Why Turkey's Erdogan continues to be triumphant

Why Turkey's Erdogan continues to be triumphant

It is hard not to be disappointed about the outcome of the first round of Turkey's presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday. In a campaign defined by the aftermath of February's huge earthquake, mounting economic problems and deepening corruption, hopes were high that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian 20-year rule would end. Some polls suggested that the six-party opposition led by the centre-left Kemal Kilicdaroglu, from the Republican People's Party (CHP), would be able to win a majority or, at the very least, enter the second round with an advantage over Mr Erdogan.

In the event, Turkey is going to the second round of voting on May 28 with Mr Erdogan, who received 49.5% of the vote, in a commanding lead. Mr Kilicdaroglu received less than 45% of the vote, and the remainder was captured by a far-right, anti-immigrant candidate, Sinan Ogan, who was to announce yesterday which of the two remaining candidates he would support. But it seems likely that a significant share of his supporters will back Mr Erdogan in the second round.

What went wrong was more fundamental than faulty polling. It is impossible to make sense of the results without recognising how nationalistic the electorate has become.

That change reflects the long-running conflict with Kurdish separatists in the southeast of the country, massive inflows of refugees from the Middle East and decades of propaganda led by major media outlets and Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP). In the parliamentary elections, AKP, its coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the Good Party (second largest in the opposition coalition), and at least three other parties ran on nationalist agendas. MHP, for example, received more than 10% of the vote, despite an ineffective campaign led by an ailing, out-of-touch leader.

Mr Erdogan's combative nationalism thus resonated with the electorate more than Mr Kilicdaroglu's moderation and anti-corruption campaign did, especially given that Mr Kilicdaroglu is from the Alevi minority (a Shia offshoot in an overwhelmingly Sunni country) and had the implicit backing of the Kurdish party and voters.

Two facile interpretations of the election results should be resisted, however. The first is that whether educated urbanites like it or not, the outcome reflects the Turkish public's democratic will. The second is the opposite of the first: that this was a sham election engineered by an autocrat.

The truth is that many voters supported Mr Erdogan, despite recognising that corruption in his party has reached astronomical proportions and that economic mismanagement has led to triple-digit inflation and severe hardship. They supported him even in areas hardest hit by the earthquake, where AKP's graft was a major factor in the staggering damage and loss of life.

On the other hand, the election cannot be described as free and fair. TV and print media are under the almost complete control of Mr Erdogan and his allies. The leader of the Kurdish minority's party has been in jail for several years, and the judiciary and much of the bureaucracy are no longer independent and consistently do Mr Erdogan's bidding.

Mr Erdogan and AKP also use the state's resources to sustain the formidable patronage network they created and to cater to key constituencies. Minimum-wage increases, pay raises to government employees, cheap credit from state banks to allied businesses, and pressure on companies to maintain employment, even in hard times, have cemented voter loyalties. Part of the reason why Mr Erdogan received so much support in quake zones is that he personally handed out cash, expanded government employment and promised new houses to the victims.

But while Mr Erdogan's opponents have again underestimated his skilful use of AKP's local organisations and patronage networks and his ability to capture the mood of many voters, the election results are bad news for the future of Turkish institutions. Mr Erdogan's control over the media, judiciary and bureaucracy, including the central bank, will only grow. Policies to curb corruption or improve economic mismanagement appear unlikely.

Optimists may point out that AKP's parliamentary lead has fallen. Yet Mr Erdogan may be in a better position to control parliament after the second round of the election than he was before. The imperial presidency, which he introduced, has weakened parliament's role, and the opposition will be even more divided there. CHP has fewer seats, because the opposition fragmented further, and its leader, Mr Kilicdaroglu, gave some of CHP's safe seats away to smaller partner parties to hold the opposition coalition together and unite it behind his candidacy.

Moreover, the economy is in dire straits. Aggregate productivity has stagnated for more than 15 years, and a general deterioration of economic institutions has meant that inflation is barely under control. Both non-financial corporations and banks have bad balance sheets, auguring a more serious meltdown in the near future. After running out of foreign reserves in 2021, the central bank has become dependent on support from friendly countries, and AKP's election-related public spending has drained fiscal resources at a time when the government will need massive financing to rebuild earthquake-devastated regions.

It is difficult to see how the economy can be normalised without massive resource inflows. These are unlikely to come without a strong signal that the government will adopt more conventional policies.

But AKP and its allies in the bureaucracy do not have the expertise to shepherd the economy through these difficult times. Several economists and bureaucrats who were sympathetic to the party's conservatism and were willing to work with it have been driven out of Mr Erdogan's circle in favour of yes-men.

Turkey's election holds broader lessons. First, Mr Erdogan's success is good news for other right-wing populists and strongmen, such as Narendra Modi in India and Donald Trump in the United States, who are likely to continue to use similar tactics and aggressive nationalist rhetoric to animate their base and deepen polarisation.

Second, Turkey's experience in the coming months will reveal the economic consequences of this type of politics, who will pay the price and how foreign and domestic capital will respond. With authoritarianism often associated with economic mismanagement, what happens in Turkey will not stay in Turkey. ©2023 Project Syndicate

Daron Acemoglu, Professor of Economics at MIT, is a co-author (with Simon Johnson) of 'Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity' (PublicAffairs, May 2023).

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