It’s going to be hard to get rid of Turkey’s Erdoğan
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Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
In any fairly run election, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would be heading for electoral defeat.
But let’s be frank, Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections in May won’t be observing Queensberry Rules, and it shouldn’t be treated as such.
At first glance, Erdoğan does seem to be in deep trouble, facing the most difficult election he’s encountered during his 20 years in power — especially if the opposition bloc gets its act together and campaigns in a coherent, joined-up fashion, leveraging strengths and relentlessly focusing on the supreme goal of ejecting Erdoğan.
Recent opinion polls show Turkey’s opposition candidate, the scholarly Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu — hardly the most charismatic of politicians — leading the incumbent president by over 10 percentage points, with the elections just weeks away. And according to the polls, the six-party Nation Alliance looks like it could grab the highest number of seats against Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its hard-right partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
It’s also hard to see how Erdoğan can close the gap, while southern Turkey is seething at the government’s inadequate rescue-and-relief response to last month’s huge earthquake. The devastating disaster has so far left around 48,000 dead, and has sparked furious complaints that the devastation was worsened due to poor urban planning and the fitful enforcement of building codes, all compounded by neglectful crisis management planning.
When a massive earthquake had rocked the İzmit region near Istanbul in 1999, then Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit — paralyzed by the magnitude of the disaster — had been widely condemned for failing to mobilize quickly enough. Some 18,000 people died in that disaster, and the outcry helped pave the way for AKP’s landslide victory in the subsequent election. And the opposition hopes last month’s trembler might be enough to similarly end Erdoğan’s rule this time around.
On top of that, Erdoğan’s economic stewardship has been bizarre. Thanks to his eccentric monetary policy of lowering interest rates in the face of rising inflation, Turkey has been shaken by soaraway inflation, reaching a 24-year-record last fall when it hit 85 percent — although it has now fallen back to a mere 55 percent.
Battered by economic headwinds and Erdoğan’s idiosyncratic thinking, Turkey’s currency has lost 60 percent of its value against the dollar since early 2021. And it has posted a record-high current account deficit and a trade deficit widening to 38 percent. The cost-of-living squeeze is tossing the middle class out of the lifestyle they expect and plunging the poor into deeper despair.
How then, against that backdrop, can Erdoğan possibly win?
First and foremost, the Turkish leader has tremendous advantages as the incumbent — and an especially bullying and unscrupulous one at that. Erdoğan doesn’t display magnanimity, and he has doggedly consolidated a tighter grip over Turkey.
During his two decades in power, Erdoğan has reshaped Turkey with creeping Islamization and by weakening a parliamentary-based system, transforming it into a presidential one that amounts to virtual one-man rule. Turkey’s modern sultan has purged the courts, law enforcement agencies, civil service, intelligence agencies, the officer cadre of the armed forces, and the media, and he has stacked them with loyalists.
The Turkish president also took ample advantage of a failed military putsch to accelerate shaping the “Erdoğan system.” On his arrival at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport after the amateurish 2016 coup, he vowed vengeance on the bungling plotters. “They will pay a heavy price for this,” he said. “This uprising is a gift from God to us.”
Erdoğan has never been hesitant in pulling the power levers he has available to him, and those who have observed him for years harbor no doubts that he will be pulling them for all their worth, like a malign Wizard of Oz who won’t be handing out any hearts or prizes.
“U.S. and European leaders should not let their hope cloud their vision,” warned Sinan Ciddi, an associate professor of national security studies and author of the book “Kemalism in Turkish Politics.”
In a paper for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Ciddi argued Erdoğan “may win without rigging the vote” even. Ballot-box stuffing, erroneous tallying might not be necessary — the system he’s created might still deliver the win he needs.
And the media will be at the forefront of the system’s efforts to ensure victory.
Erdoğan’s grip over large swathes of Turkish media is fearsome. “The biggest media brands are controlled by companies and people close to Erdoğan and his AK Party, following a series of acquisitions starting in 2008,” a Reuters investigation concluded. Tight hierarchical editorial control is coordinated right from the top, with former academic Fahrettin Altun, head of the government’s Directorate of Communications, overseeing the instructions sent to newsrooms.
For example, when Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, resigned as finance minister in 2020 in an unprecedented rift within the Turkish leader’s inner circle, the country’s newsrooms were told not to report the resignation until the government gave the go-ahead.
The opposition is thus left with a clutch of independent Turkish outlets, like Medyascope and Halk TV. But as they focus more on the internal politics of the opposition bloc, if infighting breaks out between the parties — as it did over Kılıçdaroğlu’s selection as their joint candidate — they’re likely to get immersed in internecine disputes, taking their eye off the bigger game.
So, can social media help break Erdoğan’s chokehold on the media? Turks have been migrating “toward online news sources that the government is less able to control,” noted the Center for American Progress in a 2020 study. “Yet while social media has offered an alternative to the pro-government voices that dominate television and print media, it too is a mixed bag of facts, half-truths, and incendiary misinformation,” the study’s authors noted.
Of course, the government has also gone to great lengths to control and censor social media, with the parliament passing even more restrictive legislation in October. “With a new controversial social media law, Turkish authorities now have the right to control and, if necessary, restrict online free speech in ways that would be unthinkable in any democracy — or even in Turkey a few years ago,” noted Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute.
Plus, when controls fail to deter, there’s always the threat of imprisonment on flimsy, vague charges of defamation or insulting the president or government officials, which have already landed 43 journalists in jail along with opposition politicians.
And if the unthinkable does happen, and the system fails to deliver for Erdoğan on election night, how can he afford to lose? Opposition politicians have already made clear that if triumphant, they will be pushing for him to face corruption and abuse-of-power charges along with members of his family — not to mention his inner circle.
“If Erdoğan senses defeat, no one should expect him to leave quietly,” reckoned Ciddi. “If defeat seems imminent, judges and elections officials loyal to Erdoğan may overturn the results, as they attempted to do by annulling Istanbul’s mayoral election results in 2019. Or he may even rely on the police and the armed forces. Indeed, he may not relinquish power after having lost an election,” he added.
As May inches closer, there’s a lot for the Turkish opposition and Turkey’s Western allies to worry about.