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In Turkey, the Stakes Are Just Too High
Both the government and the opposition see the current election as an existential crisis. That is terrible news.
For weeks on end, all of Turkey has been on tenterhooks. Yesterday’s election was a uniquely high stakes affair. Both the conservative Islamist government and the progressive secular opposition saw it as a make-or-break moment: arrayed against forces they saw as uniquely threatening, failure was not an option. Lose, and their vision for the kind of nation Turkey is would be lost, potentially forever. Supporters and detractors of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can agree on almost nothing except one thing: the vote constitutes a historic turning point for Turkey.
For many in the government, winning is not merely a matter of political expediency but a much more practical matter of staying out of jail. Over the last two decades in power, a thick web of corruption has enveloped the upper echelons of the Turkish state, with officials enriching themselves handsomely off of their political influence. Losing would mean not just ceding power, but the very real possibility of being investigated and tried.
For the opposition, the stakes are hardly lower: for two decades, Erdoğan’s government has slowly strangled Turkey’s democratic institutions, replacing judges, investigators and, yes, elections administrators with loyal allies. Erdoğan has been at the forefront of a global trend towards elected autocracy, consolidating his power through what the writer Moisés Naím calls the “three Ps”: populism, polarization and post-truth. The space to peacefully challenge him for power has been closing slowly but surely with each passing election, leaving plenty of secular Turks with the sense that this could be their last chance.
In the end, first-round results were inconclusive, with Erdoğan falling just short of the 50% threshold he would have needed to avoid a run-off vote on May 28th. Still, he outperformed his polls, leaving the country on tenterhooks for two more interminable weeks.
That the stakes of this election are so high is, in itself, bad news for Turkish democracy. As NYU political scientist Adam Przeworski argued in a now-classic 1991 book, “constitutions that are observed and last for a long time are those that reduce the stakes of political battles.” When the costs of losing power are so high, both sides are tempted to find extra-constitutional means of retaining or achieving it. When elections become existential battles, democracies tend to buckle, if not break.
In Turkey, signs of buckling are not hard to find. Not two weeks ago, Erdoğan’s hardline Interior Minister, Süleyman Soylu, charged that the West was planning to use the closely fought vote to stage a “political coup.” It’s the kind of statement that seems calculated to give the government the rhetorical cover it would need if results were not favorable. It’s no wonder the streets have been so tense.
Underlying it all is the fact that Erdoğan has never looked weaker. For the first time in his 20-year rule, he went into this election trailing in the polls. He has been roundly criticized for his handling of the devastating earthquake that killed 50,000 people and leveled thousands of buildings in February. But much of his unpopularity has to do with his woeful economic mismanagement: the president has continued to insist, against all economic rationality, on an extra-loose monetary policy even in the face of rising inflation. The impact has been precisely what every second-year economics undergraduate is taught to expect: galloping price rises that eat away at people’s real purchasing power. Last October, inflation peaked at a shocking 85%.
With so much on the line, the opposition seems to have grasped that it’s in its interest to turn down the rhetorical heat. In Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, it has selected a calming figure, a former high-ranking bureaucrat with a persona built around consensus building. Many outside of Turkey have lamented Kılıçdaroğlu’s lack of charisma, but as political scientist Sena Töreli puts it, “the calmness is the message.” You can’t out-firebrand Erdoğan: the opposition already tried that strategy in 2018, only to see it backfire spectacularly.
Kılıçdaroğlu is doing what he can to lower the stakes of power, portraying himself as a calm, consensus-seeking figure able to guarantee stability through what will be a fraught transition. Heading a heterogeneous, six-party coalition, he will need all the conciliation abilities he can muster just to keep the opposition together in the absence of a unifying enemy like Erdoğan, Töreli says.
Kılıçdaroğlu is running on a platform of reversing Erdoğan’s most anti-democratic policies, giving power back to parliament and abolishing many of the expanded presidential powers that came into force in 2018. He has pledged to release political prisoners and shore up freedom of speech in the country.
If he wins, observers also expect him to broadly reorient Turkey’s economic policy along more orthodox lines, and shift its foreign policy back towards alignment with the North Atlantic alliance. The former seems a surer bet than the latter, given Turkey’s uniquely daunting geostrategic position. For one thing, Kılıçdaroğlu has vowed to deport millions of refugees, reversing Erdoğan’s policy of opening the border to people fleeing Syria and Iraq and then accepting EU money to ensure they stay in Turkey. Close off that safety valve, Töreli notes, and refugee flows towards the EU could restart, destabilizing the very relationship Kılıçdaroğlu claims to be so eager to rekindle.
Meanwhile, many older Turks, who saw a variety of weak and ineffective coalition governments cycle through power before Erdoğan’s rise in 2003, are concerned that coalitions just aren’t able to govern with vigor. Erdoğan has built a remarkably effective strong-man image, with many more devout and less-educated Turks seeing him as a kind of hero figure: the avenger able to stand up for their values in the face of an effete, Westernized elite. In Kılıçdaroğlu they see not so much a conciliatory figure as a virtual puppet for Western powers.
The next two weeks ahead will be tense, because Turkey really does stand at a historic crossroads. If the country can get rid of its elected autocrat peacefully, it would be a remarkable win for liberal democracy around the world. It could even be remembered, alongside Lula’s election in Brazil last year, as the moment when the wave of populism, polarization and post-truth crested. The stakes are high. Too high.
Francisco Toro, a journalist and the Content Director for the Group of Fifty, is a contributing editor at Persuasion.
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