By Andrew Firmin
LONDON, Jun 1 2023 – Turkey’s election hasn’t produced the change many thought was on the cards. Now women’s groups, LGBTQI+ people and independent journalists are among those fearing the worse.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has led the country for two decades, first as prime minister and then as president, prevailed in the 28 May runoff poll, taking around 52.2 per cent of the vote, with his opponent, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, on 47.8 per cent.
The election represented Erdoğan’s biggest-ever electoral test. The run-up was dominated by a cost-of-living crisis. Many pointed the finger at highly unorthodox economic policies insisted on by Erdoğan – of lowering rather than raising interest rates in response to inflation – for making them worse off.
Anger was also sparked by devastating earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria in February, leaving over 50,000 people dead and an estimated 1.5 million people homeless in Turkey. The government was accused of being slow to respond and of overlooking building regulations.
Erdoğan has overcome these hurdles, albeit with a narrow victory. The close vote shows that many Turks wanted change. But after a deeply polarised election, there’s no hint Erdoğan plans to moderate the way he governs.
Media dominance tells
Erdoğan prevailed despite facing a united opposition in which six parties put aside their differences. Their aim was to bring to an end Erdoğan’s hyper-presidential form of government and turn Turkey back into a pluralist democracy where parliament can act as a check on excessive presidential power.
A similar approach was tried in Hungary last year, when parties came together to try to oust authoritarian hardman Viktor Orbán, and also failed. Some of their challenges were similar. Both were forced to work in a severely unequal media landscape where media – state media and private media owned by business leaders closely connected to the government – focused almost entirely on the incumbent and starved the challenger of airtime. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe observers concluded that while the election was competitive, the playing field wasn’t level, with freedom of expression restrictions and media bias giving Erdoğan ‘an unjustified advantage’.
Over his 20 years, Erdoğan has concentrated power on himself and moved to suppress dissent. In 2017, Erdoğan pushed through changes that turned a parliamentary system into an intensely presidential one, placing virtually unlimited powers in his hands.
The deteriorating climate for dissent could be seen in the wake of the earthquakes, when people were detained for criticising the government’s response. There were several reports of attacks on and obstruction of journalists during the election campaign.
A race to the bottom
In past elections, Erdoğan campaigned on his economic record. But this time, with the economic crisis and earthquake destruction leaving him unable to press those points, he fell back on another weapon, deploying a tactic nationalists and populists are using the world over: culture war rhetoric.
The opposition was consistently smeared for allegedly supporting LGBTQI+ rights, with Erdoğan positioning himself as the staunch defender of the traditional family. This messaging persisted even though the opposition had little to say on reversing Erdoğan’s attacks on women’s and LGBTQI+ people’s rights.
The culture war strategy was blended with a strongly nationalist appeal. Political opponents were portrayed as extremists and allies of terrorists. This was reinforced by fake campaign videos – one of many examples of campaign disinformation – that claimed to show members of a banned terrorist organisation supporting Kılıçdaroğlu.
Syrian refugees were also targeted. There are 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. They’ve crossed the border to escape the brutal, 12-year civil war and grotesque human rights abuses. But Turkey’s economic decline has seen growing xenophobia, which has fuelled violence, inflamed by political rhetoric.
Whoever won the election promised to be bad news for refugees. The opposition reacted to Erdoğan’s attacks by pledging to be even tougher in returning refugees. In the last leg of the campaign, both sides hurled discriminatory and inflammatory language at each other.
Erdoğan’s more authentic appeal to nationalism and socially conservative values ultimately won the day. Erdoğan seems to have convinced enough people he’s the only person who can navigate the current crisis. As in several other countries, including Hungary and El Salvador, a majority of voters embraced authoritarianism.
Undoubtedly Turkey’s heavily restricted civic space and deeply skewed media landscape played a major role. But even acknowledging these barriers, the opposition will need to do some soul searching ahead of municipal elections next year if they hope to keep control of major city governments. The strategy of imitating Erdoğan’s rhetoric on migrants and terrorism having failed, they must find a way to connect with voters with a more positive message.
There are immediate challenges ahead for Erdoğan too, not least the state of the economy. Erdoğan was able to offer some pre-election enticements such as a minimum wage increases and temporary free gas supplies, buttressed by support from non-democratic states including Russia, with which he has developed warmer relations. The government has significantly depleted its foreign currency and gold reserves to try to prop up the Turkish lira – which still hit a record low after Erdoğan’s victory was confirmed.
Erdoğan can be expected to react to further economic difficulty by deepening his authoritarianism to try to silence critics. Those already targeted – refugees, LGBTQI+ people, women, Kurdish activists and the civil society that defends their rights and independent journalists who report their stories – will remain in the firing line.
But the 25.5 million people who voted against Erdoğan deserve a voice. Erdoğan needs to change the habits of a lifetime, show some willingness to listen and build consensus. Turkey’s democratic allies must encourage him to see it’s in his best interest to do so.