In May, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan secured victory in the second round of Turkey’s presidential election by obtaining approximately 52% of the total votes. In fact, Erdoğan had become the favorite candidate after release of the first-round election results, going against many earlier predictions that opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu would win—a prediction that some cautious observers warned was over-optimistic. Although recent Turkish presidential elections have been unfair towards the opposition, many polls suggesting that Erdogan faced defeat still had him receiving more than 40% support. As such, it is worth examining the reasons behind this.
Why some estimated that Erdoğan would lose?
The prediction of Erdoğan’s defeat was based on both idealistic hope and prima facie evidence. The West–Turkey relationship has been deteriorating rapidly in recent years, despite Turkey remaining a member of NATO. In 2016, the failed 2016 Turkish coup d’état antagonized Erdoğan and made him more determined than ever to concentrate power in his hands. Since then, thousands of dissident journalists, scholars, lawyers, politicians, and activists have been arrested and imprisoned. In late 2021, Erdoğan ordered the expulsion of ambassadors from 10 Western countries because of their calls for the release of Osman Kavala, a well-known Turkish activist who was accused of being affiliated with the “Gülenist Terror Group.” Although Erdoğan later reversed this order, he did not accede to their demand to release Kavala. Worse, an Istanbul court sentenced him to life in prison in April 2022. Given Erdoğan’s notorious track record, it is no secret that most adherents to liberal democracy want him to step down. The Economist even claimed that an Erdoğan defeat would be good news for supporters of democracy around the world because it would symbolize a pause in the trend of democratic backsliding.
The economic and Turkish lira devaluation crisis, exacerbated by the Erdoğan government’s mismanagement of the February 6 earthquakes, convinced even more people that he was facing an unprecedented political crisis. Pre-election analysis by the Economist Intelligence Unit suggested that Erdoğan might win the presidential election by a slim majority or that he would not accept defeat if he lost. Regardless, he was given a higher chance of failing to secure the majority in parliament. Unfortunately, all the predictions were wrong, with the pro-Erdoğan camp already having a majority in the parliamentary election. Despite failing to win directly in the first-round of the election, Erdoğan was clear favorite in the second round, given that he garnered 49.5% of the total votes, which was significantly higher than Kılıçdaroğlu’s total. At the same time, Muharrem İnce, a candidate with the potential to split Kılıçdaroğlu’s votes, received a mere 0.5% of the total number of votes. Simply put, the result would be the same even if his votes were all given to Kılıçdaroğlu. Worse still, Sinan Ogan, a conservative nationalist whose political stance is closer to Erdoğan than Kılıçdaroğlu, received roughly 5.2% of the votes. If half of his supporters voted for Erdoğan, Erdoğan’s chance of winning would be clear. In fact, Ogan met with Erdoğan on May 19, then declared his support for Erdoğan five days later.
Consequently, the second round of the Turkish presidential election did not throw up any welcome surprises for the opposition. While the ballot showed that Erdoğan’s winning percentage was slim (slightly higher than 52%), it was enough for him to defeat Kılıçdaroğlu and retain the presidency.
It is worth mentioning that, although many polls estimated that Kılıçdaroğlu would have a higher chance of winning the presidential election, some questioned the reliability of said polls. On May 4, Simon A. Waldman, a visiting lecturer at King’s College London,published an article in Haaretz entitled “Turkey’s Opposition Can Topple Erdogan. But There’s One Problem,” arguing that most of the polls had not counted undecided voters or those who had refused to disclose their voting preference. By citing the poll results of Al-Monitor and MetroPoll, Waldman suggested that there were more than 9% of eligible voters who could have an impact on the outcome of the election. Moreover, evidence suggests that the polls, especially the Internet-based ones, overwhelmingly focused on young and urban voters who tend to have a higher education and spend more time on the Internet. The proportionality of rural and elderly respondents was relatively low, which resulted in sampling bias. Taking all of this into consideration, it was likely that there were fewer people in support of Kılıçdaroğlu than the polls suggested.
Other experts on Turkish politics such as Soner Capatay, a Beyer Family fellow and the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, and Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a visiting fellow at Brookings and an associate senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, also warned against over-confidence in replacing Erdoğan through political elections. The numerous reasons for this are discussed below.
Erdoğan’s amendment of the electoral law to his advantage
First, prior to the election, Erdoğan amended the Turkish election rules in his favor. For example, parliamentary seats are no longer determined by the aggregate votes of the various political alliances because Erdoğan was worried that the opposition bloc might be able to form an alliance stronger than his. As a result, the Erdoğan-led Justice and Development Party (AKP), the largest political party in Turkey, has a clear advantage in terms of him always being able to secure a majority in parliament. More importantly, the judges on the Supreme Election Council (YSK) who rule on election disputes are selected by a lottery. This arrangement is clear evidence of Erdoğan’s purge of the judiciary after the 2016 coup attempt, which aimed at substituting pro-Erdoğan judges for experienced judges not loyal to Erdoğan. In 2020, Reuters reported that some 45% of Turkey’s judges had only three or fewer years of experience. Additionally, the new chair of the YSK, who was appointed in January this year, has family ties to one of Erdoğan’s allies.
In fact, the new YSK has tilted in favor of Erdoğan. For instance, on March 24, it allowed him to run for a third term, despite the Turkish Constitution limiting the duration of a presidency into two terms. Indeed, a former head of the YSK, Tufan Algan, questioned Erdoğan’s eligibility. Likewise, the YSK approved 15 government ministers to simultaneously perform their ministerial duties and run in the parliamentary election as AKP candidates, thereby ignoring the principle of preventing conflicts of interest and acquiescing to their use of governmental resources in election campaigns.
Moreover, the Turkish court disqualified some of the key opposition figures from running in the presidential election. Last December, Ekrem İmamoğlu, the Istanbul Mayor, was found guilty of insulting YSK public officials in 2019, thus depriving him of political rights in a Turkish court. Although İmamoğlu had the right of appeal, he announced that he would not fight for the presidency. It is worth noting that he was a favorite choice in the opposition bloc, and his decision not to run left them with little choice but to hurriedly look for a substitute candidate. While they eventually chose Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), there are several disadvantages.
Kılıçdaroğlu and the opposition bloc’s weaknesses
Although humble, Kılıçdaroğlu, nicknamed the “Turkish Gandhi,” is neither charismatic nor eloquent, which is why his political speeches are often unimpressive. Kılıçdaroğlu and Erdoğan are also politicians from the same generation, but because Erdoğan has been in power for so long, there is a feeling that Kılıçdaroğlu has been a political loser for just as long. The attempt to oust Erdoğan during his leadership undermined the confidence of some of the members of the Political Alliance. Meral Aksener, the leader of the Good Party, left the Political Alliance because she stated that the candidate representing the opposition bloc should be either the Mayor of Istanbul or Ankara, both of whom were more popular. Although Aksener grudgingly agreed to later re-join the Alliance, there was strong evidence exposing the fragility of the opposition bloc. The most salient example being that the majority of the opposition political parties and politicians, despite calling for unity, did not display Kılıçdaroğlu’s posters or banners in their offices and on their social media accounts until two weeks before the May 14 election, implying that they were hesitant in their support for him.
For the opposition bloc, the crux of the problem was that they had little common ground other than ousting Erdoğan, which was why their efforts for political coordination were often arduous and ineffective. The opposition bloc spent more than a year coming to a consensus about their joint candidate, despite İmamoğlu’s unavailability admittedly complicating the situation. In order to pacify the different factions of the Political Alliance, Kılıçdaroğlu proposed establishing seven vice-president positions if he won the election. This was one of the conditions for Aksener to return to the Political Alliance. Yet, the various political ideologies and stances on numerous social issues of the proposed vice-presidents diverged significantly. Pro-Erdoğan commentators were highly skeptical of the Political Alliance’s capacity to govern. They also drew parallels between the Political Alliance and an unpopular coalition government in the 1990s. By doing so, they were trying to arouse the unpleasant memories of the middle-aged and elderly voters.
At the same time, some believed that the difference between Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu would be negligible because Turkey’s political leadership would still be held by old men. With that in mind, many felt that it would be difficult to persuade the large number of young voters to vote. Ironically, Kılıçdaroğlu made some obvious mistakes during his election campaign. For instance, his own press advisers released a photo showing him stepping on a prayer rug without taking off his shoes, which is a taboo in Islam. Although Kılıçdaroğlu swiftly apologized for the mistake, the pro-Erdoğan’s bloc quickly vilified him for belittling Turkish Muslims.
It is certainly true that Turkey’s economy has been deteriorating for several years due to Erdoğan’s mismanagement. Yet, he has still managed to consolidate his loyal fan base, with many polls indicating that his approval rate is more than 40%. In the first 10 years of his leadership, Turkey’s economy improved and many people were better off. However, his quantitative easing and low interest rate policy has led to rampant inflation and the depreciation of the Turkish lira, which has resulted in economic hardship for most of Turkey’s population. As such, since 2013, he has shifted and begun playing populist and identity politics. While this approach is logically flawed, it has nevertheless secured the support of many conservative Muslims and nationalists. Sinan Ciddi, an associate professor of national security studies at Marine Corps University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Steven A. Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, published a piece in Foreign Policy emphasizing that many voters do not base their decision solely on economic factors. Instead, they chose based on which candidate will improve their lives. Despite it being true that many conservative Muslims fell victim to Erdoğan’s economic policies, they still feel more secure under his populist approach. It is also worth noting that some female Turkish Muslims were worried that they would lose their right to wear the hijab if Erdoğan lost the election. In short, Erdoğan’s populism has integrated conservative Islamism and secular nationalism. After all, it is not enough for Erdoğan to only have the support of the Islamists.
Media censorship in favor of Erdoğan
Soner Capatay indicated that roughly 80% of the Turkish population can only read Turkish, meaning that Western media does not influence them directly. Worse, Erdoğan controls Turkey’s media through those close to him. Criticism of his post-earthquake mismanagement and his disastrous economic policies are severely restricted. The mainstream media shifts focus by emphasizing his industrial and military achievements. The message that Erdoğan wants to convey is that he is the only hope of restoring Turkey’s prestige on the international stage. Erdoğan has both expanded his propaganda machine to encompass social media and tightened his grip on traditional media, such as forcing every media agency that intends to operate within the country to establish an office in Turkey. This mandatory requirement makes them subject to Turkish media law and any disobedience could lead to exorbitant fines and even prison sentences.
Under Erdoğan’s strict media control, Kılıçdaroğlu could only release videos from his kitchen table, and these videos did not reach the majority of Turkey’s rural population. The pro-Erdoğan media intensively accused him of having close ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Gülen movement, and for making seditious and defamatory speeches against Erdoğan. He was nevertheless still allowed to run in the presidential election to “prove” that Turkey has high degree of freedom of speech.
Admittedly, it is problematic to assume that Turkish voters would blindly accept the political messages coming out of the pro-Erdoğan camp. Some conservatives might well have been dissatisfied with Erdoğan’s performance to some extent. However, it is worth mentioning that many voters have become accustomed to Erdoğan’s flawed governance. On May 11, Cihan Tugal, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, published a commentary in the New York Times highlighting that the AKP had stretched its network to almost every corner of Turkey “through five decades of work,” ranging from “acting as mediators in neighborhood conflicts” to distributing various social benefits. It is thus psychologically difficult for many Turkish to move on from Erdoğan. At the same time, Capatay also mentioned that Erdoğan has used state resources to his advantage for a long time. One salient example being that he announced significantly increasing the salaries of civil servants in the run-up to the presidential election—a move perceived as an act of “vote buying” at the expense of government revenue.
The opposition bloc and its followers were worried that Turkey would be more inclined to authoritarianism if Erdoğan were re-elected. They argued that there is hope for rectifying the country’s political and economic mistakes, such as releasing political prisoners, removing the restrictions on press freedoms, and restoring the independence of Turkey’s Central Bank, but only if Kılıçdaroğlu won. Nonetheless, Tugal did mention that the economic platform proposed by the opposition bloc had some limitations. For instance, they proposed to re-attract foreign direct investment and abandon large-scale state economic projects, but did not pay enough attention to the reality that the global economic environment would likely be unfavorable in the next few years. In other words, even if Erdoğan’s controversial economic policies were utterly abolished, Turkey would not recover quickly. The inability to put forward a convincing alternative economic plan is a main weakness of the opposition bloc. Aslı Aydıntaşbaş also mentioned that it would be naïve to believe that the opposition bloc can save Turkey’s economy because its economic problems were deeply structural and complex. After Erdoğan’s victory, a Deutsche Welle reporter, Erkan Arikan, commented that most Turkish voters preferred certainty over adventure.
Taking the above into consideration, Erdoğan’s win was not as surprising as some suggested. Before the election, cautious observers warned that quite many commentators were over-optimistic about the chance of Kılıçdaroğlu’s victory. Aydıntaşbaş believed that Erdoğan would not recognize the election result if he was only defeated by a small margin. In her words, Kılıçdaroğlu could only oust Erdoğan by achieving a landslide victory. Capatay went a step further claiming that Erdoğan would likely use state-sponsored violence if he lost the election. There is no doubt, however, that the presidential election was unfair to the opposition bloc in many aspects. Therefore, it would be excessively harsh to blame Kılıçdaroğlu solely for his failure to defeat Erdoğan. However, the opposition bloc had little choice but to face the harsh reality that they had failed to challenge a conservative politician whose performance has long been criticized. Their ineffective election campaign and disunity are part of the reason behind their failure.
Practical considerations behind the West congratulating Erdoğan’s Win
The election result is definitely bad news for Turkey’s opposition bloc and pro-democracy globally. Many pre-election analyses estimated that West–Turkey relations would become more complicated if Erdoğan won. Nevertheless, before the Turkish Supreme Election Commission officially announced the result, political leaders from many countries around the world, including the US, various European countries, and the EU, all congratulated Erdoğan on his victory. Critics and human rights organizations slammed Turkey’s election as “open but unfair,” but Western leaders seemed to turn a blind eye. Why they did this is worth examining.
It must first be emphasized that the West’s congratulations to Erdoğan was not an impulsive decision. After the first round of the election, Erdoğan had obviously become the favorite candidate for the second round. In other words, even if the West was shocked and disappointed, they had two weeks to prepare how to respond. If Western leaders chose to criticize the election process but then congratulate Erdoğan on his victory, they would be seen as simply “shooting themselves in the foot.” Therefore, they had to choose one course of action, and the response shows that the West had practical considerations.
Approximately three weeks before the first round, Aslı Aydıntaşbaş and Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, published an article recommending that the West prepare for Turkey’s election result in the following ways. First, they warned that there are a large number of nationalists among Turkish voters who are suspicious of the US and Europe; if the West tried to interfere in Turkish elections in any way, it would backfire. Second, they stated that the West should consistently emphasize the importance of fairness and justice in the election, but if it goes to a second round, the West should keep quiet and avoid giving Erdogan an excuse to discredit Kılıçdaroğlu as a foreign agent. Finally, if Erdoğan won, the West should try to find ways to normalize their relations with Turkey incrementally, such as allowing “Turkey’s bid to buy modernization kits for its F-16 fleet” in exchange for Erdoğan’s U-turn regarding the issue of Sweden’s NATO membership application.
In fact, the West’s response largely echoed Aydıntaşbaş and Shapiro’s suggestions, despite US President Biden stating that he personally preferred to see the defeat of Erdoğan. He later changed his mind and said that he would support whoever won. The West’s moves reveal that it is difficult for them to cut ties with Turkey as long as the war in Ukraine continues, although some say such decisions have undermined the human rights of Turkey’s dissidents.
It is apparent that Erdoğan is the big winner in the 2023 Turkish presidential election, but the country is paying the price for his continued leadership. First, Turkey has experienced skyrocketing inflation rate in the last few years due to Erdoğan’s low interest rate policy. He refused to reverse the policy, calling this recommendation as an “interest rate lobby,” and fired the Central Bank governors who opposed the interest cuts. Consequently, many people desperately began selling their Turkish lira for fear of further devaluation. This phenomenon became more rampant as soon as the market realized that Erdoğan would be the favorite candidate in the second round of the election. Although Erdoğan gave up on his malfunctioning monetary policy soon after winning the election by appointing former Merrill Lynch economist Mehmet Şimşek as finance minister, and Hafize Gaye Erkan, formerly of Goldman Sachs and First Republic Bank, as central bank governor, and agreed to sharply increase Turkey’s interest rate from 8.5% to 15% in June, and to further increase it to 17.5% on July 20, the Turkish lira has continued to depreciate. The reasons for this are obvious. Turkey’s inflation rate is still significantly higher than its interest rate, meaning that further devaluation of its currency is coming. Also, given the long-standing chaotic environment in Turkey, it is hard to restore investor confidence in its short-term economic prospects. Furthermore, Erdoğan’s deteriorating health has increased the uncertainty. For example, there was a rumor that he would not run in the election because of his poor health, and he even cancelled some election-related activities for health reasons. Despite winning a third term, concerns over his health have not receded. As such, it would be prudent to keep an eye on the situation in Turkey, but from a safe distance.
This article combines and restructures the contents of the author’s commentary articles that appeared in udn Global (Taiwan) on June 6 and on June 7, and in the Ming Pao Daily News on June 13 (B10). This version adds updated content and removes outdated information regarding Turkey’s political situation.