Berk Esen is an assistant professor of political science at Sabancı University. Sebnem Gumuscu is an associate professor of political science at Middlebury College. Their recent paper in the Journal of Democracy is “How Erdoğan’s Populism Won Again.”
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Elections are not free or fair, but they matter greatly because this is how Erdoğan comes to power and stays in power and in this case he was almost about to lose that power.
- Introduction – 0:33
- Democracy in Turkey – 3:30
- The Opposition – 21:36
- The AKP – 27:40
- Is Democracy Lost? – 41:01
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is one of the great villains of democracy. He came to power as a potential reformer, but has become more autocratic with each passing year. Thanks to Erdoğan’s leadership, few call Turkey a democracy any longer. But it’s not quite a full-blown dictatorship either. Elections still matter.
So, many of us watched the Presidential elections in May with hopeful anticipation. And yet, despite a terrible economy and poor management of the recent earthquake, Erdoğan still managed to win the election.
So many things interest me about this election. It raises questions about the line between democracy an autocracy. Many call Turkey an autocracy, but its election appeared somewhat democratic. So, is it a democracy, autocracy, or something between the two? Also it’s difficult to understand why people would vote for a leader with autocratic inclinations. Why wouldn’t voters stand up for democracy?
These are some of the questions I had for Berk Esen and Sebnem Gumuscu. Berk is an assistant professor of political science at Sabancı University. Sebnem is an associate professor of political science at Middlebury College. They recently wrote a paper in the Journal of Democracy called, “How Erdoğan’s Populism Won Again.”
Our conversation isn’t so much an analysis of the election. It’s an opportunity to use a real world example to challenge some of our assumptions about democracy and autocracy. We talk about why Erdoğan won and the opposition lost, but the purpose of this conversation is to better understand larger ideas about democracy.
Now if you like this conversation, I hope you’ll support show as a monthly donor on Patreon or a premium subscriber on Apple Podcasts. You can also give the show a 5 star rating on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. The show has 55 ratings on Spotify, I’d love to get to 100 soon. Like always you can send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. But for now… This is my conversation with Berk Esen and Sebnem Gumuscu…
Berk Esen and Sebnem Gumuscu, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thanks for having us.
Thanks for having us.
Berk and Sebnem, this election really challenged a lot of my assumptions about Turkey. Looking over democracy indicators, I had the impression Turkey was really a lost cause. That it was so far down the authoritarian road that elections really didn’t matter anymore. But as we approached this election, the dialogue and conversation, particularly from scholars like yourselves, was that this election really was a very consequential election and even though Erdogan won the election, there was a real possibility that he could lose, that elections still actually matter in Turkey. So, I’d like to kick off by trying to understand why so many believed that Erdogan really could lose this election.
So, I understand that tendency that Turkey was a lost cause. And during and after the election results, many people thought that Turkey was and still is a democracy after all. There’s a lot of confusion about how to code the Turkish regime and Berk and I have been writing about this for some time now. We argue that Turkey is indeed a competitive authoritarian regime where you have elements of competitive politics, where you have real elections that matter, because Erdoğan comes and stays in power through elections and he has to prevail. He has to win those elections.
We also know that this regime has certain authoritarian elements and features. The state is under Erdoğan’s control to a large extent and they use the judicial branch and state’s resources in a very partisan manner to support the incumbent party, the AKP, and Erdoğan’s regime in all of these elections. So, elections are not free or fair, but they matter greatly because this is how Erdoğan comes to power and stays in power. Indeed, in this case, he was almost about to lose that power and the reason why that was the case is there are multiple crises that the government has been managing or not actually able to manage successfully.
The economic crisis is first and foremost was a problem for the party. The Turkish lira plunging alongside very high inflation that the Turkish people have not seen for several decades. Income levels are declining and people are becoming increasingly impoverished every single day. Then we had, of course, the earthquake and the destruction that was caused by the Erdoğan government. More than 50, 000 people died. We know the government failed miserably in handling the rescue and relief efforts. So, there were multiple crises that the government was trying to manage and it was failing in all of those respects. Many people indeed believed that it was time for Erdoğan to lose the election despite the fact that his regime had a lot of resources at its disposal and could use judicial power or other state resources to tilt the playing field in favor of the government.
Let me try to tackle your question from the perspective of the opposition, because I do agree with Sebnem that this is really a competitive authoritarian regime that we have in Turkey. But, of course, competitive authoritarian regimes around the globe come in all sorts of shapes. For instance, in many African and Central Asian countries, you have competitive authoritarian regimes, not because the opposition is vibrant and strong, but rather because the state capacity is quite weak. So, the ability of the authoritarian government to repress the opposition is fairly limited. That’s why from time to time, those regimes collapse. In the Turkish case, we actually have a fairly high-capacity state, a very powerful ruling party, that’s been in office since 2002. Still, in terms of all sorts of political indicators from media freedoms, academic freedoms, civil liberties to political rights, Turkey has dismal performance.
It’s very authoritarian and comes very close to a fully-fledged autocracy rather than your typical comparative authoritarian regime. What really distinguished the Turkish case, I would say, is the strength of the opposition and not so much the capacity of the opposition parties, but really societal opposition. Turkish society is quite diverse. You have an ethnic minority, the Kurdish population representing probably around 15% of the society. You have the secular middle classes representing probably another 15 to 20%. So, even though Erdoğan’s party has a high level of capacity, tried to repress the opposition, and has state resources at his disposal, he could not really subjugate the opposition.
I think that’s really what kept the Turkish political system competitive. That’s basically what allowed opposition parties to gain the support of almost half of the electorate. So, when Erdoğan’s government was hit by the pandemic, a severe economic downturn, and a devastating earthquake, the opposition parties came together as part of this large coalition and alliance, challenging Erdoğan. I think a lot of opposition circles were quite hopeful of some political change happening through the election process.
Now, you’ve both described Turkey as competitive authoritarian and, oftentimes, people use the terms hybrid regime and competitive authoritarian interchangeably. So, a lot of people think of something that would fall under a hybrid regime as something of a midway point between truly autocratic and fully democratic. But according to a lot of the democratic measures, like Freedom House, don’t mince words. They describe Turkey as fully not free. When I go to V-Dem, it’s even harsher. I mean, Turkey falls under the liberal democratic measure below Egypt, below Hong Kong, below Djibouti, below Algeria. Under the liberal democratic measure it’s 141st.
But even under electoral democratic measures, it’s 133rd. It actually falls below states like Kazakhstan, which is a country that I don’t think of as competitive authoritarian. I think of it as a hegemonic authoritarian state. When we think about Turkey, do we overstate how autocratic it is? Do we understate how much opportunity there is for democratic change in the country?
I’d say yes. I mean, I would not put Turkey below Egypt. That’s for sure. In terms of civil rights or civil liberties or political rights, there is no question in my mind that Turkey has more democratic space than Egypt or maybe Kazakhstan. I’m not an expert on Kazakhstan politics, so I’m not going to talk about it, but I know Egyptian politics closely and I did fieldwork there. I know how Sisi’s regime have been handling political rights and civil liberties. In Turkey, elections are still meaningful. They still matter. Yes, Erdoğan won this election, but it was a hard election for him and I’m sure he lost some sleep, as Levitsky and Way beautifully put it, right before the election night. He did everything in his power to win this election. He was deeply concerned.
He built a much larger coalition that he would have built in the past. He wanted to include all these minor parties, far right parties as much as possible. So, every single vote mattered for him and he needed that support, even from the fringe parties. That’s why he built this sizable cross-party coalition for the elections. He did everything in his power to allocate resources. Policies, for example, that he opposed in the past like early retirement programs, he passed that. He was really, really adamantly against that program for many years. Then he was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to do it,’ because he needed to give all these concessions to different groups in society so he could secure this victory.
So, when you look at this campaign period, the way he said his discourse and every single policy concession that he passed, along with the coalition that he built with all these smaller fringe parties, you actually see that he was really deeply concerned this time around. When you look at the election results, at the end of the day, it was just two and a half million people who made the difference. So, if the opposition got half of those votes, then they would have won. When you think about it, this was a genuine competition. It was not fair. It was not really free. But there was genuine political competition with significant space for people to explore their options.
Although the media was in favor of the government, although the state worked in favor of the government at the end of the day, it was a real competition. We don’t see real competition in Egypt. We don’t see it in other cases that is listed above Turkey in some of these indices.
So, Berk, when you were describing the reason why Erdoğan could have lost the election, you really emphasized Turkish society as well as just the strength of the opposition. Is it Turkish society that’s really drawing a line that no matter what institutional changes happen, no matter what Erdoğan does that Turkey won’t go beyond a certain degree of authoritarianism or won’t lose a certain amount of democratic spirit that exists within the country? I mean, is that the way that we should be thinking about Turkey?
I don’t think that societal factors are really the only reason why the Turkish opposition remains vibrant despite repeated attacks and increasing repression in Turkey. I would say that Turkey enjoys a number of structural factors that neither Egypt nor Kazakhstan nor many other hegemonic authoritarian regimes enjoy. For instance, Turkey has high linkages to the West, integration to Western institutional networks including the Council of Europe, NATO, a very vibrant private sector which goes back to Turkey’s economy being heavily integrated to Western markets, which creates, by the standards of a country in the global South, a fairly strong, sizable middle class. Obviously, not compared to the West, but compared to Central Asia, compared to Middle East, compared to Africa, and maybe even parts of Latin America. So, it has a vibrant private sector, a history of electoral competition.
Turkey was part of the second wave of democratization. The country transitioned to multi-party democracy in 1950, so for successive generations unlike Egypt, unlike Kazakhstan, unlike many of these other cases in Central Asia or Africa, Turkish society does have an experience of going out to vote in competitive multi-party elections. In exchange, it expects to draw policy benefits, public resources from their incumbents as a result of that electoral process. Political parties have been fairly strong. For instance, the main opposition party, CHP, its history goes back a century. CHP is actually one of the oldest political parties out there, not just in the Middle East, but I would say around the globe. So, I think all of these structural factors add up to create a vibrant societal opposition, which resisted against the current government’s efforts to stifle civil society and weaken the political opposition in this country.
Obviously institutional changes, you know, Turkey’s shift from a parliamentary system to a hyper presidential system, the changing of the electoral law, have all contributed to the weakening of the opposition at the end of today. Obviously, the uneven playing field is what contributed partly to Erdoğan’s victory. But regardless of what he does, you have a determined opposition camp that remains vibrant. Unfortunately, in this election, the opposition leaders have not done justice to this determination to defeat Erdoğan to actually come up with a working formula that would actually defeat Erdoğan at the polls.
Well, Berk, let me ask you a follow up question to that. Did the opposition voters believe that this election was really about democracy? Did they think that democracy was on the ballot in this election?
I think to a certain extent, yes. Many opposition voters came from very different ideological backgrounds. The opposition alliance consisted of six political parties and especially of the largest two, one comes from a center left and centrist background, while the other comes from the nationalist center right and in some cases, even an ultra-nationalist background. For instance, the pro-Kurdish movement also supported the opposition’s joint candidates. So, you had Turkish and Kurdish center right and center left voters all come around to support the same candidates partly because of the fact that they wanted to replace Erdoğan through the electoral process and partly because they were unhappy with the course of political developments in this country, the democratic erosion that occurred, the collapse of the democratic system.
But I don’t think that that was the only reason why people voted for the opposition against Erdoğan. I think the economic downturn, particularly in major metropolitan areas really persuaded even some former Erdoğan voters to switch their support to the opposition. So, you had other issues as well, but certainly I think returning to some kind of political normalcy on a democratic regime lay at the root of opposition voters’ decision to oppose the government.
I think the problem was that sentiment, you know, that pro-democracy sentiment did not reach 50%. It came close, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t enough because I think there were other issues that enabled Erdoğan to divide up the opposition vote a bit and consolidate his base and at the end of the day get 52%, which seems to be his level of support in the previous two presidential elections as well.
I think this is really important because when we talk about all these hegemonic authoritarian regimes elsewhere, we should also remember that elections on election day in Turkey are fairly clean. There is no ballot stuffing. There is no problem with the vote count. So, when you compare elections across these multiple cases, you actually see Turkey has been doing an amazing job in conducting elections. It has a very long history of administering elections for 70 some years now. I think that’s important to consider. That also takes us back to Erdoğan’s creed and commitment to the electoral process.
Yes, he uses every resource at his disposal and sometimes abuses his power to a large extent to tilt the playing field in his favor. But when it comes to the election day, he largely keeps it with integrity and clean because he wants to really win the race. Thus far, he did not really interfere with that process on election day. He just wanted to mobilize his supporters and show that genuinely he is good at this, and that he wins elections. I think that’s very important. Maybe you can call it ideological commitment. You can call it political commitment. But he’s really sincerely committed to the electoral process and electoral race and he takes some pride in winning those elections on the election day and not interfering with the process.
Well, Sebnem, you’ve said multiple times though, that the election was neither free nor fair. What do you mean by that then? Because it seems that if the election was clean, that the election would be free and to some degree fair?
That’s a great question. Let me give you a couple examples so that we understand what it means to say that the elections were not free or fair in the Turkish context. Ekrem İmamoğlu is the current mayor of the largest city in Turkey, Istanbul, and he has been really a very charismatic figure that could run against Erdoğan this time around and there was significant support for him at the polls several months before the election. We actually could see that trend. Erdoğan and his government created a case against him, a judicial case, practically accusing him of defaming the electoral board in 2019 during the local elections. Out of that thin air, they practically banned him from politics. So, now there is this political ban over Ekrem İmamoğlu, Istanbul’s mayor.
It’s not a done deal yet. He can still come back from that and continue his political life and become politically active. It’s not confirmed yet, but that was a very important intervention on the part of the government basically sidelining a very important competitor, a very important rival to Erdoğan. So, what happened is Erdoğan did not sideline the entire opposition, but he basically kicked out the most important rival off the field and then he pushed the opposition to choose someone who’s much weaker, much less charismatic.
But there’s still a competition there. There’s still a race. But the race is now between Erdoğan and a much less charismatic opposition leader. It’s not between Erdoğan and Istanbul’s charismatic mayor. So that was a little bit of an intervention into a free competition, but it’s really not that free because the opposition’s choice set is restricted and they had to go with Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and could not risk going for Ekrem İmamoğlu in that race.
Berk, I’d like to ask you then about the opposition chances if they had run a different candidate, because I saw a lot of parallels in this election to the 2020 election in the United States where the Democrats decided to run Joe Biden. Part of his strength in running against Trump was the fact he was less charismatic and was a bit boring, so the American electorate supported him in a lot of ways as a return to normalcy. Do you think that a more charismatic candidate, particularly like Istanbul’s mayor, would have been a stronger candidate or do you think he would have brought his own type of baggage that would have cost him the election just in a completely different way?
I mean, of course, all politicians come with baggage. It’s just that some are more effective in appealing to voters and that their political baggage is smaller. You know, my answer would be connected to your previous question as well, because the current uneven playing field in the Turkish context also relies on the total government domination of the national media, the use of bureaucracy to win elections on top, of course, of parties and the judiciary. I think had the opposition went along with a candidate like Ekrem İmamoğlu, they probably would have won the election. At least the chances of winning the election would have been substantially higher for several reasons.
One, when you face an uphill battle in winning elections and you don’t have access to national media, picking a charismatic candidate, a young figure, who can easily appeal to voters in a very direct manner and can even use confrontation with government supporters to his benefit and turn that around allows you to overcome the media challenge to a certain extent. He’s a more articulate speaker, more charismatic. When he talks, people listen to him and his messages usually go across to voters, not just to opposition voters, but even some government voters. Of course, he comes from a Sunni family. In the Turkish context, he comes from a Black Sea background, much like Tayyip Erdoğan.
I think he would have been able to take on Erdoğan more effectively than Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu who comes from a Kurdish background. So, he already belongs to a minority group that is very vulnerable and attacked by the ruling coalition. I think Ekrem İmamoğlu’s other advantage would have been the fact that he’s been running Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, home to 18 million citizens and I think maybe 13 million voters, almost one fifth of the entire electorate. It would have been a huge advantage because as the mayor of the city, Ekrem İmamoğlu has, I think, done a good job of providing local services to the voters living in Istanbul and distributed social assistance, especially at the height of the pandemic.
He has the image of a politician who gets things done as opposed to Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who comes from a civil servant background, a Cold War bureaucrat who does not get things done, who’s prone to postpone critical decisions, and he puts people to sleep. So, when you’re already being attacked by the government for not being in power for decades, not having accomplished anything, running the mayor of your largest city, with huge accomplishments under his belt, first as district mayor of Istanbul from 2019 and since 2019 the mayor of the greater metropolitan area, I think would have really enhanced the opposition’s chances of winning. At the end of the day, they could have still lost. It was an uphill battle, but I think he would have been a far stronger candidate in overtaking Erdoğan than Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
Well, Berk, what’s the swing voter that the opposition didn’t convince then in this election? Who are the voters that potentially could have crossed the line from supporting Erdoğan to supporting the opposition in this election that didn’t make that jump?
Well, I can think of two particular constituencies. One is young, apathetic voters. Turkey, unlike, for instance, the US constituency, actually has a sizable youth population. These young voters, of course, do go out to vote. The voter participation rate is quite high. I think in the first round, it was even around 90% in the country. So, it’s very, very high, but you still have some voters, especially apathetic swing voters who looked at the political scene and basically realized that, on the one hand, you have a candidate, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who’s been running the country since 2003, so no change, and on the other hand you have Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu who’s been leading the main opposition party since 2010 with not much electoral success.
So, I think there were still some voters, particularly belonging to the opposition, or at least potentially that could have switched to the opposition, mostly young, apolitical voters who ended up not being mobilized and did not vote. But probably the other swing voter constituency would have been the nationalist voters, especially those who are not very secular who especially live in Anatolian provinces and who may be put off by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu because he comes from a civil servant background, because he’s Alevi, because he’s been leading CHP, which is not a political party that they would support. Of course, this is a leader having allied himself with HDP, the pro-Kurdish movement, who already was receiving attacks from the government’s nationalists.
I think Ekrem İmamoğlu or maybe Mansur Yavaş as well, the current mayor of Ankara, Turkey’s second largest city, would have done a better job of appealing to these voters. You only needed to sway around 2 million voters in order to win this election, which in the Turkish context was basically 4.5 to 5%. So, if 2. 5% of Erdoğan voters changed, the opposition was going to win. So, these two critical constituencies, I think would have changed the outcome.
Well, Sebnem, let’s look at the other side of the equation then. I mean, we’ve been talking about this as a competitive authoritarian regime. I think sometimes that’s a little bit insulting to those who vote for the candidate who wins as if they’re mindless, as if they’re tricked into supporting an autocrat. Why did voters genuinely support the AKP? Why did they actually support Erdoğan? Who are they? What is the typical Erdoğan voter like?
Of course, no Erdoğan supporter would actually call Turkey an autocratic regime. They would definitely say this is a well-functioning democracy, because there are regular elections, meaningful elections, and they cast their votes willingly for Erdoğan. They’re not tricked. They would not say that they are tricked and I would not call them tricked either because there is genuine support for Erdoğan. So, I think that’s another thing that we need to keep in mind talking about Turkish politics and how authoritarian this regime is. It’s really not a forced support. Significant numbers of people really, really like Erdoğan and I feel like there are different groups of people who support Erdoğan for different reasons. Going back to the previous question, swing voters ended up voting for Erdoğan in significant numbers this time around, because they were really deeply concerned about the opposition camp for a number of different reasons.
So, if we are going to talk about Erdoğan supporters, groups of Erdoğan supporters, maybe we can find different groups of people. One big group is really emotionally attached to Erdoğan. They really feel that he is the best political leader that have come to Turkey for several decades now. Maybe he’s even as good as Ataturk, who established the country and saved it from destruction. So, there is that very strong emotional bond that significant numbers of people have built over the years because we are talking about 20 years now for Erdoğan.
So, Erdoğan, yes, he is not doing a good job in recent years, but he did an amazing job in the past decades in building very strong social services and infrastructure for different groups of people, especially lower income families have been benefiting from Erdoğan’s policies and services for the people, especially in healthcare, in educational facilities and structures, and also for infrastructure development. They really appreciate him greatly and a significant bond, emotional bond, and loyalty is already there. I also have written extensively with Berk on the social assistance program. Some people receive significant social assistance, especially lower income families receive significant social assistance from the government. Even if it’s an economically troubled time, they can overcome some of these hurdles and problems thanks to government support.
There you also have another emotional bond unfolding. It’s not just a transactional relationship where these people cast their votes for Erdoğan in return for some food support or food stamps. They appreciate this support and they start to build loyalty for Erdoğan’s government. So, there is that big group of people who will continue to support Erdoğan no matter what. Then we have maybe more swing voters who think that Erdoğan is not particularly doing a good job. He has done some good things in the past, but he’s not at the top of his game anymore. Maybe it’s time for them to start thinking about an alternative. But they look at Erdoğan and they look at his competition.
They feel like Erdoğan is actually much better than the alternative. He’s not a good leader anymore. He’s not doing a good job anymore, but he still deserves support because the opposition is doing such a bad job in providing an alternative to Erdoğan. So, they’re casting their votes somewhat unwillingly, but that’s still genuine support for Erdoğan because they believe that this is the lesser of two evils, so to speak. There we have very different groups of people who have built emotional connections to Erdoğan, who still support Erdoğan’s policies because they think that he’s doing a good job. Then we have those people who think that Erdoğan is not doing a good job anymore, but the opposition is worse.
So, Erdoğan came to power around 20 years ago and before he became prime minister, he was mayor of Istanbul, which is now becoming an opposition stronghold. How has the support of the AKP and the support for Erdoğan really changed over the course of his time in power?
Well, of course, Erdogan became mayor of Istanbul in 1994, but if you were to trace the timeline back to the 1970s, Istanbul was a working-class city and it was actually a CHP stronghold, a stronghold of the main opposition party. So, demographically, Istanbul has changed to a large extent over the last four decades. I think initially the migration from conservative Anatolian provinces to major cities like Istanbul… but Istanbul is not alone. I would also consider Ankara to be part of this wave as well. These major metropolitan cities have attracted a lot of conservative, rural based migrants throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
These people moved to the big cities, settled down in squatter houses on the outskirts of the city, and gradually the city center expanded to include these neighborhoods, such that we now consider even these neighborhoods to be part of the city center, because the city has expanded so much over the decades. So, Erdoğan’s rise through the political ranks of the Islamist movement all the way to the mayoral position throughout 1980s culminating in his 1994 election victory was a result of this demographic change. Of course, what we are now seeing over the last 10-15 years is not much migration into Istanbul, at least not to the same extent, because there’s not really much population left in Turkey’s countryside. The country is now almost 85% urban.
So, what we are now experiencing is that these former Erdoğan voters are now becoming older and they are replaced within the demographics of Istanbul with their children and their grandchildren, who are actually more urban based, on average more educated, have access to city’s resources, and what they now demand from their political leaders is no longer popular and political incorporation into the city, which Erdoğan gave and jobs, again, what Erdoğan gave, but more city services, higher income levels, better educational opportunities for their children, more cultural activities. And there, Erdoğan’s party has really failed.
Of course, those older voters who still have high level of loyalty to Erdoğan for the very reasons that Şebnem specified in the previous round, because they got their first apartment in Istanbul thanks to Erdoğan. They got their first job, first bus line coming to their shantytown, all under Erdoğan’s watch either as mayor or as prime minister or as president and still continue to vote for him. But their children vote for him in lower rates and their grandchildren in even lower rates. So, I think the rise of AKP was a generational phenomenon and now we’re seeing the party decline.
What commentators have neglected so far is that Erdoğan in the second round of the presidential elections got 52%, but Erdoğan’s party, 35%, which is the lowest that they have gotten since November 2002. The first time that they won an election in Turkey they got 34.7%. Now, they have, I think, 35.2%. So, they basically came back to where they started 20 years ago. Very clearly, the party is hemorrhaging votes, no longer really appealing to the urban voters with the same kind of success that it did 10, 15, 20 years ago. I think that demographic change will continue and that the younger generations, even if they’re born to conservative families, are no longer as conservative as their parents and their grandparents. They want different things.
That doesn’t mean that they’re going to turn into secular Kemalist voters, supporting CHP. But a more hybrid candidate, again going back to my answer in the previous round. A figure like Ekrem İmamoğlu who comes from a hybrid background himself, coming from a right-wing family based in the Black Sea, conservative Sunni Muslim, but at the same time very modern. Those are the kind of politicians that I think will thrive in the next decade.
So, Sebnem is the decline of the AKP inevitable then? I mean, I’ve heard a lot of people say that Erdoğan may not run for reelection again. That it’s probably time for a successor due to his age and due to his health. I mean, do you think that the AKP is really in its twilight at this moment?
Yes. That’s the short answer. There are multiple reasons why I say yes. This was a very strong party that was coming from an old tradition of political Islam in Turkey. This is not a flimsy party that just happened to come to power. It’s coming from a social movement that had very strong connections to the urban shantytowns that were built as a result of that rural to urban migration over the years. So, there is very strong social movement background to the party and it had very strong grassroots. It still has very strong grassroots. Yet its vote share is declining.
But on the election day, you actually see a very powerful electoral machine that is run by the AKP and is still in charge of mobilizing voters. Every single person who would cast their votes for Erdoğan showed up on May 14th and May 28th to support Erdoğan. They were really doing an amazing job in watching the ballot boxes, counting the votes. So, there is an amazing amount of capital that they have built over the years. We cannot deny that. The party has also become increasingly weaker over the years thanks to Erdoğan’s increasingly personalized rule. So, Erdoğan indeed undermined his own party and those grassroots connections by basically hollowing out the entire party organization and turning it into an electoral machine and nothing more.
AKP’s local branches are very, very corrupt. People now indeed observe that corruption at the local level. They see especially more local figures that are using the party’s brand for their own personal enrichment. People see that. Even if they like Erdoğan a lot and still support Erdoğan, they no longer want to support his party because of increasingly corrupt practices they observe at the local level. I see in my interviews over and over again, when I talk to AKP supporters, especially in these lower income neighborhoods, they tell me all of these corruption stories and say they’re all enriching themselves and their families. But Erdoğan doesn’t know anything about all of that stuff. If Erdoğan knew, he would intervene and he would clear them out.
So, there is that very deep loyalty and trust in Erdoğan. But they want to disassociate him from all of this corruption and punish AKP for all that corruption, but not punish Erdoğan as the leader of the party for all that corruption. There’s a very interesting dynamic there. So, what do they do? Rather than casting their votes for AKP in the parliamentary elections, they go for AKP’s allies and partners in the broader coalition – for nationalist parties or fringe far right parties but not Erdoğan’s party. But they still are loyal to Erdogan in the presidential elections. They support him. They would never defect from him, but they would defect from Erdogan’s party and cast their votes for other parties.
So, what happens at the end of the day? AKP is now turning increasingly into an electoral machine that is quite active and still powerful and present on the day of the elections. But they’re not doing a particularly good job in keeping the people very much in the fold. I suspect that after Erdoğan is done with active politics, we will see a shell of the party left behind and that shell will probably crumble because it no longer has that connection that it used to have with the electorate. It’s going to be a kind of passé organization. But that doesn’t mean this is the end of that political Islamist tradition.
It is possible that there will be another political party that would capitalize on that social movement that’s established and perhaps build on it and then turn into a different kind of organization with a new name, with new leadership, with a new brand. I’m not sure if it’s going to be as popular as the AKP, if that leader would be as charismatic and popular as Erdoğan is now, but this is not going to end in Turkish politics.
So, in this same issue of the Journal of Democracy, there was another article that was written that talked a little bit about Turkey as well. It was by Laura Gamboa and the article was “How Oppositions Fight Back.” Now I’ve read her book, I’ve talked to her on the podcast, so I’m very familiar with her work. She draws a parallel between Turkey and Venezuela in terms of the way that the opposition took extreme measures to try to get rid of Erdoğan through probably most obviously the coup that led Erdoğan to be able to create the presidential system. I’ve got a difficult question for you. Did the failed coup, did the opposition strategies in the past, really undermine their democratic credentials in the eyes of many voters so that you can’t really position any contest against Erdoğan as one of autocracy versus democracy?
I’m also familiar with Gamboa’s work and I actually agree with her main arguments and do think that those arguments explain the Turkish context to a certain extent up until I would say 2010. Because yes, it is really the case that when Erdoğan first came to power in late 2002, early 2003, the opposition led by the current main opposition party, center left secular CHP adopted a number of what I would say to be undemocratic slash extra-legal measures cooperating with a very activist constitutional court and the secular military leadership to constrain Erdoğan’s party’s moves. Indeed, those interventions did curtail the available political space for the AKP and I think pushed that party to adopt more and more populist discourse and strategies. As they prevailed electorally in 2007 and 2011, they captured the political system.
This is not necessarily to suggest that Erdoğan is not an authoritarian leader. He is and I think under different circumstances as long as Erdoğan was kept at the helm of his party, I think he does have an authoritarian personality and would have gone in this majoritarian direction. For instance, Sebnem, in her recent book, does a good job of explaining how another faction within AKP could have moderated Erdoğan and the party had the opposition adopted different measures. I think that argument has some validity. But after the 2010 referendum, which resulted in a revision of the constitution, the main opposition party changed its strategy and moved away from this extra-legal sort of strategy and they stopped adopting extreme measures.
Instead, they really tried to appeal to the voters and even adopted many conservative talking points and a very conservative discourse. They appealed to these right-wing pious voters and CHP ended up not necessarily expanding its vote share. It remained more or less around 24-25%, but the party began to chip away at Erdoğan’s party’s parliamentary majority in the June 2015 and June 2018 elections. It also won some victories in the 2019 local elections. So, I think Gamboa’s arguments no longer appeal to the Turkish case. I think the reason why the Turkish opposition has not necessarily built upon its success in the 2019 local elections and prevailed this time around is because there is a limit to these moves.
In order to succeed more, I think the opposition parties, particularly CHP, Turkey’s main opposition party, has to change its program and its organizational structure and really tap into the popular practices that are available. Instead, They basically narrowed down their base, turned the party into a very hierarchical organization assuming that alliance strategy and anti-Erdoğan polarization would enable them to win the election regardless of any political reform.
But the fact that there was a coup attempt in 2016 indeed provided Erdoğan with extra ammunition because when you hear his discourse and when he campaigns for elections, he uses all different types of associations that he sometimes doctors, produces or basically presents from thin air associating the legal opposition with the extra-legal opposition and delegitimizing the opposition in the election. So, this time around we heard a lot of discourse coming from Erdoğan basically saying the main opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is indeed supported by FETÖ. So, the people who were responsible for the coup attempt in 2016. Basically, Erdoğan is now presenting himself as the real democratic actor in the country because he has been the victim of this extralegal attempt to overthrow him.
Now it’s very interesting. We’re talking about an autocrat who is successfully showing himself, presenting himself, as the real genuine democratic actor in Turkish politics. Now the opposition who’s trying to save democracy is seen as these coup plotters who are trying to overthrow the real democratic president of the country. So, at the discursive level, at least, Erdoğan had significant power over his competition because of that coup attempt in 2016. Now he can easily at least delegitimize his competition because of that coup.
So, if the opposition does one day win in Turkey, whether it be in this upcoming election, or even if we want to do a counterfactual and say that the opposition had won in this election, would that mean democracy is restored in Turkey? Is that all that needs to happen to bring democracy back?
We don’t know yet and I’ve been writing about this with Berk for a book that’s going to come out soon in Turkish. The question is the system is so distorted now. There’s so much power in the executive presidency at the expense of the legislative branch and the judicial branch that the system is quite authoritarian. So, there’s so much power in the hands of the president, whoever that president is. Now it’s Erdoğan. But if someone else actually occupies that seat, they are going to be holding so much power because the system is designed as such since 2017. So, it’s really hard to say because whoever’s going to sit in that seat, can very well abuse the system, take all that power, and they can very well use all that power for their advantage, and then just continue the system.
So, it’s going to still be a competitive authoritarian regime with new faces, with new names, with new political parties, if they do not change the existing power structure and revive a judicial system that’s independent from political interference, and give power back to the parliament so that there are real checks and balances in the system, because now they don’t exist. There are no checks and balances in the system. So, it’s really about the institutional structure that we’re talking about. It’s really not about Erdoğan. Erdoğan is responsible for building this autocratic structure. But when he’s gone and someone else comes to that seat, they can very well continue the authoritarian regime and that’s quite worrisome and problematic.
That’s why this was an important election because all the opposition parties that came together and established this alliance, one main theme that brought everyone together was to go back to the parliamentary system with robust civil liberties and political rights. That was the overarching program of the Opposition Alliance. So that was an important hope for everyone because they promised to change the system back to a parliamentary system where you can actually have coalitions, a robust parliament, maybe an independent judiciary, and so on and so forth. We lost that chance. It seems to me that next time we have a strong candidate, charismatic figure who can occupy that seat, we may actually have a problem, because they may not just want to change the system that gives so much power to them.
I think this is an excellent question and there’s really no easy answer. I agree with much of what Sebnem already said, but let me just add a couple of more points. First of all, since Turkey’s transition to multiparty rule in 1950, Turkish political history has been in a pendulum swing. On the one hand, you have these populist parties that win elections, come to power, and achieve majority voting rule which gradually break down the democratic regime. We had it in the 1950s. We had it briefly in the late 1960s. Then again in 1980s and now under AKP. The other side of the swing is basically military interventions to prevent a further takeover by these populist parties: 1960 coup, ‘71 coup, 1980 coup, 1997 intervention or the postmodern coup.
So, what Erdogan did was he broke this cycle as a populist autocratic figure having dominated the electoral arena. But instead of democratizing the country, he went all in, in the other direction. Previously we had majoritarian rule in an uneasy democratic context. We now have increasing majoritarian rule in an increasingly authoritarian context. So, we’re in uncharted territory. We’ve never really had this before in our political history. We’ve had authoritarian periods. We had military rule. We had democratic rule, but never this. A populist autocrat dominating the country’s political institutions for a period of two decades and completely transforming the regime. So, we’re looking at a set of uncertain periods with different scenarios.
I think one scenario, now increasingly becoming credible after Erdoğan’s victory is that Erdoğan may not see the next election because he’s increasingly physically frail. His health seems to be not doing so well. So, he may end up leaving power, not with elections, but because of health reasons and might be replaced by a more authoritarian technocratic figure who would dominate the political system, but in a different way. Sort of what we saw, although he’s not necessarily authoritarian technocratic, in Venezuela after Chávez. So, that may push Turkey into a hegemonic authoritarian course, because for the reasons that Sebnem specified two rounds ago. I don’t think that any other figure will be able to maintain AKP’s grassroots operations and continue to win elections in Turkey in this current climate.
Another leader even in an uneven playing field would probably lose the election to the opposition. So, that’s one messy authoritarian scenario – hegemonic authoritarian, no competitive elections because the autocratic incumbent will not be able to survive elections. If the opposition wins, I think we’re looking at several different scenarios. One, there could be bureaucratic tutelage. In other words, the sort of people whom Erdoğan appointed. The upper echelons of the state bureaucracy, army, and the judiciary may actually constrain the opposition figure who wins elections comes to power, such that that politician cannot really consolidate his authority and we’re back to the current system after a brief hiatus.
The other option is basically what Sebnem mentioned, which is that an opposition finds a very popular figure and that figure wins the elections. Because of the authoritarian nature of the regime, rather than democratize the country, that politician and his party or her party decides to capture the state institutions and basically run the political system more or less in a similar way, just maybe with a different ideology, with a different political program, with different officials. That’s also a very real alternative. The only way that Turkey could democratize is that you end up creating an opposition alliance that would be able to constrain the candidates, but that candidate is popular enough to win the election and transform the political system.
It’s very, very difficult to do it, because, on the one hand, you need to have a very popular figure. But on the other, that popular figure needs to be constrained by certain political mechanisms put in motion by the opposition alliance. If Erdogan were to be defeated through the electoral channels, I think we’re going to have democratization by fiat, but that would result in what Dan Slater calls democratic careening. So, we’re going to end up with some kind of a hybrid regime where most journalists are not imprisoned, people are not beaten up by the police on the streets, but low levels of political participation, low levels of political accountability, and all political parties are corrupt. You go back to that kind of illiberal democracy, which at some point may again revert back to the current majoritarian populist model.
And one of the reasons why we may see that scenario more likely than other scenarios is that the presidential office is so powerful and now the parliament is increasingly getting fragmented that there is no one strong party that can really perform the role of checking and balancing a strong presidency. There are many opposition parties and now we will probably see the ruling coalition also getting increasingly fragmented with AKP losing its support. So, the more and more fragmentation we see in the parliament, the weaker the parliament will get. It’s already weaker institutionally and the presidential seat will have much more power. So, it’s really a likelier scenario that we will see, even if the opposition or the current government continues, a stronger presidency going forward.
Well, Sebnem and Burke, it sounds like the future of Turkey is going to raise even more questions that are going to be difficult to answer about democracy and authoritarianism and what I loved about this conversation was it definitely made me think about both democracy and autocracy in very different ways that really only through an example like Turkey can you really put yourself into that situation to ask these very difficult questions. I want to plug your article one more time. It’s in the most recent issue of Journal of Democracy. It’s called “How Erdogan’s Populism Won Again.” It’s an excellent article that helps us understand what happened in Turkey in this recent election. I want to thank you for joining me today on the podcast. I want to thank you again for writing the article.
Thank you, Justin.
Thank you, Justin, for having us. Thank you so much.
“How Erdoğan’s Populism Won Again” in Journal of Democracy by Berk Esen and Sebnem Gumuscu
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