The streets of Istanbul rang with celebration as the final results rolled in Sunday night, showing a clear victory for the incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey’s highly watched presidential race. For his supporters, it was a moment of euphoric jubilation. But for just under half of the rest of the country, it was a sobering juncture point.
“There’s so much to tell,” said Orhan Mert, a 32-year-old math teacher waving a Turkish flag amid a crowd of thousands of other supporters in front of a headquarters building for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). The jubilant crowd around him sang, danced, burned flares, launched fireworks, and waved flags of the Turkish Republic, the AKP and its political allies, and even that of a Syrian rebel group backed by Turkey. Somewhere in the sea of people, packed along either side of a road lined with motorcades of more honking supporters, Mert’s wife also celebrated with friends.
A Turk born in Germany, it didn’t matter to Mert that he couldn’t vote. He had come to show support for Erdoğan, a leader who Mert believed has lifted Turkey to amazing heights. In Erdoğan’s 20-year streak at the head of Turkish politics, he has overseen an economic boom that brought millions out of poverty. He also promoted massive infrastructure projects aimed at modernizing the country, which have increased Turkey’s stature on the international stage. His conservative views and strongman persona have won him the admiration of many people who see him as the champion and defender of conservative Islamic values and Turkish nationalism. “I don’t even know the whole situation,” Mert said. “I just can see every day, so many inventions, so many new universities and knowledge. As you can see, everybody’s happy. The people are behind him.”
In the lead-up to the May 2023 elections, polls threw that support into question and suggested that an economic downturn marked by high inflation and cost of living, coupled with what some saw as an initially slow and poor response to devastating earthquakes in February 2023, had undermined Erdoğan popularity and raised the prospects of removing him and his coalition government from power. But two rounds of voting, the first on May 14 and the second on May 28, proved such speculation wrong. In the end, Erdoğan secured a third term as president with 52% of the vote, a comfortable lead over his opponent, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who garnered 47%.
The celebrations outside the AKP headquarters went late into the night on Sunday, May 28, 2023. Under a banner bedecked with Erdoğan’s face draped along the wall of the headquarters building, the crowd’s enthusiasm never seemed to waver as people chanted “Bye, Bye, Kemal” with laughter and smiles.
“There is no better leader right now in Turkey,” said Mert. “We have everything right now. I mean, if you compare with the situation 50-60 years ago, 30 years ago, many things changed. People can live freer. Women couldn’t even get their hijab on and go to university. And even this is a very beautiful achievement.”
As Erdoğan supporters rejoiced in the streets, Zehra Betul Turker cried.
Despite a lackluster performance in the first round of voting, the 21-year-old university student had still been hopeful that Kılıçdaroğlu would pull through. By around 8 or 9 pm, it was clear to her that he wouldn’t, and that the future the opposition had promised would not materialize.
Leading up to the elections, Kılıçdaroğlu and the opposition painted a vision for Turkey that was vastly different from the one Erdoğan promised. Even Kılıçdaroğlu himself was widely seen as the polar opposite of the brash Erdoğan; the former bureaucrat has a bookish, grandfather-like persona and promised to foster unity in the increasingly polarized country.
With Kılıçdaroğlu at the head, the main opposition — a coalition of six parties ranging from secularists, to conservatives and nationalists — vowed to take a different path from Erdoğan, whose rule has been marked by controversial economic policies, a crackdown on political opponents and intellectuals, and concentration of power. The opposition promised to adopt more mainstream economic policies to decrease inflation and the cost of living, release political dissidents from prison, restore independence to the judiciary and central bank, and return to Turkey’s former parliamentary system. In foreign affairs, procedures would be better institutionalized and more friendly toward the West. Human rights abuses would be addressed. Collectively, the promises formed a campaign position that led experts to label the elections as one of democracy vs. autocracy, a contest in which the very future of Turkey was at stake. The opposition raised the hopes of many Turks alarmed by the direction Erdoğan has taken the country. But in the end, his popularity and grip on state institutions proved too strong to beat.
“There is this cult of personality that he has perfected in the last 25 years,” said Sibel Oktay, an associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. His supporters “place him somewhere between man and God. He is such a charismatic leader and supported in a way that we haven’t seen any leader get in our lifetimes, if not longer.”
Merve Tahiroglu, the Turkey Program Director of the Washington-based NGO Project on Middle East Democracy, also noted Erdoğan’s ability to appeal to his supporters’ emotions. “Turkey is a highly patriarchal country,” she said “I think people like this cult of personality around a fatherly figure, a strong man, leading them because the political culture in the country is so amenable to that.”
On Tuesday, May 30, 2023, Erdoğan hailed the elections as a win for democracy in Turkey. While there were no reports of major electoral fraud or obstruction, Kılıçdaroğlu called the elections the most unfair in years. Before and after the elections, many experts noted a highly uneven playing field. Erdoğan maintains strong control over the media and the internet. His crackdown on political opponents mitigated competition while his grip on state institutions also allowed him to hand out subsidies, pay raises, and other financial blessings before the vote.
“All of these reasons place him in a race that he’s already ahead by like five goals,” said Oktay. “And so the opposition has to work three times as hard to close the gap.”
Oktay also noted campaign failures as a reason for the opposition’s defeat. One shortfall was that the opposition did not announce a candidate for the presidential race until some two months before the elections.
“That’s absurd,” said Oktay. “I think that was one of the biggest pitfalls because that also showed that the opposition was indecisive.” Pushback from one of the opposition coalition’s parties, followed by its temporary separation from the bloc, exacerbated the sense that the coalition was not fully united.
Another shortcoming noted by Oktay was the opposition’s field campaigning. While Oktay said that she believes the opposition’s message was solid, there wasn’t enough effort on the ground to reach those who were not yet pro-opposition voters. “You really have to be surgical about this,” she said. “You cannot just sort of go and try to win places that you’ve already won.”
And then there was Kılıçdaroğlu himself. The opposition’s message of unity, characterized by Kılıçdaroğlu’s grandfatherly persona, proved popular with supporters like Turker. But many experts and voters, before the elections and now again, believe that Kılıçdaroğlu, who lost against Erdoğan multiple times before, wasn’t the right candidate.
To beat Erdoğan, “you need to find a candidate who can rally the masses around him or her like no one else can,” Oktay said. “Kılıçdaroğlu — I think he ran the best campaign that he could given the context. But was he the best candidate to run against Erdoğan? He was not.”
Experts expect Turkey to drift in a more autocratic direction, with crackdowns on political opponents, dissidents, and intellectuals to increase.
Turker, however, believes the opposition’s defeat shouldn’t be placed on Kılıçdaroğlu. “It’s not fair to blame him,” she said. “We should blame our people because they chose their fate. They chose to be poor, not to buy meat.”
Tahiroglu said that the outcome of the elections indicated a clear divide in Turkey’s polarized society. “At this point we can say that division seems to be pretty crystalized in terms of the social fabric of the country,” she said. “And that’s a really scary thing.”
Nonetheless, while Erdoğan came away the victor, it was still the first time in Turkey that a presidential race went into a runoff. Despite some expectations that Kiliçdaroğlu might win in the first round, Erdoğan came within just a hair of victory. The AKP and its political allies, meanwhile, won the majority in simultaneous parliamentary elections.
Despite suffering defeat, the opposition’s performance raised hope among some supporters and experts that it could fare better in future elections if it can learn from its mistakes and reform. “As long as they can do that, I think they have a chance of replacing this corrupt regime,” said Oktay.
Turker is less hopeful, at least for the next five years of Erdoğan’s term. She believes that as long as he is in power, there’s no chance of unseating him or the AKP and its allies. “My peers, who are supposed to be the future of this country, have thoughts about leaving, including me,” she said. “It’s really sad for me and people who think like me, because I have to leave, because I don’t feel safe. But I want to stay in my country. I want to stay in a country that Ataturk gave me.”
She was referring to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a military officer who established the Turkish Republic out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. Influenced by Europe, he sought to create a new country — a secular, democratic one with a strong degree of separation between state and religion. Among Turker’s biggest concerns are the future for women and children. In 2021, Turkey withdrew from an international treaty aimed at preventing and combating violence against women.
“If you ask me, do you have hope? For five years, no, I don’t have any hope,” she said. “That’s why I’m thinking about leaving. But after these five years, maybe. I don’t know. I really don’t have any idea what will happen in Turkey in the next five years.”
The Same Problems Persist
Even though he knew Kılıçdaroğlu would be defeated, Bora refused to give up hope. Shortly after noon on Sunday, the 21-year-old university student headed to a data collection center in southern Istanbul to assist with vote tallying. Despite gloomy expectations, he saw it as his civic duty to vote and assist in the electoral process.
“I was really excited. I was thinking we would win,” he said about the first round of voting. “Today we will lose. I know that.”
Voter turnout was reportedly a bit lower in the second round, but Bora said he believed that in order to bring change, he needed to remain hopeful. “I want to believe that things can change,” he said. “If the country will change, it’s us who will change it as young people.”
As he rode a public train to his destination, Bora expressed concern about the issues facing Turkey that defined the elections: the economy, refugees, human rights and democracy. All were serious, Bora said, but the most pressing one to him was the economy.
Inflation hovers in the mid-40s and the cost of living remains painfully high for many people like Bora. Critics blame the problems on Erdoğan’s economic policies, which call for keeping interest rates low to promote exports and growth.
While Erdoğan insists that the policy is sound, Selva Demiralp, a professor of economics at Koc University, warned that the model is unsustainable. She noted that Turkey has depleted its foreign currency reserves, which it had been selling in a bid to control the depreciation of the Turkish lira. In an interview on Monday, she said that she expects the depreciation of the lira to accelerate. As of Wednesday, May 31, 2023, it continued to fall to record lows.
Demiralp said that further depreciation would be bad for the private sector, as it would increase debt and make the import of intermediate goods more expensive. That, in turn, would have an adverse impact on Erdoğan’s desire for economic growth, she continued. The gloomy forecast leaves Erdoğan with few options. Demiralp said one option could be to raise interest rates. But with Erdoğan continuing to insist that such an option is out of the question, the only other choice is capital control measures.
“But then for an open economy, that’s going to have grave consequences because it means you simply cannot import, or you won’t have enough foreign currency to meet your demand for imports,” Demiralp said. “So at that point, you may need to ration, and you may need to prioritize what you need to import. Are you going to import gas energy? Are you going to import drugs? Are you going to import intermediate goods? And if you can’t do that, then your production is going to be adversely affected because you can’t really change your production structure in the near term. That will not only slow down Turkish growth, but it would have global consequences because of global supply chains.”
In addition to the economy, Erdoğan will have to contend with growing nationalism. Its prominence in Turkish politics became particularly clear as the presidential race went into the run-off round and Kılıçdaroğlu shifted his campaign strategy, striking a more nativist tone about refugees in a bid to garner nationalist voters. Several million refugees live in Turkey, many of whom are Syrians that hoped Erdoğan would win. They feared that Kılıçdaroğlu would follow through on his promise to deport them if elected.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s change in language unsettled some political allies and supporters. But for Bora, it wasn’t a big deal. If anything, he supported Kılıçdaroğlu’s more hardline position. “They should go away,” he said about refugees, stating that they hadn’t integrated well into Turkish society. “Syria is a better place now. Why do we have to take care of them with our taxes? Europe does not do it. Why should Turkey?”
Under Erdoğan, Turkey in recent years has been constructing housing in territory that it occupies in northern Syria for the resettlement of refugees. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, has reported human rights violations by Turkish border guards along the Syrian border and the unwilling return of refugees to the country. Rights groups have warned that Syrians face the risk of imprisonment and human rights abuses if sent back to Syria.
Turkey’s refugee situation, which has created tensions inside the country, relates to its wider foreign policy approach, which under Erdoğan has become highly personalized and antagonistic towards the West. Though a key NATO member, Erdoğan maintains close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Erdoğan has refused to join in Western sanctions against Russia, a country on which it is reliant for energy imports and trade, and has often seemed to play Moscow and the West off one another.
There’s little indication that Erdoğan’s foreign policy will change in his third term, though he may finally concede to Sweden’s NATO membership request, said Oktay. He may also seek to deepen his role as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia. While supplying drones to Ukraine, Turkey has helped broker and sustain critical deals allowing the export of grain from Ukrainian seaports.
Despite Turkey’s geopolitical relevance, it is domestic factors that concern voters the most. With Erdoğan now set for another five years in power, many pro-opposition voters worry about what lies ahead for Turkey.
Bora expressed alarm about infringements on human rights and a decline in freedom of speech. During his campaign, Erdoğan accused the opposition of siding with terrorists. During a rally a few days before the second round of voting, Erdoğan presented an edited video misleadingly suggesting that an armed Kurdish group, labeled as a terrorist organization by Turkey and the US, had endorsed Kılıçdaroğlu.
“The bad thing is that Erdoğan wins elections by doing this,” Bora said. “People are okay with that. People like Erdoğan calling us terrorists. I’m talking with you, and I’m scared that a cop will take me to the police station. There is no freedom of speech.”
Moving forward, Tahiroglu said she expected Turkey to drift in a more autocratic direction, with crackdowns on political opponents, dissidents, and intellectuals to increase. Such measures, she continued, will be necessary given the nearly even split between supporters and opponents. “It means that for someone like Erdoğan, who is trying to govern this kind of a country, he has to be autocratic. There’s no way he can survive without repressing that other half. Otherwise, he won’t get anything done given how much opposition he’s really facing.”
Despite such fears from many Erdoğan critics, Bora refused to be silent.
“We have to talk to change the country,” he said. “Somebody has to talk.”
All photos have been taken by Hunter Williamson.
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