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Will Turkey’s Voters Give Erdoğan the Imperial Presidency He Seeks?

Kursat Bayhan/Getty Images
Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan waving flags in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, July 18, 2016

On April 18, I was in a seaside coffeehouse in Istanbul when Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called snap elections for June 24. There was confusion and even panic among customers: he had caught the nation off-guard. Political parties had only sixty-seven days to prepare, and if Erdoğan won he would likely hold the reins for at least another decade. But then came an intriguing thought: if he lost—and Erdoğan has never lost an election in sixteen years—the surprise elections might be his exit. 

Turkey’s new presidential system, adopted after a referendum in 2017, is nerve-racking for Erdoğan and his rivals. It is necessary to win around 25 million votes to become president, and that requires the skill to polarize the nation. Erdoğan excels at this: he has been advocating for a “pious generation” of young Turks to oppose a “rabble-rousing” youth, urging mothers to have at least three children and calling childless women “deficient,” and using other in-group, out-group binaries to solidify his conservative base. But the strategy has also made him vulnerable, encouraging estranged and disillusioned segments of Turkish society to unite against him. The polarization has even cost some politicians their freedoms: this will be the second time Turks will directly elect a president and the first time they’ll have the option of voting for a candidate in prison.

Over the last decade, Erdoğan has remade the country in large part after the manner of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Under the banner of building a “New Turkey,” Erdoğan remodeled Turkish society, from the media and the judiciary to schools and hospitals, to please pious Turks. He has proved very successful at creating a coalition of conservative voters with newly affluent Turks who have joined the middle classes during his time in office. He has removed bans against women wearing headscarfs in public institutions, allowed religious officials to perform civil marriages, and enabled the number of religious schools to increase tenfold over the past fifteen years.

But Erdoğan’s “New Turkey,” increasingly self-righteous about its achievements, faltered three years ago, on June 7, 2015, when his religious-conservative AK Party lost 10 percent of its vote; despite still getting the largest share of the popular vote, Erdoğan’s party could not form a single-party government based on its own parliamentary majority as it had since it first came to power, in 2002. Istanbul’s liberals spent that month celebrating with rooftop parties in the cosmopolitan neighborhood of Cihangir. The giddy feeling of victory lasted through the summer.

In the days leading up to June 24, many have surely been reminded of that time. Back then, though, the opposition failed to come together, the markets panicked, and Erdoğan materialized as a deus ex machina, and in August, called for snap elections. Sensing that he ran the risk of losing, he intensified the fight against Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey to re-energize his base—and that strategy paid off. On November 1, the AK Party won nearly 50 percent of the vote, and his presidency was secured.

In this year’s snap election, he has used the same approach. When, earlier this year, he ordered the Turkish army into northern Syria to take the Afrin area that had been under the control of another Kurdish militia group, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), he fanned the flames of Islamic nationalism at home. This has worked for him again: just as he boosted his personal approval ratings by around 20 percent after the coup attempt in 2016, his escalation of military action in Syria has seen them rise from 45 percent in February 2018 to around 50 percent in April.

All the same, cracks in the “New Turkey” have re-emerged. Especially since 2016, dissent has been suppressed, the rule of law has deteriorated, and a human rights crisis has escalated; meanwhile, opposition to Erdoğan’s rule has gained cohesion. His main election rivals—the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), the nationalist Iyi Party, and the Islamist Felicity Party (SP)—have formed the “Nation Alliance” and are mobilizing their supporters in an effort to dilute Erdoğan’s cult of personality; if they can deny him a majority in the first round of voting, they have agreed to join forces behind a single leading candidate in the second round. But one opposition party, the left-wing Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), is in trouble: eleven of its fifty-nine lawmakers have been expelled from parliament; nine have been imprisoned on terrorism-related charges. Significantly, the party has been excluded from the alliance agreement.

As he promotes the presidential system, Erdoğan says he is following the American example, which is ironic, given his anti-Western rhetoric: in recent months, he accused the US of planning to form an “army of terror,” of breaking its promises in Syria, and even of financing ISIS. Erdoğan’s hero, Turgut Özal, who ruled Turkey from 1983 to 1993, loved the US. Özal’s passion for the Houston Galleria mall in Texas inspired Turkey’s first mall, the Istanbul Galleria, and he drew on the American model when he proposed a Turkish presidential system. A US-style executive presidency, Özal said in 1993, could transform Turkey. Erdoğan argues that he is realizing that ambition. His presidential complex, which opened in 2014 with more than a thousand offices, is known as Ak Saray, signifying Beyaz Saray—Turkish for White House.

But the president’s extensive powers under Erdoğan’s new system will exceed those of the US president: appointing vice-presidents, ministers, and top public officials, imposing or lifting states of emergency, issuing decrees, preparing the budget, and dissolving parliament. The new system limits a president to two five-year terms, but that would permit Erdoğan to continue to rule until 2029. Over the past two months, opposition candidates have campaigned to win that all-powerful presidential seat while pledging to do away with it.

Erdoğan faces five rivals on June 24, but only Muharrem İnce, a former physics teacher endorsed by the CHP, seems to bother him. Assertive, cocky, and hectoring, İnce has promised to reinstate the parliamentary system, release the scholars and thousands of state servants who were imprisoned by Erdoğan in his crackdown after the 2016 coup attempt, and transform the president’s “White House” into a library. Compared to Erdoğan, İnce looks more spirited in his posters. Like France’s President Emmanuel Macron, he does not head a party and had to ignite a movement, and he is a decade younger than the president. He is also a secularist who has pledged to end compulsory religious courses in Turkish schools, offer a “free, scientific, secular, and democratic education system,” create more jobs, and end polarization in society. The problem is that he does not offer an overall political vision as ambitious as Erdoğan’s “New Turkey,” and he is polling at only 30 percent.

Two other candidates, both from the hard right, are backed by angry conservatives who regard Erdoğan as insufficiently nationalist or Islamist. Meral Akşener, who has been called Turkey’s Marine Le Pen, thinks that Turkey’s 3.5 million Syrian refugees are responsible for the country’s ills and wants to send them back; her rhetoric excites parts of the base of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which has formed an alliance with Erdoğan. Temel Karamollaoğlu, the leading Islamist candidate, says that the 1993 killings of thirty-three Turkish intellectuals by a mob after the Turkish translation of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses did “not amount to a massacre.” On the far left, a Maoist named Doğu Perinçek has promised, if elected, to invite Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to Ankara and greet him at the airport. He also wants to end Turkey’s alliances with Europe and US and form closer ties with Russia and China.

A sixth candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş, from the HDP, has been held in a high-security prison in a border city between Greece and Turkey since 2016, and can only campaign on Twitter. “I get 100 percent of votes according to a poll conducted in my cell,” he joked on May 4. The prosecutor has demanded five life sentences for Demirtaş, and he is polling at around 10 percent.

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Since Erdoğan’s April 18 announcement, the mood in Istanbul has been a mixture of anxiety and cheer. Critics of the government told me they fear more jailings, while optimists repeat Erdoğan’s campaign pledge to lift the state of emergency that he introduced in 2016. During the day, minivans blaring campaign pledges on loudspeakers have done the rounds. At night, iftar tables where Turks broke their fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan have enlivened Istanbul’s squares. Erdoğan has had iftar dinners in different cities each evening, with his after-dinner speeches broadcast on almost all TV stations. In the past two months, around 90 percent of newspaper coverage has been pro-government; Turkey’s three top media group owners support the government.

During Ramadan, on nocturnal strolls through the chic neighborhood of Bebek along the shores of the Bosphorus strait, families ate ice-cream and enjoyed the few hours before the fasting began again. Conversations centered on the elections and the lira’s loss of value—the Turkish currency has been in freefall since May 15, when Erdoğan told Bloomberg he would take more control of monetary policy if he wins the election. Investors warned of an imminent crisis; the lira plummeted by as much as 1.5 percent on a single day. This recalled the financial crisis and political instability of pre-Erdoğan Turkey; another such episode in 2018 could bring down the government, as happened in 2002. But in the weeks since mid-May, the lira has picked up, and Erdoğan took credit for not giving in to the currency market’s panic. 

In early June, the local grocer in my Istanbul neighborhood of Beyoğlu told me he had bought a gun—“just in case there is trouble on streets in the days after the election.” Others seemed more at ease. During visits to my parents’ flat in the middle-class neighborhood of Mecidiyeköy, I saw Turks dozing in front of their TVs when opposition candidates were questioned by journalists who try to walk a thin line between doing their job and not annoying the government. Most people simply turned off their sets when Erdoğan began delivering one of his after-dinner speeches. There were no marches, and the streets were silent as midnight came around.

Middle-class Turks mostly watch the political arena from the stands, but that does not mean they quietly support the status quo. Politics in Turkey is a dangerous business, and an alignment with the wrong party can cost them their jobs, their livelihoods, and even their freedom. The state of emergency means the streets are heavily patrolled by armed police. Turkish social media are monitored not only by government, but also by employers and hostile colleagues. A culture of snitching is on the rise: a disliked person can easily be jailed on the basis of hearsay. Understandably, Turks want to be on the right side of things when the dust settles on June 25. Privately, many of them disagree with the way things are; others, like the high-school students who organized a demonstration over sexism and racism in the Turkish school system in the left-leaning neighborhood of Kadıköy on June 8, are more vocal. Video footage of riot cops kicking the teenagers and hitting them with batons, then beating them inside a police van, angered the nation. The government responded that the activists had been carrying knives, but the students were released the next morning.

When I visited Beşiktaş, a lively student neighborhood, the mood was calm. Political parties that accuse one other of high treason, war crimes, authoritarianism, separatism, and collaboration, variously, with the CIA, “the Jewish interest lobby,” or the Muslim Brotherhood campaigned peacefully in adjacent tents. Posters of the president dominated the tree-lined road in Harbiye that is home to the public broadcaster TRT’s building that was surrounded by soldiers during the failed coup attempt two summers ago. One large poster that I saw hanging in the Taksim district showed a solitary man abandoned by allies but standing tall: as he ages, Erdoğan more closely resembles the character of Frank Underwood from House of Cards; his face is that of a Machiavellian. “The fault line of Turkish politics is no more ideological, nor does it run along the old left vs. right dynamic—it’s being for or against Erdoğan,” Soner Çağaptay, a Turkey expert, tweeted recently. Wikipedia, which has been banned in Turkey since April 2017 over an article on links between Turkey and terrorist groups, defines the opposition alliance’s ideology as “Anti-Erdoğanism.”

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Erdoğan says he wants to “run Turkey like a company,” and he shares another trait with America’s businessman-turned-president, Donald Trump: his thin skin in the face of criticism and mockery. This has helped to make Turkey the world’s leading jailer of journalists, of whom about 150 are in prison. On June 4, a sixty-nine-year-old caricaturist was detained for “insulting the president.” Aslı Erdoğan, a renowned Turkish novelist (and no relation of the president), is dealing with health problems after spending 132 days in prison in pre-trial detention in 2016. And the attack on civil society continues. For the past seven months, a Turkish patron of the arts named Osman Kavala has been imprisoned on a charge of “attempting to abolish the constitutional order.” According to Amnesty International, “nothing has been presented to substantiate the lurid allegation.”

If the elections go to a run-off, on July 8, it will put critics of the status quo in a favorable position and they may benefit from Turkey’s polarized politics. But Erdoğan has proved extremely effective in the past at turning out his base, especially with the army on the move against Kurdish militias in southeast Turkey and northern Syria; on June 17, as we entered the final week of the election campaign, Turkish jets bombed PKK targets in the Qandil region of northern Iraq. So Turks will hardly be caught off-guard if Erdoğan wins both the presidential vote and a majority in the parliament in the first round, as a recent Bloomberg/Foresight poll has predicted. Then Erdoğan will be in a position to use June 24 to solidify his “New Turkey”—and, more importantly, his new presidential powers will make him virtually unassailable.