Why Erdogan’s win isn’t all it seems

Ruth Ben-Ghiat

‘We are here, we will not surrender to this darkness!’ declared dozens of well-known Turkish women in an open letter urging their peers to vote in Sunday’s runoff elections for the presidency of Turkey. “Let’s build a country where fear has no place, where equality and freedom prevail,” said the women, including academics, artists and politicians. Days later, it seems those dreams of equality and freedom won’t be realized any time soon.
The victory of incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan – securing 52.1% of the vote against opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s 47.9% – gives him another five-year term. This was a very strong result for the opposition, given the difficulties of competing against an autocrat who has increasingly stifled dissent. In the run-up to the first round of voting, Erdogan’s interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, tellingly likened the election to the 2016 attempted coup. But this election told the world that another Turkey exists – a Turkey devoted to democracy. Off the back of Erdogan’s win, we can expect Turkey to draw even closer to Russia, which supplies more than one-third of its petroleum and oil products. Already, Russian President Vladimir Putin allowed Turkey to defer a multimillion dollar gas payment as a preelection show of goodwill.
So look for Erdogan to follow whatever geopolitical path benefits his Russian patron, including continued opposition to Sweden joining NATO. But to understand really what comes next, it’s worth looking at how Erdogan laid the ground for this election. In power for two decades – first as prime minister and then as president – he has emerged as one of the most wily and repressive strongmen ruling today. Erdogan markets himself as the champion of Muslims everywhere, building mosques and Islamic schools around the world, but he represses his own people if they dare to oppose him.
Turkey still reels from the purge of society sparked by the 2016 attempted military coup. In the fallout, more than 332,000 people were detained between 2016 and 2022, and tens of thousands remain in jail, according to the Turkish Interior Ministry’s own statistics from 2022. Erdogan, of course, denies he is an autocrat. “Would a dictator ever enter a runoff election?” he asked CNN’s Becky Anderson just before the election. In the 21st century, the answer is yes. Today authoritarianism works differently. Electoral autocracy is the name for the modern-day version in which elections are held but the field of competition is gamed from the beginning, so the results are far more likely to come out the way the government needs them to. A case in point was the more than two-year jail sentence slapped on opposition leader and mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, late last year for apparently insulting officials years earlier. Erdogan specializes in “insult suits”: lawsuits levied on people who supposedly criticize him or his government. In 2019, a staggering 36,066 people were investigated for “insulting” Erdogan, and 12,298 were prosecuted and more than 3,800 convicted.
But this particular suit – which saw Imamoglu banned from politics and prevented from becoming head of the opposition coalition – was clearly politically motivated. Erdogan has not commented on Imamoglu. Imamoglu, a devout Muslim who is younger and more charismatic than Kilicdaroglu, triumphed over Erdogan’s chosen candidate in the 2019 mayoral race by campaigning on an anti-authoritarian platform of love and bridge-building. He was arguably the only man who could have beaten Erdogan, and so it made sense, from an autocratic standpoint, to remove him from the field of play. The domination of the media by a sitting autocrat, especially one such as Erdogan who persecutes opposition journalists, including those living in exile, also makes such elections undemocratic.
Selvin Korkmaz, executive director of the independent pollster IstanPol, observes that Erdogan had the power to make sure that the opposition’s message simply didn’t reach many voters. “The main strategy of Erdogan was to manage the perceptions, rather than providing solutions to the issues,” Korkmaz said. Those issues included a crisis-ridden economy. Erdogan’s economic policies have contributed to horrific inflation: over 80% in October, a 24-year record, and still at 44% last month. The grandiose and costly infrastructure projects Erdogan, like all authoritarians, has pursued, which have often displaced poor Turks from their homes, have not helped matters.
Nor has the February earthquake that killed 46,000 in Turkey and caused devastating destruction across the country. “Such things have always happened. It’s part of destiny’s plan,” Erdogan callously told earthquake victims early on, exemplifying how strongmen are often at their worst when their people need them the most. Like that of authoritarians from Mussolini onward, Erdogan’s popularity has resided in part in his image as a modernizer who brings Turkey international prestige. Speaking in January about relief for victims of a flood in Antalya, he bragged that Turkey possessed the fastest and most efficient system of intervention in disasters in the world.
The negligent government rescue response to the earthquake fueled huge public anger as loved ones died in the rubble before assistance arrived. While the government eventually admitted the failings of its rescue efforts and issued a public apology, the earthquake response revealed the toll of Erdogan’s attacks on the institutions and civil society organizations that provide assistance after natural disasters such as this one. Erdogan has targeted many nongovernmental organizations as foreign agents or terrorist groups, weakening their footprint. And the slow response of the military – now a shadow of its former self after Erdogan’s post-2016 attempted coup reforms – also factored in. And Turks were outraged at the revelations that government officials had allowed substandard buildings to pass inspection and had been granting amnesties for violations of building codes – in effect, creating the conditions for mass death and injury in a famously earthquake-prone country. (The government later arrested dozens of contractors, inspectors and project managers for violating building rules – something critics dismissed as scapegoating.) Yet none of this was enough to compensate for Erdogan’s popularity among his devoted followers and the advantage he had as an authoritarian incumbent, including the power to detain anyone who made critical comments on social media about the government’s response to the earthquake – 138 people were detained in February alone. If history is any judge, Erdogan, despite his victory, will be consumed with rage at the opposition having done so well. He may also feel empowered to silence critics further and may well launch another round of detentions and insult suits to punish those who dare to challenge him.
For all his bluster about modernizing Turkey, Erdogan has created an environment of fear, hostility and economic hardship. This is not a country where many of Turkey’s young people see a future for themselves. Erdogan may have won this election, but he has lost the hearts and faith of large numbers of the Turkish population. And more repression will not turn that around.