The​ presidential election held in Turkey on 14 May was marked by heightened excitement, both among the domestic opposition and abroad, that the end of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s presidency might be imminent. Erdoğan and his supporters assured the country he was still the right man, at the right time – Doğru Zaman, Doğru Adam – to lead the republic into its second century. But the opposition pledged a new beginning. The elections, they said, were a real opportunity for a more democratic future (even if one of the main opposition leaders was in prison on overtly political charges). The earthquake in Hatay and Maraş in February had, they thought, changed everything. The fortunes of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma or AKP) were made after another terrible earthquake, on the North Anatolian Fault in 1999. But development hadn’t brought justice, only more corruption: amnesties for the handful of cronies who stuck up papier-mâché houses on shifting foundations. This time the earthquake killed more than fifty thousand people and made a million homeless in Turkey alone, with many of the deaths attributable to shoddy state-sanctioned construction. The AKP came in with an earthquake and perhaps an earthquake would bring it down.

For most of the last two decades the system over which Erdoğan has presided has seemed well entrenched. And yet there have been short bursts of ill-fated optimism that things might change. The preliminary election results suggest the same pattern. With 49.5 per cent of the vote, Erdoğan comfortably led Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, with 44.9 per cent, and the 5.2 per cent of the third candidate, Sinan Oğan. I’m writing before the second-round run-off on 28 May, but the chances of an opposition victory already seem non-existent. Turkey’s constitution should only allow for two presidential terms, but Erdoğan insisted that ‘the clock was reset’ when the revised constitution came into force in 2018. The opposition parties disputed this for a time but then gave up, in part because they were optimistic about their electoral chances. A year before the elections, some of them formed the Nation Alliance, led by the so-called Table of Six, Kılıçdaroğlu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP); Meral Akşener, the leader of the nationalist IYI party; the leaders of two minor parties, Gültekin Uysal of the Demokrat Parti and Temel Karamollaoğlu of Saadet; and two grandees who defected from the AKP, Ali Babacan and Ahmet Davutoğlu, who nominally lead parties of their own. The presence of Davutoğlu and Babacan in the opposition alliance was contentious, but the idea was that it would peel off discontented AKP supporters and provide a way to victory.

The problems with Kılıçdaroğlu as the opposition candidate were clear from the start. He had already led the opposition to more than a decade of electoral disappointment; at 74, he was older than Erdoğan; he was without charisma; and he was Alevi, a member of a heterodox sect that a proportion of the population would never support. Two months before the vote, Akşener briefly quit the Table of Six over the choice. She gave in three days later, but the tensions were plain. Still, what alternatives did the opposition have? Ekrem İmamoğlu, the mayor of Istanbul, another CHP member, had seemed the natural choice. But his sentencing in December 2022 by an Istanbul court on the ludicrous charge of insulting state officials presented complications. So Kılıçdaroğlu it was.

The opposition campaign was well run in most respects. The CHP and IYI provided much of the organisational infrastructure and managed to drum up some energy. The IYI is a reactionary nationalist party founded by former members of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP); the MHP has been allied with the government since 2015. The CHP is easier to mischaracterise than to describe: there is the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a reputation as a party of the old establishment, vague nods to socialism, recent appeals to an urban middle class uninterested in radical politics, and the fact that it has become primarily a party of the Aegean coast. The predominantly Kurdish and more or less left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) had declined to join the Table of Six. But on 3 May the party’s imprisoned leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, called on his supporters to vote for Kılıçdaroğlu, bringing the backing of much of the south-east. Kılıçdaroğlu’s campaign focused on the economic dysfunction caused by Erdoğanism and the need for some form of democratic politics. He also talked of sending Syrian refugees back across the border. Erdoğan had pledged a Türkiye Yüzyılı, a new Turkish century, and claimed that the achievements of the domestic arms industry were a symbol of a resurgent national prestige. The CHP said it would rejoin the US-led F-35 fighter jet programme and push for a $20 billion upgrade to Turkey’s existing F-16s.

Putting aside the more excitable rhetoric of the campaign, there was always a question over what kind of new start the opposition could credibly offer. The basic facts of the political landscape hadn’t changed. The media had long since been bought off, hollowed out, or bullied into line. Erdoğan’s supporters exercised decisive influence over the security forces, the Supreme Election Council and all the main organs of state. The AKP had the backing of corporate figures, including the head of the respected state airline. In metro stations, images of the president were superimposed on posters celebrating recent transport infrastructure projects. There were also steady reminders for the opposition that it was playing by the rules the government had set. In Erzurum, the local AKP branch decided that a planned opposition rally was illegal and parked coaches in the square where it was to be held. In the days before the vote, Erdoğan’s speeches were broadcast on all television channels simultaneously. Kılıçdaroğlu, meanwhile, gave his final public speeches in body armour. But the opposition still believed the odds were swinging their way. Opposition bastions were alive with stories that Erdoğan wasn’t physically fit. His own cadres, it was rumoured, were complaining he was out of touch. Opponents of the government were seduced by strong pre-election polling and by the idea that the high projected turnout would favour them, although turnout in Turkish elections is always high.

On election day I travelled to Güvercintepe, a half-forgotten area on the outskirts of Istanbul next to the Atatürk Olympic stadium, built during a failed bid for the 2008 games. A medium-sized agglomeration of poorly constructed apartment blocks housing large families, the district is typical of much of the city away from its famous centre, though it is home to more than the average number of Kurdish speakers. Outside the polling station in Filistin Mahallesi the atmosphere was tense. Two men had got into a dispute, the cause of which was unclear, and were threatening to kill each other. Inside, the sophistication of the AKP election machine was on display. It had more observers than any other party. They wore orange rosettes or had orange pens on lanyards to identify themselves, despite this being officially prohibited, and they were well drilled. The single observer from the CHP was young and clearly inexperienced. Voters struggled with the ballot paper, which was almost a metre long to accommodate the many parties standing in the parliamentary elections. ‘What kind of paper is this?’ an old woman asked as she tried to fold it into an envelope. ‘Why does nothing fit anything?’ One of the AKP observers was making a particular effort to make her presence felt. She made as much noise as she could and complained about the voters, who should be ‘making more of an effort for the country’. I was later told by the observer from the neutral civil society organisation Oy ve Ötesi that things grew ugly among the party observers during the final vote count, which ended up being very close. Of 336 votes, 162 were for Kılıçdaroğlu, 155 for Erdoğan, ten for Sinan Oğan and nine invalid. The tallies for the parliamentary vote showed that some supporters of the opposition coalition, the Green Left (the largest party in which is the HDP), must have voted for Erdoğan as president.

As the polls closed I flew to Ankara, where the city centre was overwhelmed by AKP supporters. Atatürk Bulvarı, home to most of the government ministries, was rammed with cars pumping their horns as drivers and passengers waved flags from their windows. Food sellers in the street were hawking Turkish and AKP flags. On Dumlupınar Bulvarı ultra-nationalists were making the grey wolves gesture (think of a shadow puppeteer conjuring a wolf’s head) from their car windows. Some had installed sound systems in their boots and were blasting out music. Two men were walking through the traffic beating drums, and sometimes the bonnets of slow-moving cars. Others had draped their vehicles in sheets bearing Erdoğan’s image. I don’t remember seeing a single visual sign of support for Kılıçdaroğlu, even though the vote in the capital was evenly split.

The state newswire reported an early lead for Erdoğan, which the opposition immediately disputed, just as it had in the 2018 elections. At CHP HQ, party officials claimed to the assembled press that the count was being manipulated: areas more likely to vote for the ruling party were being counted first. There were also rumours that Erdoğan supporters were mounting blanket challenges to the results in districts where Kılıçdaroğlu seemed to be winning, in order to delay his votes being added to the tally. These stories were picked up by Halk TV, one of the few opposition television stations, which based its live count on figures provided by CHP that initially favoured Kılıçdaroğlu. The message from the opposition campaign was ‘we are in the lead’ and the final results will show it.

As the night wore on the mood of the opposition camp became more restrained. The promised surge had not arrived. The counts were showing that Erdoğan’s share of the vote was dropping, but not precipitously. In all likelihood the story the opposition campaign had told was some combination of truth, wishful thinking and a creative attempt to keep morale high. The line we got was still that Kılıçdaroğlu would end up ahead. But soon Ankara’s mayor was conceding on behalf of the opposition that a run-off was more likely than a first-round victory. Plenty of press were still milling around inside CHP HQ, but this was no celebration. At half-past midnight Kılıçdaroğlu gave an address in the auditorium to the press. He spoke of the importance of waiting until every vote was counted. He was curt and seemed deflated.

News began to spread that Erdoğan, who had been in Istanbul until that point, was flying to Ankara. The AKP HQ in the city is just a short walk from the CHP’s, along a road named after a young woman accidentally killed in a failed assassination attempt on an AKP politician. The atmosphere at the ruling party’s headquarters could not have been more different. The crowd that had gathered outside the building had decided to throw a party. They were waving flags and a loudspeaker was playing music themed to Erdoğan’s full name. It also declared that the election was won. One AKP cadre told me that the opposition were out of their minds: ‘They know they won’t get anything like the percentage they claim, and they’ll soon have to face up to that.’

Just after one in the morning a helicopter flew over the area. I happened to be in the right place when the motorcade approached. Erdoğan waved triumphantly from a black Mercedes to the few of us who were standing at the rear of the building. Within an hour he appeared on the balcony with his wife, Emine. Addressing the cheering crowd, he said he believed victory was near, but if a second round was required they would win it. He was giving speeches from the balcony, he said, while Kılıçdaroğlu was ‘stuck in the kitchen’ (one of Kılıçdaroğlu’s election videos had been on the price of onions). He sang a song by his well-known supporter Cengiz Kurtoğlu. At 2.45 a.m. Ahmet Yener, the head of the Supreme Election Council, said that 91 per cent of the presidential votes had been counted and the numbers suggested a run-off would be needed; this was confirmed the following day. The Table of Six, all together this time, gave a very short address, the last of the evening. Kılıçdaroğlu said Erdoğan had not got the result he wanted, and if the people had decided that the election would go to a second round there would be fifteen days to fight for democracy. But the message was delivered with a note of resignation.

The preliminary results in the parliamentary vote were less clear-cut. The AKP lost seats and needed what appeared to be an excellent result for its ultra-nationalist ally, the MHP, to secure a majority for the governing coalition. The relatively strong performance of Sinan Oğan, the third presidential candidate, a wayward nationalist who has feuded with the MHP’s leadership, also fitted the trend. The CHP had set itself the target of winning 30 per cent of the national vote in the parliamentary election. It failed, getting its usual 25 per cent. Because the CHP had effectively given some of its parliamentary seats to minor members of the Table of Six in return for support in the more important presidential election, this meant it would lose a significant number of deputies. Even though they had brought very few votes with them, the former AKP grandees in the opposition would end up with seats. The IYI’s performance was perhaps the most disappointing: the party seemed to suffer for its association with the Table of Six. The Green Left also lost votes and early celebrations in Diyarbakir quickly fizzled out. Overall, the parliamentary results displayed the familiar tricolour pattern: the Aegean and Mediterranean coast went red for the Nation Alliance, the Anatolian heartland and Black Sea coast were painted orange for the AKP and MHP, and the Kurdish south-east purple for HDP.

Asis often the case in Turkey, the election produced plenty of irregularities, particularly in the militarised south-east. In Hakkâri, Şırnak and Urfa there were accounts of soldiers showing up in large groups to vote at remote polling stations, and of police officers trying to vote twice. In Mardin, Green Left polling observers were assaulted by the relatives of a local AKP candidate. In Gaziantep, the HDP claimed that more than a thousand of its members had been signed up as election observers in remote constituencies for a minor nationalist party and as a result had found themselves unable to vote in their own constituencies. A video surfaced of men in Harran openly stamping multiple ballots for Erdoğan; the local bar association said the observer who objected to this was beaten and hounded out of the polling station. The HDP claimed that the results from up to a thousand ballot boxes had been incorrectly assigned to the MHP. In Cizre, 174 votes for the Green Left were registered to the AKP, which had in fact received no votes. These errors were subsequently amended, but they did not make people feel confident about the integrity of the elections. None of this is new in Turkish elections, particularly in the south-east. During the campaign there had been regular police disruption of Green Left meetings, with officers tailing candidates, using loudspeakers to talk over them, and arresting hundreds of activists and election observers. The major public appearance of the party’s leader, four days before the election, was at an Ankara court via a video link from his prison cell.

In the days after the vote, some opposition supporters began to allege more general katakulli – foul play. As in 2015 and 2018, there were some anomalies that favoured the ruling party, almost certainly as a result of shenanigans. The CHP lodged a complaint with the election board over the results from more than two thousand ballot boxes. But there was no clear evidence of anything that might have affected the results at a national level. The initial report from the Organisation for Security and C0-operation in Europe said the elections were competitive, if ‘limited’. It noted some concerns about the ability of people to vote in the areas most affected by the earthquake and said that Erdoğan possessed unjustified advantages. But even if there were ‘some problems here and there’, the vote was good enough. When I visited the central offices of the Supreme Election Council in Zafer Park in Ankara the next morning there was no angry crowd of opposition supporters for security forces to hold back.

The opposition vowed to continue the struggle. A CHP official told me they would ‘carry forward our hope and work much harder. We still believe that we can turn this around but anyway if we will lose, we lose by fighting.’ Forcing a run-off was an achievement of sorts. But why so little, when so much was hoped for? In the first place, the tone of commentary both internationally and within opposition circles in Turkey was badly affected by wishful thinking. The selection of a candidate who was clearly not a match for Erdoğan will come under examination, but the more serious problem was the absence of a good choice. The opposition needed to convince people that its victory would not lead to a period of severe instability, and Akşener’s criticism of the choice of Kılıçdaroğlu was obviously damaging on that front. Scandalous allegations of corruption mounted by a former Erdoğan associate, Ali Yeşildağ, which implicated much of the presidential entourage (including Erdoğan’s brother, brother-in-law and one of his sons), appeared to have little effect. The continued success of the MHP was in line with a general reactionary trend. Turkey’s ülkücü or ‘idealists’, as the ultra-nationalists refer to themselves, have proved very resilient, and the extent of popular anti-Syrian (and even anti-Afghan) refugee sentiment is probably still underestimated. It is difficult to get through conversations with otherwise reasonable people without it coming up. Kılıçdaroğlu has already doubled down on anti-refugee talking points: ‘We won’t leave governing the country to those who let in ten million migrants.’

In the mass displacement caused by the earthquake, Erdoğan and his advisers had a ready-made justification for postponing the election. That they decided to press ahead anyway pointed to their confidence. Part of this can be put down to the possibility of falling back on strong-arm tactics. In the June 2015 parliamentary elections Erdoğan expertly overrode an unfavourable result and then forced a rerun in order to get himself a better one. His victory in the constitutional referendum in November 2017 was achieved with a very narrow margin and some last-minute dirty tricks. But in the 2019 municipal elections the AKP had lost control of both Ankara and Istanbul. The question ahead of this year’s elections was whether they would be closer to those of 2018 or 2019.

Much was made of the significance of votes from the provinces closest to the February earthquake. Local officials said that hundreds of thousands of displaced citizens from Maraş would have to return to their home province in order to vote. The mayor of Hatay claimed that as many as 200,000 voters might not be in the province. These weren’t ideal conditions for an election. But there was no swing against the government as a result of the earthquake. In Hatay and Maraş, the preliminary results showed Erdoğan experienced only modest losses compared to 2018. In nearby Gaziantep, Adana and Osmaniye the picture was much the same. The message seems to be that acts of God can’t be blamed on his purported representatives.

The opposition’s belief that the severity of the economic crisis presented a real opportunity was understandable. The sustained devaluation of the Turkish lira has destroyed the wealth of the moderately well-off, but they don’t form the base of Erdoğan’s support. Three years of very high inflation is a different matter. The working class has been badly hit. Erdoğan’s strategy drew from a familiar playbook. The government offered free natural gas for a month and an amnesty on unpaid taxes. In early May Erdoğan claimed that new oil discoveries had been made, and promised a bright future of hydrocarbon wealth. Six days before the vote the government announced a pay rise for nearly half the country’s civil servants. But if the opposition couldn’t win with inflation above 40 per cent, when could it?

Erdoğan’s rhetorical offering concentrated on national security and social conservatism. The CHP was painted as a party of terrorist enablers. In Rize, his paternal home province, Erdoğan described the opposition as a collection of sapkınlar (‘perverts’), and said he and his party alone respected the sanctity of the family. The HDP were ‘all LGBT-ers’. Relatively late in the campaign he started claiming that contemptuous foreigners were seeking a Kılıçdaroğlu victory. At the end of April the interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, said that the elections were ‘the West’s political coup attempt’. An opposition victory would mean a ‘dependence’ on outside powers. The MHP leader, Devlet Bahçeli, complained about interfering ‘Hans, Sams and Herkels’.

One of the distinguishing features of the Erdoğan era has been his ability to translate narrow electoral victories into hegemony. The importance of religious conservatism is often stressed, but it is easy to exaggerate (a former spiritual adviser to the president’s family captured this when he said that ‘Tayyip Bey [Erdoğan] believes in God, but he doesn’t trust him’). The mobilisation of religious themes alternated with resorts to Washington consensus neoliberalism. Religious ideology has been less relevant in elections than nationalism, particularly since 2015. The extent of authoritarian coercion is hard to overstate. Tens of thousands have been arrested for supposedly insulting the president. Thousands have been subjected to torture or ill-treatment in detention. Dozens of democratically elected mayors and members of parliament have been jailed on political grounds. The purges and mass arrests that took place after the failed military coup in July 2016 marked a darker period of general political repression. Opposition media outlets are fined or even closed down for airing criticism of the government. The courts are directed by the president. Vigils held by the grieving mothers of people killed by state security forces are broken up.

Still, it’s a mistake to ignore the other foundations of the Erdoğan system in Turkish society. When I lived in Istanbul I would occasionally go to the café of the Tayfun Sports Club, a football team for which Erdoğan once played. Erdoğan is an adept demagogue and political strategist. But he also appeals to a large section of society who feel he speaks on their behalf. AKP support has been reinforced by some public health and infrastructure spending and, critically, a compact with the new Turkish business elite that has supplanted the pre-1990s establishment. GDP per capita rose substantially in the early period of Erdoğan’s rule, up until the financial crisis. Even now he represents a settlement between the government-connected ultra-rich and the working class of central Anatolia, the Black Sea and the exurbs.

The chauvinist majoritarianism of the Erdoğan regime isn’t unique in Turkey’s history. Ethnonationalism and anti-pluralism were a basis of the 1924 constitution. But Erdoğan’s personal transcendence of the AKP has no equivalent except in Atatürk. The party can no longer command 50 per cent of parliament, as it did as recently as 2015, but Erdoğan’s appeal is stronger than that of the party alone. That explains their divergent fortunes in these elections, and is the reason the participation of former party grandees in the opposition coalition had so little effect. Discarded AKP figures – Babacan and Davutoğlu, Abdullah Gül and others – stand no chance. Members of the president’s entourage and immediate family are more influential. In the summer of 2018, technocratic AKP officials were jettisoned and Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak was made minister of finance. (Albayrak has himself since been sidelined, and published a memoir that pointedly does not mention Erdoğan by name.) Another son-in-law, Selçuk Bayraktar, remains in favour as the poster boy of indigenous arms manufacturing.

The reactionary nationalist turn in Turkish politics has been strong. Erdoğan has neutralised a nationalist challenge through his compact with the MHP and the adoption of some of its programme. Here the double elections of 2015 were crucial. In June that year, HDP success caused the AKP to lose its parliamentary majority until Erdoğan forced a rerun of the elections. The inconvenience a primarily Kurdish political party had caused was paid for in mass imprisonments as security forces conducted raids targeting party activists. Erdoğan terminated all negotiations with the PKK and the political movement allied with it in favour of restarting the war in the majority Kurdish provinces. The resulting conflict left at least five thousand dead. In Diyarbakır brutal pitched battles between the Turkish army and local guerrillas left much of the old city in ruins. The city of Şırnak was left looking like Raqqa after it was razed in the fight against Islamic State. The Turkish army approached Cizre as though it was invading enemy territory, encircling the city and then shelling it from the surrounding hills. When the soldiers moved in they cut off the city’s water and power and imposed a three-month-long 24-hour curfew. Civilians were shot by snipers and their bodies lay in the streets for days. The worst incident of the war by far occurred on 7 February 2016, when the army assaulted the few buildings where the remnants of the local resistance, as well as plenty of civilians, were holed up. Using incendiary weapons and rifles, they killed 178 people in the basements of three buildings. Some of them burned to death. After the massacre the army maintained the curfew for another 19 days in an attempt to cover up what had happened. The relatives of one of those killed in the basements received a plastic bag containing a couple of kilograms of bones.

This massacre was barely noticed internationally and even in Turkey its significance was downplayed. Military Turkish nationalism has been in the ascendant ever since. The brutal military repression in the south-east, when it is remembered at all, is more likely to be celebrated than condemned. Internationally, the country’s heterodox economic policy and mismanagement have attracted far more scrutiny. And at home Erdoğan has effectively played to this violent legacy by posing as national defender.

In this context, fevered excitement about his electoral defeat looks all the stranger. What was the anticipated scenario? It’s hard to imagine Erdoğan accepting defeat and spending his time swimming off the coast of Marmaris. He had more or less said he would accept the result of the vote, but he also said that if necessary his supporters would ‘go to the streets’ as they had after the abortive 2016 coup. The MHP’s leader, Devlet Bahçeli, described the opposition as traitors who would end up with ‘bullets in their bodies’. Soylu, the interior minister, had made it clear that an opposition victory would be inherently illegitimate. After Erdoğan wins, he said, ‘we will stomp on the opposition.’

19 May

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