Erdoğan’s Resilience

Turkey is headed for tough times. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was reelected for a third term in the runoff elections on 28 May, winning 52% of the popular vote, while the opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu came away with 48%. Although most respectable pollsters predicted the governing nationalist-Islamist coalition would lose its majority, it now holds more than 320 seats out of 600 (down from 344). And though Kılıçdaroğlu received more presidential votes than Erdoğan’s previous challengers, his party undershot expectations, securing 25% of the parliamentary vote in contrast to the 30% it received in the 2019 local elections. The opposition was convinced that the timing of the ballot would work in its favour, following a period of unusually high inflation and disastrous earthquake relief efforts. Why were its hopes dashed?

There are obvious institutional reasons for the resilience of Erdoğanism. The government has spent years monopolizing the mainstream media and judiciary. Prisons are overflowing with activists, journalists and politicians. The Kurdish opposition, the only truly organized non-right-wing force in the country, has seen its democratically elected mayors replaced with state-appointed officials, who have consolidated the government’s rule over the eastern and southeastern provinces. Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. The regime’s endurance is not simply a result of its authoritarianism; its popularity runs much deeper than that. To understand it, we must grasp three major factors that most commentators and opposition politicians refuse to recognize.

The first is economic. As well as using welfare schemes to build trust among poorer sections of the population, Erdoğan’s administration integrated state-capitalist tools into its neoliberal programme. This mixture has kept Turkey on an unconventional but still somewhat sustainable path. The regime mobilized sovereign wealth funds, import substitution and selective incentives for certain sectors such as security and defence. It also lowered interest rates and boosted production in low-tech industries like construction. While alienating orthodox economists and the professional classes, these measures tightened the AKP’s grip on small to medium-sized businesses and state-dependent capitalists, along with their workers.

The second factor is geopolitical. The government’s foreign policy – which aims to establish Turkey as a Great Power and independent mediator between East and West – complements its economic nationalism. Of course, in reality, Turkey lacks the material basis to change the global balance of forces. Yet Erdoğan’s supporters present him as a powerful kingmaker, and the most delusional ideologues see him as the prophet of a coming Islamic empire. This has helped to maintain his aura and bolster his legitimacy, especially among the AKP’s right-wing base.

The third pillar of the regime’s strength is sociopolitical: its capacity for mass organization. The AKP has strong local chapters and encompasses a host of civic associations: charities, professional syndicates, youth clubs, unions. It also benefits from its alliance with the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), whose paramilitary wing – the Idealist Hearths – has footholds in the military, the higher education sector and working-class Sunni neighbourhoods. These groups give the popular classes a sense of power, stability, strength and often material perks, even in times of economic hardship. They are matched only by the Kurds’ mass organizations (bolstered by socialist allies in non-Kurdish regions). Yet the prevalence of anti-Kurdish sentiment has so far inhibited the formation of a counter-hegemonic bloc comprising both Turks and Kurds.

For more than a year, the Turkish election campaign has occluded, and even exacerbated, the most pressing issues facing the country. The mainstream opposition comprises secular and centre-right parties commonly known as the Table of Six. Together, they are led by Kılıçdaroğlu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP): the founding party of the Turkish Republic. Although the CHP edged to the left in the 1960s, it has been shifting right since the mid-1990s, both in its economic policy and its stance on the Kurdish issue. The coalition’s second largest party is İyip, a secular offshoot of the MHP, which prides itself on being just as nationalist yet resists using political violence in the same way. Two of the coalition’s smaller parties are breakaways from the AKP, led by the former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan and the former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Despite their miniscule voter bases, they have had a significant influence on the opposition’s agenda.

During the campaign, the Table of Six refused to discuss the social and ecological impact of Turkey’s free-market reforms over the past forty years; it ignored the costs of dependence on Western powers (which has barely changed with Erdoğan’s increased proximity to Russia); and it kept mostly silent on the Kurdish question. Glossing over each of these burning issues, it instead promised to usher in a grand ‘restoration’ that would supposedly heal all of Turkey’s ailments. The most explicit parts of this programme were a return to the rule of law and renovation of state institutions, hiring competent administrators to replace Erdoğan’s yes-men.

The opposition’s implicit aim, however, was to return to the country’s pre-2010 developmental strategy and re-establish positive relations with the West. The economic model of the 2000s, devised by Babacan when he was a prominent figure in the AKP, was based on rapid privatization, foreign capital flows and ballooning public debt. Although Kılıçdaroğlu peppered his speeches with vague promises of redistribution, this was the core of his domestic offer.

His foreign policy was just as weak. The Table of Six adopted a broadly pro-Western and anti-Russian line that effectively amounted to an endorsement of US hegemony over the Middle East. It simultaneously neglected the most urgent regional issues, such as Turkey’s incursions into Iraq and Syria. When asked about such questions, Kılıçdaroğlu claimed that state institutions such as the military were entirely independent, so he could not possibly make promises on their behalf. The nationalist-Islamist coalition, by contrast, pandered to anti-Western sentiments and pledged to project Turkish influence on the world stage. Its campaign was based on cultivating national delusions of an Ottoman renaissance.   

The opposition hoped that high inflation and state mismanagement, including of the earthquake, would destroy the government’s credibility. But in the end, frustration with these issues was not enough to topple the incumbent. For that, an alternative vision – substantive, popular, concrete – was needed. The Table of Six did not have one. Its limp and uninspiring programme sealed its fate.

Another thorn in the side of the opposition was the Kurdish movement. The Kurds were excluded from the Table of Six from the outset, even though it was obvious that Kılıçdaroğlu couldn’t win without their votes. Though the CHP and its allies supported Erdoğan’s military incursions into Syria and Iraq, most Kurds still saw them as a lesser evil. Hence, the Kurdish party YSP and its socialist allies declared their support for Kılıçdaroğlu a few weeks before the elections. Yet negotiations with the Kurds created fractures within the opposition. (The İyip leader, Meral Akşener, left the Table of Six shortly before the YSP announcement and then returned to the fold some days later.) When the first-round results were announced, with Erdoğan leading the presidential vote by a 5% margin, many commentators noted that Kılıçdaroğlu’s attempts to court the Kurds had cost him the nationalist constituency. Indeed, the data suggested that a large number of İyip voters had supported their party in the parliamentary elections but refused to back Kılıçdaroğlu for president.

In response, the opposition swung to the far right during the two-week interval between the first round and the runoffs, hoping to attract anti-Syrian and anti-Kurdish voters while somehow keeping the Kurds on-side. This strategy relied on capturing the 5% that went to the hardline anti-immigrant candidate Sinan Oğan, a former member of the MHP and the only other presidential contender in the first round. Unable to extract an endorsement from Oğan himself, Kılıçdaroğlu signed a pact with his highest-profile supporter, Ümit Özdağ, promising to deport all unwanted immigrants – Kılıçdaroğlu put the figure at 10 million – and to retain Erdoğan’s anti-Kurdish policies. Liberals claimed this was an electoral tactic rather than a genuine commitment; either way it failed to deliver the results. Only half of the far-right vote went to Kılıçdaroğlu in the runoffs, while his overtures to ultra-nationalism appeared to demobilize the Kurds, as turnout fell in the eastern and southeastern provinces.

Now, in the wake of its defeat, the mainstream opposition is caught between a liberalism that’s no longer sustainable and a nationalism it can’t control. The former is built on a number of illusory prospects: EU accession for Turkey, a Pax Americana for the Middle East, and a domestic economic model that depends on cheap credit. Turkey’s most prosperous decade, the 2000s, relied on hot cash from the West and high levels of public and private debt. This model was rendered unsustainable when global monetary flows slowed considerably after interest rate hikes in the West. The AKP’s nationalist turn of the 2010s was a response to these changes. Its war industries and import-substitution policies provided the material basis for its public invectives against the West on the one hand and the Kurds on the other. Without a similar material basis, the mainstream opposition’s nationalism rings hollow. Before the runoffs, it realized it was unable to match the government’s anti-Kurdish rhetoric and instead attempted to capitalize on anti-Syrian feeling. Yet, without the regime’s nationalist credentials, this gambit was never going to succeed. Its only effect was to further naturalize far-right sentiment and strengthen the ideological foundations of Erdoğanism. 

The question for Turkey is whether there is any hope of building a non-liberal, non-nationalist alternative, oriented towards the future rather than the past. During his third term, Erdoğan’s export-oriented economic nationalism will depend on the intensifying exploitation of cheap labour. In theory, this creates an opportunity to organize the subaltern classes that have long been ignored by every mainstream party. Rather than mimicking the government’s exclusionary politics, anti-Erdoğan forces could strive to integrate both workers and Kurds into their coalition. The opposition, having seen that they cannot outflank the incumbent on nationalism, could instead aim to bring the Kurdish movement into the realm of ‘acceptable’ politics. So far, they have relied too much on the middle classes, bureaucrats and ‘experts’ in their fight against Erdoğan’s authoritarian populism. The historic defeat of 2023 signals that any viable opposition will have to build a wider base.

Read on: Cihan Tuğal, ‘Turkey at the Crossroads?’, NLR 127.