May 22, 2023

Turkish Elections

Turkey headed for a runoff vote after President Tayyip Erdogan led over his opposition rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu in [last] Sunday's election but fell short of an outright majority to extend his 20-year rule of the NATO-member country. Neither Erdogan nor Kilicdaroglu cleared the 50% threshold needed to avoid a second round, to be held on May 28, in an election seen as a verdict on Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian path…

“Turkey's longest-serving leader has turned the NATO member and Europe's second-largest country into a global player, modernised it through megaprojects such as new bridges and airports and built an arms industry sought by foreign states. But his volatile economic policy of low interest rates, which set off a spiralling cost of living crisis and inflation, left him prey to voters' anger. His government's slow response to a devastating earthquake in southeast Turkey that killed 50,000 people earlier this year added to voters' dismay.” Reuters

All sides are critical of Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies:

“Erdogan was up against Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition candidate, a colorless bureaucrat without much charisma or eloquence. But the opposition had little alternative. The president had already eliminated from the field perhaps his most powerful potential rival, Ekrem Imamoglu, a charismatic politician from the same party as Kilicdaroglu, who was on a winning streak. In 2019, Imamoglu handily won the election for Istanbul mayor, a pivotal position that was Erdogan’s own path to power…

“But on the flimsiest grounds, Erdogan’s party claimed fraud, and the electoral council ordered a fresh round of voting. Imamoglu won the second election by a larger margin. So Imamoglu was then charged with insulting public officials over the incident and was tried by a judiciary which has been widely described as packed with ruling party loyalists. Sure enough, last December, a court barred Imamoglu from politics and sentenced him to prison for almost three years… Are such elections free? Technically, yes — but they are also profoundly unfair.”
Fareed Zakaria, Washington Post

“Polls last year showed Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu was a strong contender against Mr. Erdoğan, but in December a court convicted him on a trumped-up speech offense—a ruling that disqualified him from the race. The opposition needed support from Turkey’s Kurds, who account for nearly a fifth of the population. In the months preceding the election, Mr. Erdoğan’s government targeted the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party with arrests and legal proceedings that impaired its ability to organize…

“Last year a record-breaking 16,753 people faced criminal charges for ‘insulting the President’ or ‘insulting the government,’ according to Justice Ministry data analyzed by the newspaper BirGün. In October the ruling coalition passed a law outlawing the spread of ‘disinformation,’ with a maximum penalty of 4½ years in prison. Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu had to rely on YouTube and social media to get his message out. All of this and more make Mr. Erdoğan the favorite to squeeze out a victory in the runoff. But that result will leave half the country frustrated by the rule of a strongman who refuses to give up power.”
Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal

“[Erdogan’s] control over the media and the extensive exposure he receives, surpassing that of all his competitors, play a significant role. Employing all the resources available to the party-state, Erdoğan ran a defensive campaign with an impressive budget that would make populist leaders in other countries envious. The AKP’s networks of financial patronage likely shielded Erdoğan’s voters from the impact of the serious economic crisis…

“Beyond these factors that are unique to populist regimes, Erdoğan continues to appeal to a social aspiration deeply ingrained in Turkish society. He represents an authoritarian figure capable of allaying fears concerning the dissolution of national and religious identity in the face of demands for recognition and equality from the Kurdish population; from Alevis, followers of a heterodox variant of Islam drawing mostly on Shi’a traditions; and from women, as well as a certain anxiety about the West. Erdoğan’s success is owed in part to his ability to alloy these fears to a broader nostalgia for the country’s lost greatness.”
Ahmet İnsel, Jacobin

“Erdogan’s victory in the first round echoes that of Hungary’s Viktor Orban last year. Like Orban, Erdogan faced a coalition of critics ranging from socialists to ultra-nationalists. Like Orban, he was roundly denounced overseas as a dictator. Like Orban, he benefited from having an underwhelming opposition that was mainly popular with foreigners…

“Erdogan won — not by corruption but by appealing to a blend of religion and nationalism, portraying himself as the defender of Turkish values against a mesalliance of secularists, socialists, national and religious minorities, and hostile foreign powers… The harsh truth is that there is a market in politics for father-of-the-nation types, authoritarian strongmen who see criticism of themselves as unpatriotic and who appeal more to people’s sense of communal belonging than to their material comfort and welfare.”
Dan Hannan, Washington Examiner

Libertarians ask, “How does Erdogan keep winning, especially at a time many thought his support would collapse in the face of rampant inflation and an inept response to the recent earthquake? The answer is not that he ‘steals’ the vote. Turkey, despite its dramatic decline in free speech and rule of law, has a transparent electoral system, in which Erdogan really wins the ballots…

“The real answer is that Erdogan has formed an unbreakable bond with Turkey’s largest sociopolitical bloc: religious conservatives. He also enchants them with a grand narrative: despite nefarious enemies and heinous conspiracies, he is making Turkey great and Muslim again…

Liberalism needs a new defense, a new grand narrative, to compete with the captivating narratives of the zealous populists. We need to show, once again, that liberalism is the best system for not just affordable onions, but also for human dignity. Authoritarians promise that dignity to their followers, while trampling underfoot the dignity of others.”
Mustafa Akyol, Washington Post

Other opinions below.

See past issues

From the Left

“The earthquakes had the opposite effect of what we expected. Erdoğan went to the cities and promised to rebuild people’s houses. He said that the calamity was part of fate’s plan. He maybe said a few words of apology, but in an undertone. And then he said, essentially, ‘Life goes on. You survived. Sorry for your losses. Now we will build new houses for you in one year. We’ll give you credit. Of course, you’ll have to pay it back because there are no free lunches.’…

“Then Kılıçdaroğlu, the opposition candidate, went to the same cities, and said, ‘This is unacceptable. The government was responsible for this. There were no checks on the regulations for two decades. You have to fight for your rights, and we will build those houses for you for free. You won’t pay because this will be our responsibility.’…“The reaction was that someone promising to give you something for free is lying. They are romantics. They’re not to be trusted. In this capitalist world of ours, nothing is free. So we will trust the man who wants to build the houses for us with our money.”

Kaya Genç, New Yorker

From the Right

“Prior to the polls, Erdogan was already setting the stage to steal the elections. Specifically, Erdogan handed out Turkish passports—and thereby the right to vote—to up to three million Syrians. Those who received such patronage were not representative of Syrian society at large—no Kurds, Yezidis, or Alawites, for example, nor those more inclined to laicism. Rather, the sole beneficiaries of Erdogan’s passport largesse have been Sunni Syrian Islamists whose views of religious and politics mirror Erdogan’s own…

“Official election results show Erdogan won 27,133,837 votes in the first round, while Kilicdaroglu received only 24,594,932 votes, a difference of 2,538,905, less than the number of new Syrian voters. While public opinion surveys prior to the elections showed Kilicdaroglu winning by two percentage points, those polls appear to have only considered original Turkish citizens, not those who received citizenship in the year or two before elections, let alone those who got their Turkish citizenship just in time to register to vote.”

Michael Rubin, American Enterprise Institute

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