Turkish parties have always been authoritarian. Tezcan Gümüs on the results of the presidential election in Turkey

Turkey’s presidential election was held on 28 May, with incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan winning against Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Kasper Ly Netterstrom talks to Tezcan Gümüs, author of “Turkey’s Political Leaders – authoritarian tendencies in a democratic state”, about the reasons for his victory and its consequences.

Kasper Ly Netterstrom: Erdogan won the election with just over 52 %. How much of this is a reflection of Erdogan’s popularity and how much is it a reflection of the authoritarian nature of the political system in Turkey? 

Tezcan Gümüs: Good question. He would still get a lot of votes for sure because of his charisma and his pious background. He used conservative and nationalist identity politics to appeal to major segments of Turkish society to good effect, as he has done for a long time. The fact is that many people feel that he is “their guy”. But the authoritarian system also ensures that only he can win. 

Turkey’s economy has been trailing for a long time. Inflation is out of control and many people have experienced a fall in purchasing power over the last few years. Why didn’t this affect Erdogan’s support?

When you control 90 percent of the media, you control the narrative. You need to make the connection between the economic problems and Erdogan for voters to punish his economic mismanagement. The opposition could not get its message across to a make that connection. Erdogan used terrorism and LGBTQ rights as a “threat” to Turkish “cultural” and “traditional” values and successfully took the focus away from the economic crisis. He also  ensured that these so-called security and cultural threats were directly connected to a possible opposition victory. This helped consolidate his voter base. With his control over the media landscape, he can say the sky is green and the media will tell everyone that it is green, and some people will end up thinking the sky is in fact green. 

The opposition cannot influence this narrative because they don’t have the ability to get their message out to the mainstream media. Unfortunately, we have been in such a state for a number of years now.

There is also the ability to dish out economic benefits as the government pleases. We continually see this as Erdogan announces increases in the salaries of the bureaucracy, pension payments, and so forth. In a competitive authoritarian system, the government or the leader can instrumentalise the treasury without checks or accountability. This allows them to provide economic benefits as they please. Anyone that is a beneficiary of these policies would become a likely voter for Erdogan. 

Observers have called the elections in Turkey “Free but unfair” and said there was an unequal playing field. Turkey is also often mentioned as the model for the concept of “competitive authoritarianism”. Can you outline for our readers that might not know Turkey that all, the elements that make Turkey fall short of a normal democracy?

There are no checks on Erdogan. He controls the media. The judiciary and bureaucracy are also under his control. All the state’s resources are mobilized to ensure his victory. The opposition’s most popular politician, Istanbul’s mayor Ekrem Imamouglu, got a sentence for insulting an electoral official (now appealed), which effectively barred him from running for president. The leader of the largest Kurdish party, Salahattin Demirtas of HDP, has been in jail for years. Moreover, in the Kurdish-dominated southern eastern regions, the election is not just unfair but  also  unfree. There is severe voter repression in these areas. Countless local Kurdish politicians are in jail. When the person you want to vote for is in jail, is it really a free choice? There is also suspicion that ballots were not counted or entered correctly into the system to disadvantage the opposition. But we will never know how pervasive this was. 

What role did the clientelist element of Erdogan’s regime play in the elections?

There are many people who earn a lot of money because of their ties to Erdogan’s regime. For example, we talk about “the gang of five” which is a group of developers that get all of the government’s contracts. But it is not only these five major construction companies that have benefitted. This happens at all levels. Therefore, 

you have many people and their families that would lose money and influence if Erdogan lost. Turkey’s economic crisis can be attributed in large part to the pervasive corruption within the government. Unfortunately, clientelism has become deeply ingrained into the system thereby exacerbating the situation.

Why wasn’t the opposition able to use the elections to challenge Erdogan’s regime? 

The opposition was very naïve in believing the polls. They honestly thought that given how bad things were, they were going to win. There was a level of hubris in their behaviour. As a result, the opposition failed to realise that they were up against a system that was against them. This meant that they did not come up with innovative strategies to challenge the authoritarian electoral system.

For instance, the six-party opposition alliance failed to have observers at 20,000 ballots. This was a massive oversight. Was it naivety or arrogance, or maybe a mixture of both? We will never know how the votes were counted at these ballots. This is just one example. There are other areas where the opposition could have done a better job as well.

The other thing is, the presidential candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, basically pushed the stronger candidates–like Istanbul’s mayor, Ekrem Imamouglu, and Ankara’s mayor, Mansur Yavas–aside, to make himself the presidential candidate. There was a lot of self-interest in Kılıçdaroğlu’s decision. Polls were showing that Imamoglu, and Mansur Yavas, were doing far better against Erdogan than Kılıçdaroğlu was doing. And yet he insisted on being the candidate. He made a deal with minor parties in the six-party opposition alliance. This is despite parties like Demokrat Partisi, Gelecek Partisi, Saadet Partisi, and DEVA being electorally inconsequential. Polling shows they were not going to get over 1% individually if they contested. But Kılıçdaroğlu made an electorally irrational decision with these parties in return for their backing for his candidacy. Hence, he ended up giving 35 parliamentary seats to these small parties. These were won by the CHP [The Republican People’s Party, the biggest opposition party], and Kılıçdaroğlu got no electoral benefits from having their support. These smaller parties that are in parliament because of the CHP are not inclined to ally with CHP in parliament. There is a good chance that some or many of their parliamentarians would vote to support AKPs policies. Kılıçdaroğlu has effectively left the CHP in a parliamentary weak position.

As much as he created this picture of himself as a democrat, Kılıçdaroğlu is not democratic. Any democratic leader would have left the party leadership a long time ago given the level of failure that the party has endured under his leadership. In the 12 years, that he has been the head of CHP, the party has not got more than 25 percent of the votes cast in general elections. It has lost referendums and general elections. Kılıçdaroğlu has presided, as the main opposition leader, over a period when Turkey has transitioned to an authoritarian system. He has effectively allowed this to happen, but he continually refuses to leave the leadership seat and allow the party to regenerate with younger and more dynamic politicians. As I write in my book,

Turkish parties have always been authoritarian. The leaders never step down and power largely coalesces in their hands. Kılıçdaroğlu is an example of this political culture unfortunately. For instance, instead of resigning, he has now increased his power over the party by giving his office direct control over local party organisations.

He has done this to centralise power even more, thereby averting the potential for discontent and challenges against him from the CHP grassroots.

How much of the current authoritarian system is a product of Erdogan’s doing, and how much of it is the way Turkish politics has functioned for decades?

Erdogan is the most extreme manifestation of this authoritarian culture, but as my book shows, he is not unique. He didn’t just appear and put all of this into place. 

There was a strong pattern of authoritarianism in Turkey during the multiparty period. 

Adnan Menderes who came into power in the first democratic elections in Turkey was highly authoritarian. By the end of the 1950’s he had pretty much closed off the democratic system. The media was muzzled. He brought in laws to retire judges whenever he wished. He was close to undertaking a civilian coup.

The only reason it didn’t happen was because the military stopped it in its own way. I am not excusing the military’s actions, but he created an atmosphere where the army was the only check on power. The same thing happened throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The major parties were leader-centric and their leaders were authoritarian. Everyone who challenged them was marginalised or purged. 

Whether a party is not run democratically, is telling of how they will run the government when they get into power.

An important aspect of this is the control of the candidates lists. In a consolidated democracy, majority parties will have preselections. If you want to be a candidate for a party, you must go through an internal voting process. In Turkey,, the leader selects the candidates.  A candidates’ political career is therefore tied to that of  the leader. If you don’t do or say as the leader pleases, they will just kick you off the list in the next elections. That is how the party becomes obedient to the leader. 

Kilicdaouglu is the same. In the 12 years he has been in power, I forget how many elections he has lost. Turkey has been sliding into an authoritarian system while he has been in power, but he nonetheless has not left power and has rather stacked the party’s central committee with loyalists. He has been able to do this because he and a core group of people who are senior in the party hierarchy control everything. This fits into the pattern of authoritarian party rule that Turkey has experienced throughout its multi-party history.

Nationalism played a big role in the election. Both sides tried to appear more nationalist than the other. Why?

The Turkish electorate composes of various shades of nationalists. In Turkey, nationalism will win you votes. In the last couple of elections, Erdogan played the terrorism card to demonize the opposition. Doing so increased the nationalist fever in Turkey. This is why right-wing parties had strong results in the parliamentary elections. Turkey’s parliament is more nationalist today than it was in previous years. Whatever side of the political spectrum you are on, as a political party, you need to show some kind of nationalism. If we look at Kılıçdaroğlu’s sharp nationalist turn before the run-off presidential elections from the earlier “inclusive” messaging, we see just how influential nationalist narratives are for winning votes in Turkey. This is of course outside of the Kurdish-rights-focused parties. 

The other thing is the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party – The Kurdish militant group]. Having a terrorist/militant organization undertaking a fight against the state since the 1980s has created a more nationalist Turkey. Erdogan, since the failure of the Kurdish peace process in 2015, has used the PKK to create fear and hostility against the opposition parties and in particularly, the HDP. He has done all of this while increasing his nationalist rhetoric. This has created a massive rise in nationalists in the country. I don’t know if the PKK has helped the cause of the Kurds in the country, but because of them, Kurdish issues have been securitized. I wonder what Turkish politics and the ideology of the electorate would be without the PKK’s war against the Turkish state. Nonetheless, Erdogan has cleverly used the PKK as a bogeyman. This has created a much more nationalist society as the recent years have shown.

Erdogan has appointed Mehmet Simsek as the minister of finance. This has been widely seen as a return to a more normal economic policy. What do you make of this?

It might signal to the market that Turkey is going back to more orthodox economic policies, and that Erdgan is willing to raise interest rates to fight inflation and defend the Lira. But doing so might create short-term economic hardship. I don’t know if Erdogan is willing to do that before the local elections next year. Simsek’s name has lot of credibility, but at the end of the day, Erdogan is the one in control. His ministers have never been fully independent or autonomous. Erdogan has to give the green or red light for everything. I do hope that Simsek is given autonomy, and that it helps the economy. 

There are structural issues that Simsek must confront if he is to improve and successfully manage the Turkish economy. For instance, he must overcome and solve the systemic corruption in government, ensure some form of independence for the Central Bank, and foster a return to the rule of law and democracy in order to provide fertile ground for foreign investors. These are not going to be easily fixed, and I don’t think Simsek has the power to solve them, especially with regards the matters of democracy and the rule of law. 

Erdogan now has a mandate for another five years. Will he be able to run for another term?

He was already not allowed to run for this third term, but since he changed the constitution, his argument was that the first term didn’t count. Erdogan and his team argued that the transition to a presidential system through constitutional changes effectively reset his presidency. Constitutional experts in response said that he  should not have been able to run for a third term. They argued that for the previous terms to not count, there was a need to found an entirely new republic, which, in Turkey’s case, did not happen. When the presidential system was introduced,, it was only done by amending the constitution.But because Erdogan controls the judiciary and the police, . there was no legal challenge or debate against his candidature and subsequent victory. Politically, it was never an issue, and was quickly forgotten..

If Erdogan is to run again in five years’ time, he will have to amend the constitution to allow himself to do so. This is because there will be no way to argue around it this time around as it has become a clear matter now. 

Though Erdogan is an authoritarian, he still sees the vote as necessary to legitimise his rule. Winning through the ballot box, no matter how unfair and unfree it is for the opposition, gives him legitimacy in the eyes of his supporters.

Therefore, he will have to find a way to amend the constitution to permit himself to run again. Though he does not have the parliamentary numbers to take it to a referendum at the moment, he will do all he can to entice votes from other parties outside the AKP-MHP alliance to vote in support to take the issue to a referendum. We can be very sure of that. 

What happens to the political system that Erdogan has created when he, one day or another, is no longer there?

It is a rational thing to ask. Over the last few months leading up to the election, he did not seem to be fully healthy. If that is the case, there is a good chance that he will not be able to govern for the entirety of five-years. When you think about it, it is a single-man rule. It is not like Biden who is older than Erdogan, but has got Congress and a team that helps him run the Executive. Not everything is reliant on Biden, whereas in the system Erdogan has created, everything relies only on him. That is a lot of pressure and can cause a lot of physical and emotional stress. Yes, in theory, Erdogan has a team, but at the end of the day, he makes all the final calls. 

The other thing to help answer this question is to look at what happened to important Turkish politicians when they passed away. As you will see, their parties disappeared with them. These parties lost their electoral foothold after the loss of their leaders. I will give you some examples: Turgut Özal, who was the first democratically elected leader in the post-1980-coup era, was highly popular. He created his own party from scratch, the Motherland Party (Anavatan Partisi). He controlled everything. He ran it like a family business. When he was in government, he ran it the same way – single-handedly. After he climbed up to the presidential seat from the prime-ministerial post and was replaced by another leader, the Motherland Party immediately experienced a drop in popularity. After he died of a heart attack in 1993 while president, the Motherland Party pretty much disappeared. We are talking here about Turkey’s major party in the 1980s that was responsible for liberalising the economy by itself. The same was the case with the former Prime Minister, Bülent Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party (Demokratik Sol Parti). After Ecevit’s passing, though it continued to exist, it quickly became electorally irrelevant. This is because in Turkey, parties are tied to the leaders’ personality. Traditionally, the appeal of the party has been linked to the appeal of the leader’s personality. 

When Erdogan goes, I don’t know who will take over, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t foresee the AKP retaining the level of massive support that it enjoys under Erdogan. And unfortunately, given that it is a single man structure, if Erdogan is not able to govern in the next five years, that would leave a massive power vacuum. Without Erdogan bringing in a successor, there might be an internal struggle to rule over the party. This  could create political instability across the country. Either way, I would err on the side of the argument that the AKP would not be able to sustain the same levels of electoral support in a post-Erdogan landscape. Maybe they would be able to do so for one more election, but the pull of the AKP is Erdogan. It is his ideas, it is the way of appealing to the people, and his decisions that have made the AKP popular. Not the party itself. Look at all the important figures who have left the party – Abdullah Gül, the former president was really respected electorally and internationally. Nothing happened to the party’s electoral support after he left. It was the same with Ali Babacan. He was a prominent name when it came to  running the economy. Ahmet Davutoglu, another key figure, who was the former foreign minister and Prime Minister resigned from the party and it did nothing to AKP’s electoral fortunes. These politicians eventually created their own parties but could not snatch votes from the AKP. This is all because it is only Erdogan that matters to his electorate. 

In a post-Erdogan AKP, I don’t see the party retaining the same levels of voter support that they enjoy now. How that translates in an authoritarian setting in which the president controls everything is unknowable at this point. 

In cooperation with Rohit Sarma

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