The Turkish president came to power as an antiestablishment everyman. Twenty years later he is an authoritarian leader clinging to power. Will the forces that catapulted him to power be his demise?
We are approaching what will likely be the most consequential Turkish election in more than two decades. The results of the presidential and parliamentary vote on May 14 will have profound consequences—not only for Turkish democracy, but for the geopolitics of the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have held power for two decades. During that time, they have transformed the country’s political system, grown increasingly authoritarian, and failed to keep the economy prospering. The regime may be more vulnerable to defeat than ever. Yet the race remains neck and neck.
As analysts try to predict the upcoming election’s outcome and trade interpretations of how Erdoğan and the AKP have managed to keep support among so many voters, it is important to remember why they came to power in the first place. The roots of the political and cultural divisions animating the election stretch far back into the Turkish Republic’s hundred-year history.
The AKP’s victory in the 2002 general elections marked the greatest setback for “Kemalism”—the modernist, secularist, nationalist, and largely Europe-facing ideology attributed to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his followers—since the Republic of Turkey’s founding as an independent nation in 1923 on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Believing that rapid modernization and Westernization offered the best chance for the young nation’s success, in the 1920s and 30s Atatürk and his supporters unleashed a torrent of “reforms” upon a populace that—by and large—had little say in what the country’s future would be.
From the radical restructuring of language, dress, religion, and law to the attempted homogenization of ethnic and religious difference, Kemalist efforts to shape the new country produced a society deeply divided on questions of cultural identity, religious expression, and Turkey’s relationship with the West. Supporters of what historian Christine Philliou has called the “Kemalist paradigm” prospered during the nation’s early decades of economic modernization and cultural Westernization. Those who could not support or be included within this paradigm (for reasons of politics, religious conviction, education, or ethnicity) suffered decades of political marginalization and cultural disdain.
Turkey was a one-party state under the control of Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) until 1950, when the center-right Democrat Party won power in the country’s first open elections. By the 1950s, alternative ideologies and political coalitions had formed, but a military coup in 1960 against the Democrat Party government and subsequent arrest and execution of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes darkened hopes for a robust political opposition. Opposition groups, including a burgeoning Islamist movement, would achieve a number of electoral victories throughout the rest of the century. But until 2002, the Kemalists largely dominated Turkish politics and society.
Much of the country neither forgave nor forgot the elitist (especially toward more pious Turks), sometimes violent (especially toward minorities, leftists, and Islamists), and often corrupt tutelage of the Kemalist establishment—even as Atatürk himself remained a generally revered, almost mythical figure. At the turn of the century, the CHP was still popular in its historic strongholds, but for a great many the party had become synonymous with elitism, authoritarianism, dogmatic secularism, and what has been sometimes called “bad Westernization.”
Erdoğan and the AKP benefited from this history of Kemalist hegemony. In the aftermath of another military coup in 1980, an increasingly organized religious-conservative movement spawned a new generation of savvy, center-right politicians who emphasized moral decency, fiscal competence, and the promise of raising Turkey’s status on the world stage. By the late 1990s, anxieties about globalization, a series of government corruption scandals, a flailing economy, and a fractured center-left coalition further fueled the success of these politicians. A catastrophic 1999 earthquake near Istanbul and the government’s poor response only deepened distrust in the Kemalist establishment, paving the way for a national political realignment.
It was in this context that the then socially moderate and economically (neo)liberal AKP pulled off a stunning political upset, winning more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament. To win, the AKP drew on a diverse coalition of pious, rural, and working-class voters as well as ethnic and religious minorities (especially Kurds). A surprising number of liberals and leftists, fed up with the Kemalist establishment, cast their votes for the AKP, too. The main political appeal of Erdoğan and his party stemmed not from populism or Islamism, but from the promise of making good on the AKP’s twin slogans of “justice” (adalet) and “development” (kalkınma). Voters hoped for a restoration of moral decency, fiscal intelligence, and national unity after years of corruption, disfunction, and polarization.
They saw in Erdoğan a dynamic, fresh, and inspiring leader. Articulate and charismatic, Erdoğan (mayor of Istanbul from 1994–98) was untouched by the scandals that rocked the capital of Ankara throughout the 1990s. His image was as a working-class, pious, former footballing street tough, immune to corruption and willing to scrap and struggle for his people. This antiestablishment, everyman persona only grew after he was imprisoned in 1999 on the highly politicized charge of inciting racial and religious violence (for reciting a well-known nationalist poem containing some religious symbolism). When he was released after four months of a ten-month sentence, his hero myth was secured among much of the electorate.
Over the AKP’s first decade in power, many of the hopes voters had placed on Erdoğan—both at home and abroad—seemed validated. Turkey’s economy not only stabilized but saw GDP per capita treble; restrictions on religious practice and Kurdish identity were eased; and grand infrastructure projects were completed in Istanbul and other major cities. By the mid 2010s, however, the Gezi Park protests (and their brutal suppression) had galvanized a younger generation, the fallout from the Syrian war had spilled into everyday life, and the value of the Turkish lira had begun to fall. Domestic criticism mounted, and the AKP’s authoritarian tendencies came into relief.
A failed 2016 coup attempt, widely blamed on Erdoğan’s former political and ideological partner, Fetullah Gülen, cemented the AKP’s authoritarian turn. After 2016, the regime began arresting increasing numbers of political opponents and activists, purging bureaucrats and civil servants, dismissing local officials, and shuttering or buying out independent media. Previous outreach to Kurdish groups, moreover, turned into assaults on Kurdish fighters in Syria and the siege of Turkey’s Kurdish capital, Diyarbakir.
Today, Erdoğan and his party have seen their popularity decline amid an imploding economy, targeted political oppression and censorship, and widespread corruption at all levels, including recent revelations of deep connections between AKP leaders and organized crime. Nevertheless, the political opposition (recent victories in municipal elections in Istanbul and Ankara notwithstanding) has for two decades been unable to formulate a coherent, united, and energizing opposition to “Erdoğanism.” Despite the formation and growing popularity of the Nation Alliance, a multiparty opposition coalition, the chances of Erdoğan’s coalition winning remain within the margin of error.
It would be reasonable to assume that a party in power for twenty years, which had presided over massive inflation, rampant corruption, the destruction of the middle class, and now a massive earthquake that caused a preventable catastrophe (more than 50,000 deaths) earlier this year, would be primed for an electoral loss. Even with the advantages of incumbency (bolstered by Erdoğan’s post-2016 purges of the judiciary and the subsequent packing of the courts with AKP loyalists), along with past fears over election malfeasance, it would seem reasonable to expect an electoral upset similar to the one that catapulted the AKP to power in 2003. Nevertheless, the contest will be determined as much by the opposition’s ability to articulate a unified message for the country’s future as by the AKP’s waning popularity.
Comprising six ideologically disparate parties united only in their opposition to the ruling regime, the Nation Alliance is a strange union of liberals, ethnonationalists, religious conservatives, and technocratic centrists. The two largest parties in the coalition—the CHP and the İYİ (Good) Party—are broadly Kemalist, even though their leaders’ personas and political ideologies hardly overlap. The right-leaning İYİ Party has ties to ethnonationalism, and its stentorian leader, Meral Akşener, is as dynamic as she is polarizing. The remaining parties in the opposition coalition are small, contributing at most a few percentage points. Yet their inclusion is consequential: Two of them, the center-right Future Party and Democracy and Progress (DEVA) Party, are led by former high-ranking AKP officials and Erdoğan allies; another, the Felicity Party, an Islamist formation, is rooted in the ideology of Erdoğan’s onetime political mentor, Necmettin Erbakan.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the CHP and now the Nation Alliance’s consensus presidential candidate, is a highly respected and (by all accounts) thoroughly decent man. An Alevi (Turkey’s largest religious minority), Kılıçdaroğlu appeals to groups long alienated by the state’s suppression of religious and ethnic difference—even if some religious nationalists are unlikely to vote for a non-Sunni Muslim. Unlike the broadly popular CHP mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, Kılıçdaroğlu lacks Erdoğan’s charisma and forcefulness. İmamoğlu, who was recently indicted on charges just as absurd as those that helped vault Erdoğan onto the national stage a quarter-century ago, might be the only politician capable of besting the president in a contest of personal appeal. Although Erdoğan may have forgotten that imprisoning a popular mayor of Istanbul on trumped-up charges can backfire spectacularly, his cynical political ploy has disqualified his most charismatic potential opponent.
Recent moves by former CHP presidential candidate Muharrem İnce to run as a third candidate (along with Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu) have caused considerable consternation in the Nation Alliance. The greatest obstacle for the opposition, however, may be the grievance still held by much of the population against the Kemalist hegemony—and against the party, the CHP, that long symbolized it. Kılıçdaroğlu has been signaling a desire to acknowledge and make amends for the CHP’s past wrongs. His prospects and his party’s (and indeed the prospects of the opposition as a whole) rest on the willingness of historically non-CHP voters to believe that these gestures are sincere and that the CHP will embrace a more inclusive, pluralistic platform. That the Kurdish, left-leaning Peoples’ Democratic Party will throw its support behind Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy bodes well for this promise of inclusivity (even though other opposition parties regularly express anti-Kurdish sentiments). The world should hope, for Turkey’s sake as much as for the future of democracy in Europe and the Middle East, that this promise is sincere—and that enough conflicted Turkish voters will believe it, too.
Philip Balboni is a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on the legacies of Orientalism and Westernization in contemporary Turkish politics and society, and his writing has recently appeared here.
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