April 28, 2023 | The National Interest
Should Erdogan be re-elected next month, many will inevitably ask “whose fault is this” and “what comes next?”
Sinan Ciddi | Non-Resident Senior Fellow
There are intense and often heated differences between Turkey watchers over the outcome of the presidential elections that are just around the corner on May 14. Individuals have really dug into their respective camps with little room left in the middle: folks are convinced that Recep Tayyip Erdogan will definitely win or lose by a large margin. Both sides cite relatively compelling narratives for their position based on a myriad of explanatory factors: their experience as journalists or scholars, or, based on references to polls, the country’s economic situation.
The truth is, at this point in the calendar, it’s a guessing game. For my part, I am on record predicting that Erdogan has a greater chance of holding onto power for a third five-year term than opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu has of winning. I have attempted to explain my rationale in other opinion pieces and interviews. At this point, however, it is worth pondering, should my prediction come to pass, who or what factors will account for Erdogan staying in office?
To begin, there is the most obvious element: Turkish voters themselves. In the event that Erdogan scores a legitimate victory, much of that could be attributed to voter demands. The majority of Turks going to the polls on May 14 will not prioritize the rule of law, democracy, and other governance issues as their top priority. If they did, we would not see Erdogan polling in the 40 percent margins. Instead, voters are primarily motivated by their desire to hedge: “in voting, who do I believe will take care of my economic interests?” To address this motivation, Erdogan has turned on the monetary taps in the last few weeks: bonuses for retirees, free natural gas to households, and increases to the minimum wage. Kilicdaroglu’s problem here is that he is not in a position to convince voters that he can deliver better on pocketbook issues than Erdogan—the latter is already in a position to demonstrate such and thus tempt voters. He controls the purse strings of state resources, which are already being utilized to buy citizens’ votes.
By contrast, French and Israeli citizens have recently taken to the streets, protesting about governance issues they feel threaten the very viability of their democratic futures. In France, largely over the non-deliberative way in which the age of retirement was raised, voters are demanding government accountability. In Israel, in defiance of the government’s attempt to curtail judicial independence, citizens have engaged in mass protests. In both cases, voters are motivated by democratic governance issues. If a significant number of Turks attempted to replicate these two examples, the Erdogan government would likely use brute force to suppress such challenges, as displayed during the Gezi Park protests of 2013.
Linked to voter demands is the main opposition, the “Nation Alliance”—the six opposition parties who took the decision to nominate Kemal Kilicdaroglu as their candidate. Unfortunately, one can observe that, from the outset, this opposition bloc never prioritized the rule of law and democratic governance issues beyond rhetoric. Instead, it has been focused on the division of political spoils. The process of deciding who the alliance’s presidential candidate would be, for example, turned into a dysfunctional squabble and nearly broke apart the alliance. Given that the alliance’s main campaign promise is to transition Turkey back to a parliamentary system of governance (that would deprioritize the powers and position of the presidency), one wonders why alliance leaders fought so hard on who the presidential candidate would be. If the objective was to defeat Erdogan and re-establish the rule of law and democratic governance in Turkey, numbers suggest that nominating Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu would have been the best choice. Kilicdaroglu’s insistence on being the nominee instead lays bare the limits of the opposition’s democratic priorities. The intense rivalry to become the presidential nominee has been mirrored in the debates over determining the list of parliamentary candidates. Until the April 12 deadline (when all parties have to submit their parliamentary candidate lists), intense horse-trading over which party in the alliance would allot how many safe seats was the focus of attention. This basically signaled to voters the one thing they are already relatively accustomed to: politicians and political parties are only interested in securing their positions in government.
Throw into the mixture that there are two independent candidates, which divides the opposition vote, and the chances of defeating Erdogan in the first round of voting. More importantly, however, the candidacies of Muharrem Ince—who dismally ran against Erdogan in 2018 and failed—and Sinan Ogan are widely perceived as opportunistic, spurred on by Erdogan to tarnish and divide the opposition camp.
In the final analysis, supposing an Erdogan victory, voters will be grievously let down by opposition political elites who did their very best to not defeat Erdogan. In the event that Kilicdaroglu loses, much of the blame will be attributed to his lackluster candidacy.
Of course, none of these explanatory factors considers the possibility of chicanery and foul play that may come to determine who ultimately wins the presidency. There is a decent chance that undemocratic means may be utilized by Erdogan and/or state institutions to ensure a third term for the country’s longest-serving leader. In many ways this is already apparent: the Supreme Election Council has already accepted Erdogan’s unconstitutional candidacy to run for president. Additionally, there is little by way of press freedoms and access to media coverage that is not already exclusively pro-Erdogan.
A third term for Erdogan will likely curtail what remains of Turkey’s faltering democracy. Erdogan will likely use this opportunity to crack down on what little remains of critical voices within the country’s media and public space, while at the same time trying to turn a new page with the country’s allies in the West. By whatever means Erdogan is able to secure victory, both Washington and Europe will likely choose to remain silent and find new ways to work with him, based on their respective interests. If his re-election is perceived to be illegitimate, don’t expect the West to call this out. A new Erdogan term will likely result in old ways of finding paths to accommodate him.
Sinan Ciddi is a nonresident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power. Follow Sinan on Twitter @SinanCiddi. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.