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Letter from Istanbul: Turkey has difficult years ahead

An exterior view of AK Party Izmir Provincial Directorate; The big poster of Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, The Turkish flag and  the poster of Ataturk are hanged on the exterior of the building on October 30, 2021 in Bayrakl?, Izmir, Turkey. (Photo by Idil Toffolo/Pacific Press/Sipa USA)No Use Germany.

On a recent visit to Istanbul ahead of Turkey’s critical May 14th elections, I was struck by a number of things.

The first was seeing how deeply scarred folks were from the February 6th earthquake — having been hit not only with grief but also the realization that at the end of his 20-year reign, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s hyper-centralized and dysfunctional governance system was partly to blame for the high number of casualties. Erdoğan’s re-election is no longer a foregone conclusion, which makes this election consequential not just for Turkish citizens but for the global balance of power.

Not surprisingly, friends, former colleagues, and ordinary people incessantly talked about the elections and the earthquake in the same breath. Many expressed anxieties about an anticipated mega-earthquake in Istanbul and described various escape plans. I ran into people who were stocking up on water in their cars, trying to buy property abroad, or making plans to move to a safer new apartment.

Between the concern about a massive Istanbul earthquake and the upcoming elections, the country seemed to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

I was also taken aback by the fact that nearly everyone had convinced themselves that Erdoğan would lose the upcoming vote. In interviews with journalists, opposition officials, and even bureaucrats, there was almost a blind conviction that this was Erdoğan’s last stand. So over-confident were they about the possibility of an opposition victory that of the dozens of friends and acquaintances I met in Istanbul, only two — one journalist and one media executive — said they believed Erdoğan would win it in the end.

There are, of course, perfectly fine reasons to make that assumption. The opposition bloc which consists of six parties is leading in the polls. Erdoğan’s authoritarian bargain with Turkish society seems to have collapsed — and younger people want change. With double-digit inflation, the once-efficient system of patronage is now openly criticized for nepotism. The government’s inadequate response to the earthquake has revealed that behind the omnipotent facade of the state, institutions were hollowed out, money was tight, and corruption was rampant. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is no longer able to monopolize politics as it had a decade ago, and as a reflection of that, has seen a lower number of applicants than in previous years to run for parliamentary seats.

But there are reasons to be cautious. Elections are still six weeks away and a lot can happen in Turkey in that time frame. I worry about this certainty about change and its implications for Turkish society if Erdoğan is able to hold onto power. For many, that would mean something bigger than losing an election — a sense of being cheated, possibly public outrage, and nihilism about the country’s future. For people on both sides, Turkey’s political fight has come to represent a deeply personal and existential battle.

There is, of course, still a significant constituency that believes Erdoğan is the best person to lead Turkey. (A recent Metropoll survey finds that 43.5% think they would or would consider voting for Erdoğan while 51.6% say they won’t.) During Erdoğan’s first decade in power, the AKP’s policies liberalized Turkey and helped lift many citizens out of poverty by expanding social security and services. In the second half of his two-decade rule, Erdoğan skillfully instrumentalized culture wars, nationalism, and identity politics, giving Sunni conservatives a voice in Turkey’s destiny. With a unique combination of neo-Ottomanism and Islamism, he rebranded Turkey as an unstoppable rising power. To the AKP base, Erdoğan is the only man who can “Make Turkey Great Again.”

But for others, Erdoğan is responsible for Turkey’s authoritarian drift and economic despair. For them, world-order issues are secondary to economic survival. Many will be asking themselves, “Who can run the country better?” — or rather, “Under which government am I better off?”

The opposition has argued, somewhat persuasively, that the problem isn’t just Erdoğan himself but the country’s consolidated one-man regime, which has been written into law by a referendum that barely passed in 2017. The “Table of Six,” as the opposition is called, is the somewhat awkward coalition of six parties from the right to social democrats that is externally backed by the pro-Kurdish HDP. Its main pledge is undoing Erdoğan’s one-man regime and restoring the parliamentary system and rule of law.

That this opposition bloc has survived despite a daily barrage of government propaganda and fake news in a highly authoritarian setting is in itself an important testament to Turkish society’s desire for change.

But the opposition’s Achilles’ heel may well be its candidate — the 74-year-old Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The former civil servant is a soft-spoken social democrat who hails from Turkey’s Alevi/Alawite minority. The debate around Kılıçdaroğlu resembles the deliberations among U.S. Democrats prior to the 2020 elections. Yes, he is nice and all, but can he slay a dragon? After a year of infighting and drama, the opposition parties finally settled on Kılıçdaroğlu, with the strategy that his ticket would be strengthened by the popular mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, who would serve as his deputies.

Kılıçdaroğlu is not trying to be another version of Turkey’s mercurial leader. If anything, he has positioned himself as the antithesis of the strongman — the ordinary family man making anti-corruption videos from his middle-class kitchen, the quiet uniter of the many different factions in Turkish society.

But his task is not easy — as this is the country that exported the concept of the “deep state” to the world lexicon, with a long-standing tradition of self-appointed guardians of the regime. Voter suppression is a reality in the Kurdish countryside and controlling the ballots during the counting process is critical to a win. And if Erdoğan’s chances are as low as polls suggest, why is it that Turks think “he seems relaxed”? Perhaps because the Turkish president holds levers of state power and has already used the courts to eliminate some of his key rivals, like Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş or İmamoğlu. A splinter opposition party has just soared in polls, reportedly supported by government trolls — a tactic used in Hungary and Russia. On top of that, Turkey’s new election law is untested. I suspect this will make things harder for the opposition both in monitoring the vote and in attaining a parliamentary majority.

The problems facing Turkey wouldn’t stop with an Erdoğan defeat. The economy is certain to face headwinds — and possibly a currency crisis — immediately after the elections. A post-Erdoğan government’s ability to deal with inflationary pressures and the economic fallout from years of economic folly could be severely restrained if Erdoğan’s AKP manages to hold onto a parliamentary majority.

Meanwhile, the Turkish president has sharply pivoted to the right, making alliances with small parties that offer minimal advantages but a huge ideological burden. This includes the New Welfare Party, whose key demand was lifting the law that protects women against domestic violence, and the ultra-conservative HÜDA PAR, a descendent of the infamous Turkish Hezbollah that reigned terror in Kurdish communities in the late 1990s. This poisoned chalice may help Erdoğan here and there, but it is seen as existentially threatening to Turkey’s secularists, Kurds, and Alawites.

A lot of people ask me if it is even possible to dream of free elections in Turkey and if Erdoğan would ever concede if he lost. The answer is: yes. If the difference is narrow, say 1% to 2%, forget it. The elections would be contested à la U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. But if the opposition win is bigger than 2%, then it is irreversible. Erdoğan has built his legitimacy on elections and could not contest a decisive win.

The scariest outcome for Turkey would be a neck-and-neck situation, in which both sides claim victory. An effective organization to monitor the ballots across the country on May 14th will be critical for the opposition. In the 2019 local elections, the opposition won Istanbul (and other big cities) due to its vigilance; some observers slept on sealed ballot boxes to prevent rigging. The opposition would have to replicate that across the country, including in the conservative hinterland and the Kurdish countryside.

Turkey will face difficult years ahead no matter who wins. My recent visit made me realize that the country, once a rising star on the periphery of Europe, was broken — broken by earthquakes, economic hardship, and above all, polarization. If the opposition wins, there will be a chance to restore democracy and perhaps even effective economic governance. But the bare-knuckle politics of the last few years will make it hard to build national consensus on key issues.

The election can only, in the best of circumstances, be the beginning of a long process of healing the Turkish political and economic system.

But regardless, it would be good to begin.