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Triumph of Hope against Fear?

Triumph of Hope against Fear?
 Soli Özel
Senior Fellow - International Relations and Turkey

One of the many great movies by the late German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder was his 1974 film, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. The title itself, beyond the content of the movie, is a statement about the human condition which in the case of the Turkish elections incisively reflects the psychology of the country’s current rulers. For the first time since they won a majority in Parliament in the elections of 2002, the AKP and its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan face the serious prospect of defeat in a national campaign in the twin Presidential and Parliamentary elections that will take place on the 14th of May.

The day and the year of these elections are in themselves significant as well. May 14th was the day in 1950 when the 27-year-old single-party rule of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) ended, and the Democrat Party (DP) acceded to power in the first fully free and fair elections in Republican history. The year 2023 marks the centennial of the founding of the Turkish Republic. The results of these elections will likely determine the trajectory of the Republic as it enters its second century and indicate whether it remains faithful to the project of its founders who were inspired by Enlightenment principles.

Alternatively, the Republic will be reimagined by a religious-authoritarian political power bloc that would alter its pluralist political nature further. This domestic battle for Turkey's identity (its "Kulturkampf" between a religious authoritarian and a secular-democratic vision) is therefore what is truly at stake in these elections. As such the verdict of the Turkish electorate would possibly have global reverberations as well.

Background of the elections

Between 2002 and 2018, the AKP and Erdogan won all the national elections and referenda until the spell was broken for the mayoral elections of the country’s major cities, including its economic and financial center Istanbul, in 2019. In 2017, after a controversial referendum ushered in a Sultanist version of a Presidential system, that did away with nearly all checks and balances and Mr. Erdogan was elected President in 2018, Turkey’s drift towards a competitive authoritarian political order accelerated.

In the five years that passed since then, the glaring problem of governance that the shabbily prepared Presidential system suffered from was arguably exacerbated. The most recent display of the inadequacy of this administrative and governance structure, beset by corruption, repression and incompetence, came with the near total failure of state institutions in the face of the devastating earthquakes that hit 11 southeastern provinces of the country on February 6th of this year. Most of these cities were Erdogan/AKP strongholds. The quakes officially claimed at least 55 thousand lives and the immense physical destruction of city centers and beyond left 2 million people homeless as many denizens fled the cities and dispersed in different parts of the country.

The full political impact of the failures in dealing with the earthquakes is not clear and in fact AKP and its ruling coalition partner National Movement Party (MHP) voters say they are satisfied with the rescue efforts. It is clear though that the assessment of why the earthquakes turned out to be so devastating, and of the government’s response and its responsibility in the extent of the damage was filtered through partisan lenses. This further highlights the extent of polarization in the country and the hold it has on people’s perceptions as well as relation to reality. Yet the political fallout, however limited, is becoming more visible gradually if one is to believe the latest poll numbers.

One clear political result of the earthquake was that it put an end to the endless debates over who the candidate of the opposition for the presidency should be. Mr. Kiliçdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition party CHP, who rose to the occasion and took a defiant position against the government and thus finally found his voice in the wake of the quakes is now the candidate of the 6-party opposition bloc.

That a politician from the Alevi minority in Turkey was declared candidate for the Presidency on a Muslim holy night, supported by five parties, three of which have their pedigree in Turkey’s Sunni Islamist political movement was extremely symbolic. Particularly so in the context of Turkey’s laicité that had been undermined considerably in the later periods of Erdogan’s rule.

The story the quakes tell

The quakes displayed two realities about Turkey. The first was the absence of an effective state. The cronyism of the current regime and the personalization of power almost thoroughly deinstitutionalized the administrative apparatus. Institutions have been hallowed out and many are being run by people whose main, if not only qualification, is their subservience to the top and their loyalty to the chief.

As a result, when the quakes hit those provinces, the victims could not find the state by their side and the agencies responsible for helping them in such moments were either conspicuous by their absence (including the military but for other, arguably political reasons) or displayed a spectacular degree of disorganization and incompetence. Ultimately, more was accomplished in the first days of the rescue efforts by volunteers, civil society organizations and the teams sent from countries that responded to the call by Turkey’s interior ministry. They all heroically worked to save victims from under the rubble despite the disorganization and at times deliberate obstructionism of local authorities or agencies.    

The second and definitely more uplifting reality emanated from Turkish society. The entire country mobilized to help the victims and generously sent them the material that they would need. A good part of the donations went to voluntary organizations and not state agencies since the former were more trusted, a fact that triggered a fit of jealousy on the part of the latter. It was revealed later that Turkish Red Crescent whose job it is to provide everything that’s necessary in such a moment of catastrophe, actually sold tents and other necessary items to volunteer organizations. This scandal could not budge those responsible from their positions either. Typically for this government, not a single official resigned because of the defective and negligent performance of state authorities. The volunteers, (including individuals who have sponsored or underwritten their own rescue efforts) instead of being welcomed and aided in their efforts by state agencies were obstructed by the same.

The immense energy, mobilizational and organizational capacity of civil society and the outpouring of empathy as well as solidarity that was on display were phenomenal. Finally, the rescue efforts of effective foreign teams, the presence of teams even from Armenia and Greece made it almost impossible for the well tested anti-Western rhetoric to be mobilized during the electoral campaign of the ruling coalition; such was the magnitude of the sympathy for the teams that erupted all over the country.

Campaign dynamics and the fear of losing

In the Turkish system the Parliamentary and the Presidential elections are held under two different rules. There is only one round of voting for the Parliament and the Presidential election is a two-round affair. The system allows the formation of coalition blocs and for the upcoming elections the two main contestants are the Republican Coalition led by Mr. Erdogan’s AKP that includes the MHP, and two smaller Islamist parties and the National Coalition led by Mr. Kiliçdaroglu’s CHP that includes five other parties. In addition to these two main blocs there are two others: one, Labor and Freedom Alliance led by the pro-Kurdish HDP (which had to contest the election under a different identity for fear of being closed down, the Green Left Party) and smaller leftist parties. The other is the Ancestral Alliance, made up of ultranationalist parties.

There are four candidates for the Presidency. Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Kiliçdaroglu, Mr. Muharrem Ince and Mr. Sinan Ogan. The candidates need to have 50%+1 votes to be elected in the first round. Absent this result there will be a second round on the 28th. The HDP/GLP decided not to field a candidate for the Presidency and thus implicitly took a position supportive of Mr. Kiliçdaroglu.

The 6-party opposition bloc + the HDP-led leftist bloc have a good chance to win a majority in Parliament but not a large enough one to change the constitution. The probability of the ruling coalition bloc to attain a majority also exists because of the peculiarities of the electoral system. However, a last-minute decision by the ultranationalist MHP to run its own lists and not participate in joint lists with AKP makes this a weaker prospect.

Of the other candidates besides Erdogan and Kiliçdaroglu for the presidency that of Mr. Muharrem Ince threatens a clear win in the Presidential contest for the opposition in the first round. A former member of CHP who was that party’s Presidential candidate in 2018, Ince refuses to cave in to pressures and drop out. Endowed with a huge ego not commensurate with his capabilities, ever so resentful of Kiliçdaroglu and comfortable with his role of “spoiler”, Ince initially enjoyed considerable appeal among the 5 million strong youth cohort that will be voting for the first time in these elections and the disenchanted voters of major parties.

Given his performance since then and his venomous attacks against the opposition, it is not unreasonable to expect that he may run out of steam by the time of the election, particularly since the popular mayors of Istanbul and Ankara are actively campaigning by the side of Kiliçdaroglu. The precipitous decline of Ince’s support that is evident in nearly all recent polls hearten the opposition but unless his and Ogan’s support fall below 5% a first-round victory for Kiliçdaroglu appears elusive for the moment.

In the most recent polls conducted by credible pollsters the Republic coalition comes ahead in the number of seats in Parliament but is not able to cross the 301-seat electoral threshold. The Nation Alliance comes second and can only secure a majority of votes for its agenda, yet not enough to change the constitution, if the HDP/GLP goes along. In this case, with the opposition holding the majority of seats in the Parliament even if Mr. Erdogan were to win the Presidency, he would have to face, for the first time since he came to power, a pole of power and resistance to his will that would make a difficult co-habitation.

For the presidential contest, most polls predict a two-round election. The country is on a knife’s edge. Mr. Kiliçdaroglu appears to be ahead for the election that will take place on May 14, but the lead is still shaky and Mr. Erdogan keeps gaining ground. In the second round Kiliçdaroglu is expected to win with a slight margin. But given how tight the race is and likely to remain, it is imprudent to have full faith in the accuracy or the guidance of the polls.

The incumbent, the challenger and the fear factor

So far Kiliçdaroglu, flanked by the mayors of İstanbul and Ankara, conducted an energetic and imaginative campaign. His rallies are crowded and animated. He promises a fight against corruption and demand accountability from current officeholders, a more equal distribution of income, repairing the broken justice system, restoring professionalism and meritocracy in the bureaucracy, and fighting the debilitating polarization that has been the driving force of Mr. Erdogan’s rule with an inclusive approach to all segments of society.

His video appeal to the public in which he acknowledged his Alevi identity and argued that what was important was not one’s born identity but the kind of person one chose to become broke all existing records on YouTube as it received over 100 million views.

Mr. Erdogan who had some health problems last week still enjoys a solid 42% support for his candidacy before the undecided are distributed. In the campaign trail he continues to use his polarizing rhetoric. He also takes advantage of the prerogatives of his office to turn on monetary taps and promise bonuses for retirees, free natural gas and further increases in minimum wage. Most recently he questioned the legitimacy of an opposition victory arguing that HDP/GLP support was akin to support by the terrorist organization PKK and that “the nation would not stand for it”. All such outbursts and the insinuation that an opposition victory could not be deemed legitimate signifies a deep-seated fear that defeat may be likely, and days of accountability would follow in its wake.

The prospect of defeat arguably makes Mr. Erdogan and his party nervous. Earlier, the interior minister who argued that a victory for the opposition would be a victory for LGBTI, likened a defeat in the election for their side to a coup. The spokesperson for the AKP complained that the opposition wanted to unseat the AKP government, both of them forgetting that the point of having elections is to win over your opponent. A former Prime Minister suggested that this election was between occupiers and resisters. On their part, the opposition parties and civil society mobilized to guarantee election security and integrity.

All in all, Turkey has more than a fair shake at terminating the Erdogan era on the centennial of the Republic even if the campaign is not either totally free or fair. Should this be the case the Turkish  electorate will have unseated an Islamist and authoritarian government through the ballot box and as such may provide a worthy example to those societies that fight electoral authoritarianism or authoritarianism tout court around the world.


Copyright Image : OZAN KOSE / AFP

Supporters wave Turkish national flags as they attend a rally of Turkey's Republican People's Party (CHP) Chairman and Presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu in Canakkale, western Turkey, on April 11, 2023. A sea of umbrellas and hoods at his feet, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the Turkish opposition candidate who will challenge Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the polls on 14 May, smilingly promises "the return of spring".

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