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Turkey elections: Why the West got it so wrong

Western liberal thinkers have failed to recognise the strength of Turkish democracy, because it does not deliver their desired results
Campaign posters bearing photos of Turkish presidential candidates Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kemal Kilicdaroglu are seen in Istanbul on 23 May 2023 (AFP)

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s performance in the first round of Turkey’s presidential election so shocked the opposition that it took them four days to recover. Such was their disarray in the interim that their presidential candidate was forced to release a video proving he was still there.

“I am here,” he shouted, banging the table with the palm of his hand. When his campaign restarted, a very different candidate appeared.

Gone was Turkey’s answer to Gandhi, who filmed campaign messages from his kitchen. Gone was the inclusive, consensus-seeking negotiator who would lead Turkey into a post-authoritarian age. Out the window went the heart emojis.

Enter a cheap nationalist who is trying to claw his way to power on the backs of the most vulnerable in his country: Turkey’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees. And not just them, but also the “10 million more refugees” Erdogan would bring into the country if re-elected.

“This a simple choice between Kilicdaroglu or Erdogan. And our main theme is fear; we will remind everyone what the next five years will be like if he is re-elected,” an opposition official told Middle East Eye with, one thinks, rather too much candour.

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No sooner had he said this, than campaign posters went up on the billboards: “Suriyeliler gi-de-cek! Karar ver!” (translation: “Syrians will go! Decide!”)

Let us be clear that the issue of Syrians in Turkey is not a small one. Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees worldwide, with 3.6 million Syrians and close to 320,000 “persons of concern” of other nationalities.

At a time when there is huge anti-Syrian feeling sweeping the country, and after the trauma of the massive earthquake that devastated southern Turkey, the top task of any future president - let alone one who flaunts liberal credentials - is to tone the rhetoric down, not dial it up.

Campaign of fear

By late last year, some 530,000 Syrians had returned to the country from Turkey - but as MEE reported from Idlib, there is nowhere for them to return to. President Bashar al-Assad is not exactly laying out the red carpet for them.

Kilicdaroglu's anti-Syrian rhetoric is even worse viewed from Idlib. Any withdrawal of Turkish troops or change of stance by Ankara could prompt a stampede of refugees to the border, as has happened before in that region in northern Iraq under Saddam.

The pro-Western stance of the new president would make talks with the Russians, Iranians and Assad even more complicated than it currently is. The balance of forces in northern Syria is a minefield, which could explode once more with international consequences. An under-briefed loudmouth pandering to populism is the last person you need as president in this situation.

Erdogan has also promised to send Syrians back, but he has noticeably stopped short of putting a timeline on it. “The open truth is that the refugees, asylum seekers, and so on, we have now returned to their dormitories to start with briquette houses in the north of Syria. But now we have a plan that one million refugees will return to the target. Of course, this will happen over time,” he said.  

Who would I trust more on this issue? A man who uses fear as a weapon in a campaign, or a man who says forcible repatriation is un-Islamic? The answer is I would trust the Islamist.

Translation: We are here. Fight to the end.

Nor is Kilicdaroglu’s campaign of fear mere rhetoric. Blaming the victims for the disaster that created them appears to be a feature of nationalist logic.

A CHP-controlled Tekirdag metropolitan council recently decided to kick earthquake victims out of hotels in Kumbag. These were Turkish survivors from the worst-affected regions, Kahramanmaras and Hatay. Posters went up telling them to leave by Sunday, but amid outrage from the survivors, the eviction was delayed until 1 June. The council blamed the government, saying they had run out of money allocated under the earthquake emergency budget. 

Yet, another potential motive lay in the eviction decision: the fact that the region had voted overwhelmingly for Erdogan’s AKP. 

You can call the election process whatever you want ... but the fact of the matter is that Turks themselves overwhelmingly believe in it

Decisions such as these belie the alleged “inclusivity” of Kilicdaroglu 1.0, but at least he tried to bury it. The campaign he is leading now is not even attempting to cover up this nationalist ugliness.

Kilicdaroglu’s decision to turn his candidacy as head of the rainbow coalition into the Nasty Party is not, however, without its consequences for the opposition itself.

Firstly, Kilicdaroglu can no longer call himself a liberal with a democratising agenda to return power to parliament and human rights to the country. His campaign is no longer based on human rights; it is based on searching out and blaming the weakest and the poorest. 

Secondly, dialling up the Turkish nationalist element of his campaign, while at the same time maintaining an alliance with the HDP and trying to capture more of the Kurdish vote, is a bridge too far. It is a contradiction that will not escape most Kurds.

Thirdly, slamming his fist on the table is unconvincing. It’s not the style of a civil servant who has been in the public eye for at least a decade. No-one in Turkey believes him when he plays the hard man. 

Huge voter turnout

What went wrong? How was the hold Erdogan still retains over the electorate so misjudged? Why did the opinion polls get it so wrong?

Why would a well-respected team of political scientists and pollsters conclude, only two months ago, that 51.5 percent would vote against Erdogan and 37.6 percent would vote for him? “It is almost impossible for Erdogan to win the first round,” the pollsters said.

Kilicdaroglu believed judgements like these, and so did most of the western media. Why were they so wrong?

Turkey elections: How Erdogan won the first round, and Kilicdaroglu's U-turn
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A number of factors come into play. You can call the election process whatever you want - free but not fair appears to be the western consensus - but the fact of the matter is that Turks themselves overwhelmingly believe in it.

Turkey has had the second-highest voter turnout in the world, and this month’s first round was no exception, with close to 90 percent. Compare this to important elections in the countries that call Erdogan an autocrat; turnouts in Turkey dwarf those in the UK and US.

The turnout in the second round of last year’s French presidential election, which pitted Emmanuel Macron against Marine Le Pen and was regarded as existential for France, got just under 72 percent. Macron was elected with 58.54 percent of the vote.

Turkish confidence in their own system contrasts with voters in real autocracies, who demonstrate a lack of trust in their rulers by boycotting elections. This happened in Egypt in 2018, when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi got 97 percent of the vote on a turnout of just 41 percent - despite all the Egyptian army’s efforts to get as many Egyptians to the polling stations as possible. 

The same occurred in Tunisia, where dictator Kais Saied only got 11 percent participation in either of the two rounds for his sham parliament. 

Not recognising the strength of democracy in Turkey because it delivers the wrong result, while turning a blind eye to sham elections in Egypt and Tunisia that are boycotted by voters, has become something of a speciality for western liberal thinkers. But it is one reason why they get the Middle East wrong time and again. 

Shaping the modern nation

There are other examples. When tanks rolled down Istanbul’s iconic Bosphorus Bridge on 15 July 2016, Erdogan, who was on holiday in southern Turkey, called everyone out onto the streets. They responded. A national resistance was quickly created.

Why? Because Turks of all parties did not want their vote, and their choice, taken away from them. A state of emergency against the Gulenists, who were blamed for the conspiracy, got wide political support.

If anyone has built Turkey into the country it is today - with modern infrastructure, hospitals and burgeoning universities - it is Erdogan. He towers over the opposition first and foremost because he is regarded as the patriot’s choice.

If anyone is responsible for the failings of the presidential system he built - the failings of an economy that cannot establish basic independent institutions, such as a credible central bank - that, too, is Erdogan’s legacy. 

A woman waves in front of a campaign truck bearing Erdogan’s portrait in Istanbul on 22 May 2023 (AFP)
A woman waves in front of a campaign truck bearing Erdogan’s portrait in Istanbul on 22 May 2023 (AFP)

For good and bad, this man has shaped the modern nation. The irony is that Erdogan, as he enters the second and final round of the election, is possibly now in a stronger position politically than at any time since he lost the vote in Turkey’s biggest cities: Istanbul and Ankara.

Already, there are signs that the Nasty Party strategy is failing. 

Kilicdaroglu actively courted ultranationalist candidate Sinan Ogan, who came third in the first round, with a surprise 5.2 percent. 

Yet on Monday, Ogan announced his endorsement of Erdogan, without the president having to come running to him. He made no commitments to Ogan, who clawed votes from Erdogan in his strongholds. This vote should now come back to Erdogan. 

Moral authority

Erdogan and his alliance have already captured parliament, handing him moral authority for the second round. Turks don’t like cohabitation. 

This leaves the path clear for a third term as president. If advisers prevail on Erdogan to do the wise thing - and if, as one adviser put it, the left side of his brain listens to the right side - he should appoint powerful and credible vice presidents in both foreign policy and the economy. 

Turkey elections: Has the country reached an economic breaking point?
Güven Sak
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This would go some way towards solving two problems: a disastrous monetary policy that is swallowing up billions in hard currency and gold reserves, and a foreign policy voice that is in need of credibility.

This would not stop the western media from braying that Turkey is on the way to dictatorship. But their view is increasingly out of touch with reality.

The reality is that Erdogan is the most successful and most independent leader in the Middle East - and the West can no longer send armies and gunboats in to rectify that. 

US President Joe Biden’s declared support for the Turkish opposition is not just meaningless. It might have been actively counterproductive. Some day, a US president might learn from that. It will not be any time soon.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.  

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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