Turkey: Why Erdogan is ahead, Kilicdaroglu’s mistakes -Spyros A. Sofos (LSE) writes for iefimerida

Turkey: Why Erdogan is ahead, Kilicdaroglu’s mistakes -Spyros A. Sofos (LSE) writes for iefimerida

On May 14, 65,000,000 Turkish citizens went to the polls to approve the plan to redefine the Turkish Republic in the image largely shaped by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) during the two decades, or to decide whether the country will follow a different path.

The elections revolved around a confrontation between competing, referendum, majority and authoritarian conceptions of “democracy”, on the one hand, and a vision of a democracy based on diversity, dialogue and respect for “the ‘other’, on the other hand.

The first proposal has been adopted by the AKP leadership over the past fifteen years. After initially supporting the country’s fragile parliamentary system, the AKP quickly slid towards adopting a personal model of presidential leadership, free from the mediation of parliamentary “niceties”, as Erdogan’s references to the ‘abstract will of the nation as a legitimizing factor for the systematic questioning of the Constitutional Court – the last institution to oppose its illegitimate choices.

Erdogan often prioritized the rights of the nation/people, a hard-to-define collective, as opposed to the individual rights of citizens and the “selfish interests” of social minorities, whose representation was detrimental to the “unity of the people”.

These perceptions are at the heart of a centralized presidential system and authoritarian approach where expressions of dissent, such as the 2013 Gezi Park protests or the Academics for Peace initiative, have been criminalized and violently suppressed.

The AKP presided over the persecution and imprisonment of pro-Kurdish left-wing leaders and cadres of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the suppression of civil society, the mass purges after the coup of 2016 and the state of war against the Kurds of Turkey. citizens after the failure of the peace process between the government and the Kurdish movement.

Turkey official results: Erdogan 49.62%, Kilicdaroglu 44.89% – Second round announced May 28

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Signs of an alternative, more pluralistic vision were noticeable in the case of “democratic enclaves” such as the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (İBB), headed by Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu.

Recently, a similar approach to democracy was visible in the speech of Erdogan’s main opponent and leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who – putting aside his party’s repressive and authoritarian tendencies and distrust of towards minorities – expressed its solidarity with the Kurdish citizens of Turkey and said he envisioned a Türkiye open to diversity.

The vote count shows that Kilicdaroglu failed to win the first round of the presidential race, with Erdogan in the lead, garnering 49% against 45% for the opposition, which it probably won’t be able to raise its rates in the second round. That said, the AKP, which has a history of irregularities in the vote count and electoral process, has this time lodged objections in constituencies where the opposition appears to have a significant lead, in order to gain ground.

In 2022, in cooperation with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), he implemented reforms concerning the selection of judges for the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK). The YSK was also involved in the prosecution until recently of presidential candidate İmamoğlu for insulting state officials, which led to his imprisonment and ban on “political activity”. An ongoing lawsuit against the leftist and pro-Kurdish HDP is underway, with the party facing a five-year ban and its political staff banned from politics.

In October 2022, a so-called “censorship law” was passed to criminalize “disinformation” (essentially, criticism of the government) and impose strict control on online news sites in an information landscape where all major media are already controlled by the AKP.

But, besides the fact that the AKP litters the road to the presidency with procedural obstacles, other factors must be taken into account to understand not only the result of the first round of elections, but also the political landscape after the elections.

The opposition, a motley coalition of parties united in their drive to end the Erdogan era, managed to agree on vague policy guidelines but lacked a cohesive positive vision beyond dismantling the policies of the Erdogan era. ‘Erdogan.

Kilicdaroglu attempted (quite late in the campaign) to make up for this deficit with a series of speeches on Turkey that he is considering, but his vision is not endorsed by his coalition. His own party, the CHP, is divided, historically driven by a vision of a unified Turkey, where Kurdish activism is a threat. Many party supporters prefer the charismatic Imamoglu, whose undoubted appreciation of Turkey’s diversity is complemented by a more personal leadership and populist style at a time when the institutions of parliamentary democracy are in dire need of revitalization.

The leader of İYİ (the second coalition party), Meral Aksener, more favorable to Imamoglu’s style, hesitated to support Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy and expressed her party’s reservations about opening up to the country’s Kurdish population. İYİ, an offshoot of the hypernationalist MHP, represents for some a more civilized version of the latter’s atavistic nationalism and is accused for xenophobic and anti-minority bullying.

And then, on the other side of the political divide, there is the AKP, a party effective in building an atmosphere of crisis and a feeling of injustice, constantly raising the (unfounded) question of contempt and marginalization of its electoral base by the “establishment” and elites who identify with the opposition.

Erdogan successfully presented his party as the party of the oppressed, excluded from the benefits of economic progress, educational opportunities and political expression offered to “White Turks”, beneficiaries of the order he set out to overthrow, and has cultivated a strong fear of status quo ante. This fear, combined with the relative prosperity that AKP policies have brought to Anatolian provinces, appears to have rallied a large percentage of its electoral base and weakened the reassuring messages of the opposition.

The opposition does not seem to have been able to provide an effective alternative, let alone counter Erdogan’s vision and populism. He has not been able to convince himself that he has abandoned his own authoritarian tendencies, his distrust of the “people” whom Erdogan successfully appeals to – the “Muslims”, the “poor” and the ” oppressed people” of the Turkish hinterland, and he failed to calm their fears so that they would abandon his “protective” paternalistic embrace.

In the field of foreign policy, the coalition of six opposition parties has understood that reversing the directions set by Erdogan is a complex undertaking: the objective promised by Kilicdaroglu of full integration into the European Union has not no short or medium term perspective. Opposition assurances of its Western orientation do not preclude further dialogue with Russia, while withdrawal from Syria and policy change in Libya (and the Eastern Mediterranean) are not immediately possible or even desirable, according to some members of the coalition. Marginal differences with the AKP in this area have allowed Erdogan to retain among his supporters the advantage of his long experience and his status as the author of a “successful” multidimensional foreign policy.

On the other hand, the ascendancy of Erdogan should not hide the slide of Turkish politics towards nationalism. The ultra-nationalist MHP, of Devlet Bakhceli, an ally of Erdogan, strengthened its position in the government formation, just like the İYİ in the opposition, Sinan Ogan, from the same nationalist space, attracted more than 5% voters, play a role of regulator of developments.

The consequences of the strengthening of the extreme right will be felt in the field of foreign policy (including relations with Greece and Cyprus, the Kurdish question and Turkey’s continued withdrawal from the Euro-Atlantic architecture.

Inside the country, the position of women, LGBTI+, ethnic and religious minorities will continue to be shaken. As the management of the economy will require austerity policies, the production of crises in the domestic and international domain can play a central role in a strategy of distractions and disorientation of the public.

For the opposition, in such a post-electoral context, what is needed is a revision of its attitude towards social groups who are reluctant to abandon Erdogan and the abandonment of its nostalgia for a now inaccessible Kemalism.

*Spyros A. Sofos is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His books include Turkish Politics and ‘The People’ Mass Mobilization and Populism (Edinburgh UP 2022), Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks (Palgrave 2013) and Tormented by History: Nationalism in Greece and Turkey (Hurst 2008) translated by The Suffering from History (Kastaniotis 2008).

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