamentary elections, and whether the opposition secures not just a simple majority of 301 of the 600 seats but the 360 needed to call a referendum on constitutional change.

Whatever the outcome of this contest between the politics of the onion and the politics of the warship, it will be momentous. “We shouldn’t underestimate Erdoğan’s chances,” warns Özsoy (himself an outgoing MP for the left-wing HDP). “People became so much used to him that there is a fear of change and turbulence if he goes.” The long-term meaning of the election cannot be overstated, he adds: “It will decide whether Erdoğan has another five years to consolidate power and turn Turkey into a full dictatorship.”

Others in the opposition share that fear, but suspect the president would not last that long. “If he wins there will be another election within two years,” predicts another opponent of the president, “as he will not be able to resist meddling more in the economy.” In the darkest of these Erdoğan victory scenarios, Turkey passes from what political scientists call “competitive authoritarianism” (with elections that are not fair but still somewhat free) to Russian-style totalitarianism.

Even if the opposition defeats him, it will not be straightforward from there. The Turkish economy is in an appalling mess and it is widely assumed that the true headline figures are much worse than the official ones. As the March wobble showed, the Nation Alliance is an ungainly bloc beset by internal divisions; in a revealing glimpse of the balancing act he would have to pull off as president, Kiliçdaroğlu has committed to appoint no fewer than seven vice presidents (the leaders of the other five parties in the alliance plus the two mayors, Yavaş and İmamoğlu). Just as Bolsonarismo in Brazil lives on after the defeat of former president Jair Bolsonaro, so too Erdoğanism would likely experience some sort of afterlife in Turkey, seeking to undermine the new government and regroup its forces. It says something of expectations that some in the opposition sigh that, at least if they win, things will at least not get any worse.  

Yet there are also reasons to believe they are being too pessimistic. The Nation Alliance has already found compromise on many of its differences in the process of negotiating its programme for government, which is both detailed (200 pages long) and ambitious. “This is not a return to the status quo but the foundation of a new century for Turkey,” Ünal Çeviköz, Kiliçdaroğlu’s chief foreign policy adviser, told me at the CHP headquarters in Ankara. He highlighted the central pillars of the manifesto: the restoration of the parliamentary system and independent institutions; a return to expert economic management and an emergency package of cost-of-living support; and a reset in relations with the West. These points, he stressed, are all related: “We will take some big steps in the first 100 days to convince the international community that we are re-democratising Turkey and know how to deal with the economic crisis. The two are very much linked: by restoring institutional order we will win back the confidence of international investors, helping the economy.”

There would be elements of continuity – including some that would make the West rightly uncomfortable. A Kiliçdaroğlu victory would not see Turkey line up against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. It would remain cagey on relations with Greece and Cyprus. It would likely proceed with the thaw in relations with Bashar al-Assad in Syria (not out of ideological affinity, but in order to return more of the four million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey). The better news, however, is that these would be accompanied by a new spirit of partnership with the EU and Nato allies – dropping the Turkish veto on Swedish membership of the alliance, for example – and a break from the opaque style of diplomacy practised by Erdoğan to something more open and predictable. “Our goal is to re-institutionalise foreign policy and depersonalise it,” said Çeviköz.  

This would involve a relative tilt away from Russia, believes Balta: “There are lots of vested interests and Turkey needs the energy,” she conceded, “but the opposition would change the terms of the relationship.” For example, it might reconsider Turkey’s investments in Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles – a major point of discord with the US.

The talk of “a new century for Turkey” is not as overblown as it might sound to foreign ears. The Turkish republic turns 100 this October, the sense of occasion already palpable amid the school groups and military ceremonials at Anıtkabir, Atatürk’s column-lined neoclassical mausoleum atop Rasattepe hill in central Ankara. Erdoğan has governed for longer, and left a deeper mark, than any leader since the republic’s founder. What comes after him, if it has any meaningful durability, will almost by definition mark a turning point in the country’s history. In the most optimistic scenario, Kiliçdaroğlu might play the role that Joe Biden’s keenest fans ascribe to him in America: as a grandfatherly healer of wounds fixing the damage of an authoritarian predecessor and readying the country for the leadership of a new, younger generation. But a lot of uncertain things must happen for that to prove even remotely close to reality.

This election is not only crucial for Turkey. Erdoğan has assumed global importance as the pioneer, and in many ways the quintessential manifestation, of an age of populist authoritarianism. Now he could prove quintessential again, as that wider story takes a new twist – a chapter, perhaps already ongoing, in which authoritarianism itself experiences an international crisis. Trump and Bolsonaro have both been voted out. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has become a humiliating quagmire. At times last year, even Xi Jinping’s grip on China seemed in doubt as his zero-Covid strategy fell apart. Erdoğan’s defeat and its causes would sit alongside those examples as an illustration of the limits of over-centralised and over-personalised power – of how strongmen, too, can make weak leaders.  

If Turkey’s president is re-elected, it may well mean the end of Turkey’s democracy, with all the symbolism and historical force that will carry: a large and once secular Muslim state bridging Europe and Asia, West and East, laden with hopes that, by that point, will seem all but lost. And if he loses, and the opposition manages to turn the country back, that will be at least as significant, and quite possibly even more so: a turning of the authoritarian tide – or at least a move in that direction, complicating and challenging the narrative of a relentless march of the strongmen.

Either way, the result of the election will resonate around the world.

A portion of the travel costs associated with Jeremy Cliffe’s trip was paid by the Centre for Turkey Studies think tank. The New Statesman retained complete editorial independence throughout.

[See also: After the earthquake, the rage in Turkey is greater than the pain]

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This article appears in the 17 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List