To the dismay of secular and Westernized segments of Turkish society, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has once again proved his popularity. With 49.5% of the votes, he came very close to winning this month’s presidential election in the first round. The next round is scheduled for May 28, and Erdogan is now the clear favorite. It was not expected to be that way.
After 20 years in power, most polls showed him behind, and his aura of invincibility seemed to be finally coming to a close.
With real inflation at triple digits, 50,000 people killed in an earthquake that exposed inept governance, and the political opposition firmly united, economic and political conditions seemed ripe for change.
Many pundits expected Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who ran a clean campaign focused on bread-and-butter issues without engaging in identity politics, to win with a comfortable margin. But the euphoria in the opposition has been replaced by gloom and doom.
To be sure, all is not over. Kilicdaroglu received a career-high 44.9% in the first round. He still has a shot at registering an upset, but the odds are against him.
Erdogan’s religious nationalist alliance has already secured a ruling majority in parliament. Kilicdaroglu has a losing streak against Erdogan. The disappointment of the demoralized opposition is therefore acute.
So what explains Erdogan’s enduring popularity? The short answer is his ability to polarize the country. He knew that his only chance of winning was to play the nationalism card. He did so by running a negative campaign that took scaremongering to new levels.
Kurdish party backs Kilicdaroglu
His job was made easier when a Kurdish party decided to support Kilicdaroglu instead of fielding its own candidate. The Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) is a legitimate political party that rejects violence. Yet in the eyes of Turkish nationalists it is suspected of nurturing close ties with terrorism.
Erdogan’s disinformation campaign constantly showed Kurdish militants championing Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy on big screens during his political rallies in the Anatolian heartland. In addition to such polarizing nationalism, Erdogan played the religion card masterfully. He consistently portrayed the secular opposition as pro-LGBT and against traditional family values.
Elections are not free and fair in Turkey. Having established a repressive regime and a strong hegemony over the media, Erdogan had clear advantages over his opponent. He did not have to steal the vote. He simply relied on his propaganda machine and his rock-solid bond with the conservative masses.
Kilicdaroglu also probably made a mistake by relying too much on the economic downturn in formulating his campaign message. Yes, the Turkish economy is in bad shape, with rampant inflation. But there were two problems with the assumption that the decline in purchasing power would trump national-security threats and identity politics.
First, the opposition failed to understand that the manufactured national-security threat – with warnings of Kurdish separatism just around the corner – resonated with Erdogan’s nationalist religious base.
The Kurdish issue is probably the most polarizing problem in Turkish politics. The majority of Turks are concerned about the United States supporting Kurdish separatism in Syria and in Turkey. Kilicdaroglu therefore took a calculated risk in seeking the support of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey.
This was a sign of political courage and democratic maturity in the eyes of Turkish liberals such as myself. But liberals are a microscopically small community in Turkey compared with the crushing dominance of Turkish nationalism.
The second problem with emphasizing the economy over all other issues was the absence of a great-depression-scale economic crisis. Rampant inflation is something Turks can endure as long as there is no massive unemployment and a major financial crisis. The Turkish economy is not in recession.
Erdogan’s much-ridiculed economic model is based on economic growth at all cost. He was determined to avoid high interest rates because a recession caused by high rates would have probably ended his chances of re-election. Instead Erdogan went for a high-inflation and high-growth model where he can still engage in economic populism by raising wages, lowering the retirement age and distributing financial credit to cronies.
Should Erdogan win, the next five years will see even more political repression and populist nationalism in the country. Relations with the West are unlikely to improve unless the economy hits the wall and Erdogan needs to resort to an IMF rescue package.
Despite all the challenges ahead, the opposition should not give up the fight. Erdogan is not likely to run for another term. He is tired and reportedly in poor health. Turkish democracy will continue to have a pulse as long as elections continue to determine winners and losers.
Erdogan is once again proving very good at winning elections even when the odds are against him. The repressive political system, his populist nationalism, and the conservative masses work in his favor even when the economy suffers from his mismanagement.
This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.
Omer Taspinar is a professor at the National Defense University in Washington and Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Follow him on Twitter @otaspinar.