The Good Fight
Why Erdoğan Won

Why Erdoğan Won

Yascha Mounk and Nora Fisher Onar discuss how Turkey's opposition fell short.

Nora Fisher Onar is an associate professor of international studies at the University of San Francisco and author of the forthcoming book Contesting Pluralism(s): Islam, Liberalism and Nationalism in Turkey.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Nora Fisher Onar discuss how President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan prevailed despite economic turmoil and a bungled response to the severe February earthquake; what international observers may overlook or misunderstand about Erdoğan’s appeal to Turkish voters; and what Erdoğan’s victory means for the country’s strained democracy, institutions, and economy.

The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Mounk: Many were very hopeful that the opposition might finally be able to displace Erdoğan from power. The polls, at least before the first round, seemed to indicate that Erdoğan might lose. The Turkish economy has been in very bad shape due to hyperinflation, the government bungled its response to the earthquake, and yet Erdoğan ended up winning a majority in parliament and being reelected as president. What happened?

Nora Fisher Onar: In the build-up to the first round, expectations were high on the part of the opposition for the reasons you mentioned: the sorry state of the economy, hyperinflation, a country that's teetering on the brink of a current account crisis. If it's “the economy, stupid,” if that's the driving cause for how people vote, then the opposition should have won. If it's about the government response to the earthquakes, the intuitive assumption would have been that there would have been a price to pay. Erdoğan is the guy who has built Turkey up by railroads, highways, skyscrapers and all sorts of big infrastructure projects. That's his trademark. And so when these failed spectacularly in the earthquake zone, one would have assumed, looking from outside, that there would be a price to pay. But it turns out that voters are receptive to identity politics, voters are receptive to fearmongering, and voters are receptive to the information environments in which they find themselves. And in this case, you had a media environment that was very, very heavily stacked in favor of the incumbent president. You had an information environment and a relief environment on the ground in the earthquake zone where Erdoğan and his team were seen as being able to provide post-quake reconstruction in a more credible way than the opposition. And polling in general seems to be facing a lot of challenges when confronted with populist politicians and their ability to rally folks around the flag. 

Mounk: Erdoğan does seem to have about 52% of the population that stays with him. And I agree with you about the unfair media environment and about some of those realities on the ground. All of that helps to explain how this was a somewhat free, but certainly not fair, election. But I still want to understand the appeal of Erdoğan in a deeper way. There's clearly a more profound set of reasons for what makes Erdoğan appealing. What binds so many voters to Erdoğan despite all of these other things?

Onar: It's an important question, and it invites us to also look at the map of Turkey that you just invoked, where you have coastal areas, and then also the southeast region, much of which is landlocked but is predominantly Kurdish. That is also a part of the country that voted heavily for the opposition. Erdoğan’s strongholds are really in Central Anatolia and the Black Sea region. These are places that are culturally very conservative. He's perceived as very charismatic, and sort of the ultimate patriarch in a patriarchal cultural context where religious nationalism and secular nationalism (and it was really the secular nationalists who pushed them over the edge in the second round). These regions are parts of the country that were underserved in the early years of the republic. In particular, the religious constituencies felt left out by the sort of Western-facing, modernist, secularist project and Erdoğan has very self-consciously curated an image, a larger-than-life persona, as someone who is the everyman but also almost like the demigod; he embodies the aspirations and sensibilities of this conservative Anatolian grouping that is just over half the population of the country.

Mounk: I wonder whether there is also an element of slightly less deep history that also helps to explain what fuses Erdoğan’s electorate to him. Turkey was ruled in a secular way since Ataturk that has made it a very successful and modern nation in many ways. But it did also exclude religious people from full participation in public in ways that were deeply offensive to them, and that, by the way, from a perspective of a philosophical liberal, did I think fall short of the kinds of rights that people can and should expect: women who were veiled, in particular, were not able to attend public universities, were not able to go to public hospitals. The first veiled female members of parliament were jeered in very aggressive ways. 

To what extent is Erdoğan’s ability to invoke this kind of history and to sustain the support of his electorate, despite all of his empirical failings in the last year, a testament to the lasting way in which those mistakes of Turkey's previous settlement have just alienated 40 something percent of the population in a deepened way that it will perhaps take generations to overcome?

Onar: It was fed very directly into some of the campaign messaging that we saw, the idea, now very much displaced from the governing elite, that these sort of pro-secularist cadres have been kind of running the republic from an ivory tower, ever since they anti-democratically constituted Turkey as a secularist, Westernist project. That is a narrative that runs strongly through the president's story. This is a strong storyline. 

If you were born in Turkey in 2000, you literally have not had another leader, and he made a very active point of reminding young conservative women that up until 2000, they would have been barred from entering universities; there were young women who are supporters of Erdoğan saying, “If there's veiled women today who are lawyers and pharmacists, doctors, and judges, then it is thanks to him.” He very explicitly deploys that narrative. He's kind of the champion of the underdog and he's the righter of wrongs and that conservative Moral Majority, as it were, of Anatolia will find in him the defender. This layers onto Islamic idiom in a more sort of theological way. It layers on to a sort of commitment to serving justice. In the United States, we talk about freedom a lot. In a Muslim cultural context, the mobilizing idea is justice. He is out there to defend the just majority from prosecution, even though, in practice, this supposedly peripheral population is actually quite empowered now. They have been running the country for 20 years.

Mounk: Did the opposition do enough to undermine the power of that narrative and to make more conservative, more religious, and more devout voters feel safe in its hands? I know that when Imamoglu won the mayoral elections in Istanbul, there was a number of articles arguing that part of his success was his deliberate decision to go and campaign in front of mosques, for example, and to show his respect towards more religious citizens of the city of Istanbul, to show that they didn't need to be afraid of him as mayor of a city and that he did not look down on them. That struck me as very convincing at the time. Did the opposition do that, and it just wasn't sufficient, or did it not do enough of that this time around?

Onar: I think it was a combination of the two. The opposition were kind of hobbled at the beginning because Imamoglu was basically effectively forbidden from running for office. He did indeed launch a very inclusive campaign that tried to bridge conservative democrats with more pro-secular democrats and democrats from different minority religious or ethnic groups, as well as really appeal to more secular-oriented women who feel very vulnerable in the current context in Turkey. He really had this sort of broad tent, and he was charismatic and was able to project that inclusive messaging in a successful way. 

That is why, in December, he spent a few days in jail on political charges. And the impact was political because he wasn't able to put forth his candidacy; there was going to be a Damoclean sword hanging over his head because at any time he could be shut down. And if he were shut down, he would also lose the mayorship of Istanbul, which is a huge city, larger than many European countries in terms of its population and budgetary resources. So they needed to keep him in office in Istanbul, which meant that Erdoğan managed to tee up a weaker, less charismatic candidate, who gave it a good run—in Turkey, to be able to pull 47%, almost 48% of this kind of very polarized, very diverse electorate together under this message (it wasn’t just the anti-Erdoğan campaign), it does have to do with some some really fascinating messaging by the Kılıçdaroğlu and opposition campaign. They really tried to create a safe space for a lot of people who feel beleaguered or threatened by the rising sort of conservative majoritarianism that we see in the Erdoğan camp. Given the very restricted and very uneven electoral playing field, the messaging was what buoyed hopes so intensively for the opposition going in. It's what created those expectations. So I don't think the messaging was problematic, I think the demographics, the institutions and the media environment deflated the message’s impact. And then, of course, by the second round, it all went bust, because in order to try and pull the extra 5% of the vote that Kılıçdaroğlu needed to carry him into the presidential office, he had to turn around and cater to very hardline, ultra-nationalist, ultra anti-immigrant, anti-refugee kind of sentiments, and that really disappointed the people who had been supporting this more inclusive campaign all along.

Mounk: Let's think a little bit about what now lies in store for Turkey. The first question is about the democratic institutions in the country. They're already very weakened. The scope for free speech is very restricted. Many people were arrested in recent years, including journalists and government bureaucrats. Is it still meaningful to speak about Turkey as a democracy? On the one hand, the outcome of this election seems to matter. On the other hand, the underlying conditions were so unfair, the playing field so skewed, that it's not clear we should call it democracy. It makes sense for all of these authoritarian populist regimes to run elections as long as they are able, with all of the background skewing-of-the-playing-field, to win them; then they can say that they are the democratically elected leader. That doesn't mean that at the moment at which they do lose an election, they can't refuse to abide by its outcome. And we know that that is what Erdoğan did when İmamoğlu first won the mayoral election in Istanbul—those results were thrown out by an electoral commission, which is dominated by Erdoğan’s loyalists. Then they had a second round or redo of the election which İmamoğlu won by an even greater margin. At that point, Erdoğan sort of gave up. But it wasn't his own power that he was giving up. 

How do we know that if Erdoğan had lost he actually would have gone, and more importantly, if he should lose in five years, he would be willing to go? Do we know that there is still, even in this imperfect sense, a semblance of democracy in Turkey? Or has this just become a sham which serves the government, who will go on keeping up this illusion until the day that they lose an election?

Onar: The Organization for Security and Economic Cooperation in Europe sent out election observers to monitor the polls and follow the press debates and produce a full report at the end of an election cycle to let the world know whether, in the assessment of these professional monitors, elections were free and fair. If you look at the reports from both the first and the second round, they very clearly state that Election Day was more or less free, but the build up to the elections was unfair. And so there was a meaningful political choice on election day, people more or less were able to go to the polls and vote unencumbered (although there's some reported irregularities and a couple of disturbing incidents, but nothing that either these international observers or the opposition parties have really aggressively contested). Electoral democracy is really deeply rooted in Turkey's political culture. The Turks have been going to the polls since the 1950s. The levels of participation are very enviable from the United States’s perspective, where we have such a hard time getting people out to vote. So in that sense, it's a really meaningful institution, a really meaningful part of the culture. And I do believe that Erdoğan sincerely believes in the majoritarian electoral mandate that he gets when he secures election. I don't think it's superficial. 

But as you say, first we were talking about “illiberal democracy.” And then the buzzword was “competitive authoritarianism.” I was writing an op-ed about this stuff yesterday, and I was playing with the idea of “semi-competitive authoritarianism.” And once you start going down that slippery slope, how much of this is just actually Potemkin democracy? And I think that that's where a lot of the frustration and disappointment of the Turkish opposition electorate lies in the days after the first round, and especially after the second round—just wondering “Is my vote really just a rubber stamp for a Potemkin democracy that is manned by a dictator who has been around for 20 years and will probably be around for another 20?” That question is very much eating the souls of a lot of folks on the ground in Turkey. But at the end of the day, a vote is better than not having a vote. I've seen some commentators say “Stop using elections to legitimize these authoritarian regimes. It's actually serving them. You're giving them a green light and legitimacy in the international space.” But you can't take the vote away from people when that's really the most important participatory mechanism that they have right now.

Mounk: And it may also be the mechanism for contesting unjust rule eventually. Let me ask you about the economy in Turkey. We've seen this very steep inflation in the last months and there are worries about the inflationary spiral accelerating even further. And, of course, since the markets don't trust anyone particularly, as we know, from the fact that polls that had him trailing send the stock market's up. And when he overperformed, in the first round, I believe the stock markets went down.

Is Erdoğan going to change course on his economic policy in such a way that he might be able to bring this under control? Or can we now expect there to be at least a fear that Turkey is going to experience an even steeper economic decline over the coming years?

Onar: This is a nice way to link what we were talking about earlier. You know, 52% is not a landslide. 52% after two rounds of really intensive campaigning is not a carte blanche to do anything that you want. And so the economy is clearly there as one of the big issues that is looming over voters' minds, looming over the government, and is looming over anyone engaged in Turkey economically or diplomatically. Had the mandate been more, maybe the win would have been interpreted as more of a vindication of his unorthodox economic choices. But I think now that he's secured another five years, we may see a little bit of a break in some of the economic populism that he was engaging in the build-up to elections. The cabinet is going to be announced by Friday. He may be bringing back Mehmet Şimşek, a former Minister of Economy who is very well respected in global financial circles. And there are very clear warning signals from markets and global financial observers that, if he doesn't, then Turkey is in big trouble. So the lira went up to 20.4 lira to the dollar. Ten years ago it was under two lira to the dollar—like 90% devaluation of your currency vis-a-vis the dollar. It's helpful for exporters, but that's about it. And that pain is really widely felt in Turkey. He has a little bit of a breather now, so I do think that we may see some more more orthodox economic policies coming out of the government. 

That being said, we've already seen many, many examples of Erdoğan interfering in financial conversations that are typically not the purview of the head of state. He certainly is a micromanager and may attempt to micromanage again. But I expect to see some more restraint and some more reversion to some more orthodox economic policies soon. The mandate is not big enough that he's going to pursue anything radically different on economy, foreign policy, or any other front.

Mounk: Let’s turn to the question of foreign policy. Turkey has been a member of the Western alliance, and of NATO, for a long time. It used to be that there was a very secular military in the country, which had an ambivalent role to play, including being responsible for a good number of coups, but saw itself as the guarantor of Turkey’s place within that Western alliance. Erdoğan over his 20 years of rule has significantly weakened that. Turkey remains a member of NATO. But the relationship between Turkey and Western European countries and the United States is probably as poor as it has been in many decades, and there are real questions about when that relationship is going to come to its breaking point. What do you expect to happen on that front in the next five or ten years?

Onar: First, I want to say something about this idea of the secularist military in Turkey, because I think that's a little bit of a misperception that people have had for a long time. But since the 1980s, really, the Turkish army has very actively promoted the type of ethno–religious nationalism that prevailed this week in Turkey. They call it the Turkish-Islamic synthesis. There's more of an emphasis on the religious part of religious nationalism rather than the ethnic part. But at the end of the day, there's a lot of convergence in this particular military vision that sees Kurdish aspirations as an existential challenge, that recognizes the complexities of Turkey's neighborhood, and that has for a long time now had one eye on Moscow, even at the same time as there is an eye on Brussels and an eye on Washington, DC. 

Turkey has been playing this balancing role. And there have been members of the Army leadership who have been kind of Eurasianist in orientation for some time now. And the folks who lent the winning votes to Erdoğan, the 2.5% more than he needed to win, the third presidential candidate Sinan Oğan, was trained in Moscow. I think that we're going to see more of this kind of à la carte type of geopolitics, working in many ways organically and closer with Moscow and with Putin than previously. Putin gave out a number of favors in the context of these elections, including stuff regarding debt payments and helping him to kind of keep those economic populist handouts coming in the build-up to the elections. 

But I also think that Erdoğan has shown himself repeatedly to be a foreign policy pragmatist. And in a way, this comes back to that genealogy, that Ottoman inheritance. The Ottoman Empire was called “the sick man of Europe” for its last 100-150 years or so. But it actually outlived the person who coined the term, the Russian Tsar. The Ottoman Emperor and his dynasty actually outlived the Tsar’s dynasty by a couple of years. So Turkey, because of its location, is really good at playing that Risk board and pivoting between different geopolitical poles and geo-cultural centers of gravity. And I think we can expect to see more of that. And that's probably a sign of our times in the world more broadly. We're looking at a more complicated Risk board when it comes to foreign policy in general. In that sense, I think that the sort of à la carte approach that Erdoğan has been pursuing the past few years—we're likely to see more of that.

Mounk: When I think about the last 15 or so years, there has been this great arc of hope and disappointment, in democracy in Turkey, but also actually in democracy in other parts of the Muslim world. When Erdoğan was first elected, many people saw him as a figure of hope who would fully democratize this country in part by integrating more devout Muslims more fully into a system from which they were in part excluded. Those hopes have been quite thoroughly dashed. Then a few years later, we got the Arab Spring, with great hopes of democracy in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. But at this point, the last remaining democracy that resulted from the Arab Spring, Tunisia, has become quite firmly authoritarian. I think in the case of Indonesia and Malaysia, you can make a case, but some people have jumped to the conclusion that somehow democracy is incompatible with the Muslim world. 

I assume that you disagree with that. But why has it been so hard for democracies to take root in that part of the world? And how hopeful are you that that might change in the course of the coming decades?

Onar: That is a very sort of broad brush, right? All of these different countries and political systems had their various engagements with democracy and democracy-building over the past decades. There's a couple of things we have to unpack in order to do justice to such a big question. One basket of things I would look at would be things that are kind of specific to the experiences of the Muslim-majority Middle East that you have to take into account when you explain the democratic deficit. And we have to avoid the trap of kind of exceptionalizing the region because a lot of the problems that we're encountering are really examples of just right-wing populism and the illiberal turn, and the way that that voters in European contexts, in North and South American contexts, have also been led down the same sort of path that the folks in Turkey and Tunisia have been led down. We also have to consider a second basket of causes that are kind of more universal. 

On the specific side, people talk about colonial legacies in the region and capitalism impacting the region in kind of uneven ways. One source of the region’s problems has been that Western partners of the region want stability, and strongmen are better at providing stability than, as we've seen, weaker opposition candidates who can bring together a really diverse electoral coalition but can't make it across the final threshold of these presidential elections. There's kind of a default preference that's not mentioned a lot for having stable interlocutors. Preferably from a Western perspective, you want a secular, stable leader to rule the space. But if you can't have that, or if it's a particularly egregious secularist leader, then you are open to a religious strong leader to secure these spaces. So it's a two-way street. We have to read the reasons for the democratic deficit in the context of this long history of quite structurally uneven and problematic relations with the West.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.