In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Melis G. Laebens, Research Fellow in Politics at Nuffield College at the University of Oxford. She holds PhD in political science from Yale University. Her research centers on democratic backsliding, political parties, and electoral behavior. They talk about the Turkish political context and the possible outcome of the presidential and general elections in 2023.
Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): The year 2023 will be very meaningful for Turkey. It has been 20 years since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power, and it is also the 100th anniversary of Turkey becoming a republic. With the upcoming presidential election, what is the current political landscape in Turkey?
Melis G. Laebens (MGL): President Erdoğan has managed to secure large majorities in the Parliament for electoral cycles, after his party was first elected in 2002. Back then, the victory of the AK (Justice and Development) party came as a surprise. In 2007, in the ‘consolidation election’, they also had great results. They obtained the majority again in 2011. Until 2015, the party was very popular.
In 2015, however, the consolidation of the Kurdish left-wing secular party and support across the society led to the party reaching the 10% electoral threshold (introduced to keep away any Kurdish, past Islamist, and left-wing political movements) and entering the Turkish parliament. When they first managed to pass the threshold, they threatened Erdoğan’s majority, which he then briefly lost in 2015. The reaction of the ruling part was simply to start a war with the Kurds, rekindle national sentiments, and again obtain a majority in a repeated election five months later that year.
Since then, Turkish politics has gotten increasingly repressive. The leader of the Kurdish party was imprisoned after these events. In 2016, there was an attempted coup, led by a faction of the military officers. This resulted in an even greater paranoia in Erdoğan’s government and culminated in two years of state of emergency. A constitutional referendum that was held in that time was to completely overhaul the political system and to install a ‘hyper-presidential’ authoritarian regime.
As a consequence, Erdoğan holds basically all of the power. He can only be restrained by a parliamentary supermajority, which the opposition party does not have. The rights and independence of institutions have been, essentially, severely curtailed – not only by the referendum, but also by a long process of constitutional changes beforehand.
All this led to the situation we face today. When in 2015 (or even before that) Erdoğan started losing popularity, his party could no longer manage to obtain the majority of seats in the parliament only by themselves. Since then (first informally, and currently, formally), they have been in the coalition with the old right-wing, unreformed nationalist party. Therefore, the majority of Erdoğan’s in the parliament heavily depends on the nationalists.
Because of this situation, Erdoğan had to change the electoral rules to be able to remain in power with this coalition in place. In the 2018 elections, they allowed for pre-electoral coalitions in order to avoid the issue of not reaching the 10% threshold by the nationalist party. This development gave the opposition a new life – by allowing for coalitions, Erdoğan gave the opposition a chance to come together.
This is more or less where we are today. Erdoğan’s coalition with the nationalist party continues to weaken – the electoral threshold was, as a consequence, further reduced to 7%, to ensure that the party passes it. There was also a split in the nationalist party, and a new faction, a less extremist one – the İYİ party – was established, and it is now in the opposition. The party is now in a pre-electoral alliance with the main opposition party in Turkey – Republican People’s Party (CHP), which was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk at the dawn of the Turkish Republic. Needless to say, the CHP has transformed significantly since its inception, but it still cultivates the tradition of a secular and republican Turkey.
Other major actors on the Turkish political scene include the Kurdish parties, which have been severely weakened by years of heavy repressions – as a result, all municipalities in the Kurdish-dominated regions in the south-east have been practically taken away from them. Many of their local politicians were jailed and trustees were appointed.
The Kurdish party is left out of the opposition coalition between secular republicans (CHP) and secular nationalists (the İYİ party). The reason is the obvious tension between the nationalists and the Kurds, and the fear of being branded as terrorists for siding with them. There are, however, smaller parties in the coalition – two very small break-aways form the AKP (Justice and Development Party), an older Islamist party, and center-right minor parties. This is the current political landscape in Turkey.
At the opposition table sit six parties – two bigger opposition parties and four small parties. Separately, there stands the Kurdish left-wing coalition, which constitutes a swing vote that will determine the fate of the forthcoming election. Currently, however, it is somewhat marginalized in the campaign.
LJ: It seems that the election will be not only about the parliament, but also about the presidency? Could Erdoğan lose everything?
MGL: When it comes to the change in the presidential system, Erdoğan has actually created a hurdle for himself. A two-round presidential system was put in place, so in order for Erdoğan to become re-elected, he would need to win an absolute majority of the votes.
This development gave the opposition a chance to unite behind a single candidate. They did this very successfully in Istanbul (here, also with the backing of the Kurds) and Ankara in the 2019 local elections. The fact that the opposition was able to put forward their candidates for mayors was extremely important – not only symbolically, but also because Istanbul is in control of plenty of resources, which constituted a huge blow to the AKP.
As you may know, the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, is a very popular and skillful politician. He managed to depolarize the society – and either demobilize some of the AKP voters thanks to his Anatolian origins and his relatively conservative (or privately religious) profile. He comes from the Black Sea region – where Erdoğan also comes from – and Istanbul has many inhabitants from that area. This is why İmamoğlu was a very good candidate.
On the other hand, the mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, also a successful politician, comes from the nationalist political tradition. This is the reason why he is slightly less trusted by the Kurds.
After the victory of the opposition in Istanbul, the election was annulled by the Turkish government by using their control over the highest electoral court. However, İmamoğlu achieved an even greater victory in the repeated vote. Therefore, İmamoğlu is the only politician to have defeated Erdoğan – even though not personally, then his then prime minister – a prominent politician of the ruling party.
Since then, this victory has given the opposition immense self-confidence. With the economic crisis deepening for over two years (between 2020 and the end of 2022), the support for Erdoğan has been dwindling. His party came down to about 30%, whereas his support has been fluctuating between 40-42%. It may not seem that low, but for Turkey it is a considerable change. It seemed that the opposition stood a great chance – the CHP’s (main opposition party) popularity exceeded that of the AKP, whereas the nationalist opposition party has recently polled almost 20%. The opposition was very hopeful, which created a sense of ‘we are going to win anyway’, which has currently created a very dangerous situation.
The opposition let themselves be convinced that no matter what happens, or whom they will put forward as a candidate, they could win that election, because people are fed up with how bad the economic situation is – and it has been really bad. In a sense, they thought that this would be enough. However, more or less since December 2022, the support for Erdoğan has been increasing in the polls again, whereas the opposition has been losing some ground. There are several reasons for this situation.
First of all, Erdoğan has started campaigning, which is something the opposition should have taken into account. Erdoğan remains a very skillful politician, who can read the political situation very well. He is fighting for his survival. As part of his campaign, a reduction of the pension age has been recently announced. This reform would affect a huge group of people, who constitute a powerful lobby. More such initiatives will likely follow.
Another step taken by the ruling party was preparing to ban İmamoğlu from competing in the presidential election. He is currently not a candidate of the opposition for presidency, but he has been a prominent figure. İmamoğlu is now facing a trial for something he said in an interview against the minister of the interior (I think he called him ‘stupid’). Erdoğan’s people have framed this as an insult against the electoral court officials and so they have prosecuted and sentenced İmamoğlu for it. This creates a situation in which not only İmamoğlu could not only be faced with a political ban (which has not yet happened) which would keep him out of running for the office of president; or, even if he competes, it might be an excuse for them not to recognize his victory.
Furthermore, the ruling party is now discussing appointing a trustee to the Istanbul municipality. This is a very bold move that many would consider unthinkable. This clearly shows how determined Erdoğan is to win this election, and how he does not fear anything. Unfortunately, this also gives him a psychological advantage.
Meanwhile, there is the issue of selecting a candidate on the opposition’s side. The head of the CHP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has gotten this idea into his head that he should be the candidate. The initial reasons for that were that he is an older politician, nearing the end of his career, so he would be an ideal person to take over a very powerful presidency and then dismantle it, because this is what the opposition is promising – they want to bring back at least a semi-parliamentary system with a weakened presidency and a much stronger parliament. This seems logical, as some people fear that İmamoğlu, being a very successful, ambitious, and much younger politician, would find it hard to dismantle this powerful presidency.
Therefore, at some point, Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy became prominent. Turkish political parties are quite leader-centered, with the leader having a lot of power over delegates and MPs. He has managed to consolidate the party behind his own candidacy, even though he seems to be a much less electable candidate than İmamoğlu. Nevertheless, it is still an ongoing struggle in the opposition coalition.
LJ: What is the support base of Erdoğan and, on the other hand, of the opposition? Can the current landscape change?
MGL: The first thing I want to say is that this is an authoritarian regime, so the support for Erdoğan is high; but it is high in part thanks to a significant amount of repressions, lots of cheating and lies, and practically full control over the media.
We need to emphasize that if we look at the election results, even if Erdoğan wins, this does not mean that, essentially, the majority of Turkish society agrees with what he does – if that was the case, it would not be necessary for Erdoğan to lie, repress, and cheat the way he does.
Why is this important in this context? Since the beginning, Erdoğan’s base included urban peripheries. If we look at party support in Turkey in terms of the level of education and income, the lowest would be the Kurdish group, because the south-east of Turkey is the poorest region, and Kurds are usually migrant workers in big cities, hence the party would have the lower socio-economic support base.
The second one from the bottom would be the AKP. The party has actually a rather higher profile – they have entrepreneurial upper middle class throughout their party structures, but their voter base used to be poor, less educated, urban, or small-town voters. Therefore, they may be getting a lot of votes in Istanbul and urban areas, but the partisan core used to be in small Anatolian towns, which are socially more conservative places. However, they would be unable to win without the support of peripheral urban voters. Interestingly, this is where their support started to weaken in light of the economic crisis, because these were more pragmatic votes, more dependent on good governance, clientelism, and whether the party displays strength.
In its heyday, the AKP party was a very well-organized machinery – not only in terms of clientelism, but also providing for local governments, as well as by means of making a lot of investments in big cities.
Why has that support not melted? The polls have shown that people are demobilized. Especially their support for Erdoğan’s party is going down because the corruption has increased, and the party is becoming less relevant. At the same time, these voters do not really warm up to the opposition that much either. How to explain that? We can only speculate, because it is increasingly difficult to conduct any research in Turkey.
What is happening is that, on the one hand, for many years, there has been in Turkey a very polarizing divide, which was kept in please also through media control over the past decade (it has been almost ten years since Erdoğan consolidated his control over the mainstream media, so it is a long time). During that time, the opposition politicians have difficulty reaching out beyond their base. What İmamoğlu achieved has a lot to do with his political persona as well as with Istanbul – the people who vote for AKP in Istanbul are not the same as those who vote for that party in central Anatolia, as they have slightly weakened partisan attachments.
Nationalism is another aspect that needs to be highlighted. What Erdoğan did during his years in power (since 2015) is that he completely shifted his outlook and discourse – from emphasizing the Islamic brotherhood between the people of the Middle East and beyond (including in Turkey, between Turks and Kurds), to a kind of aggressive nationalist attitude. This was done to secure his coalition with nationalists, to ‘get that base’ (at the same time losing other parts of his base). This meant getting the nationalists’ patronage, as well as bringing in their mafia networks (which the nationalist party historically has) and releasing some of the mafia bosses from jail. All this meant a lot of transformations in politics for Erdoğan to be able to maintain his position.
It may look like things are not changing, because Erdoğan still remains in power, but the underlying political constellation has changed massively. He lost the Kurdish base, whereas for many years many Kurds were voting for him because many of them are conservative. Erdoğan replaced the Kurds with Islamic nationalists.
Another part of clientelism has been public employment. People in Turkey feel they need to support AKP in order to be hired. This phenomenon makes Turkey even more of a party state.
LJ: What is the importance of the attempted coup in 2016? Does it still play any role in the public memory in Turkey? How did it all transpire?
MGL: For foreigners it may be difficult to believe because it sounds like crazy Erdoğan’s propaganda – that there was this organization which was secretly placing people in high political, bureaucratic, and military positions, but all of it is actually true. This is another aspect of the underlying major political transformation that happened in the Erdoğan era – one is the replacement of the Kurds with nationalists, and the other one is the fallout with the Gülen Movement.
What is the Gülen Movement? It is an Islamist organization that, since the 1980s, has led a kind of ‘double life’. The 1980s was time when Islamists found an opportunity to enter Turkish politics more openly in light of the new world order. Some chose the electoral path (like the generation of Erdoğan), while others did not think that they would ever make it through elections, so surreptitiously (and that was the Gülen Movement).
Already back then the Gülen Movement started placing people and raising students to enter the police and military force, passing the exams. They were increasingly able to have their own people in these positions – cheating their way up by stealing exam questions and bullying people. Fethullah Gülen was a very popular religious orator, who established schools and foundations to attract students and gather funds. It became a huge social movement – partly over- and partly underground.
The reason why some activities had to be done underground was because in those days the Turkish military was effectively purging the Islamist people (especially from the military forces). So, to avoid that, they had to be hidden. When Erdoğan and the AKP came to power, they stopped all the purges, and effectively had an alliance with Gülen, which allowed Gulenists to thrive and place their people in the military and bureaucracy. This, in turn, secured for Erdoğan the loyalty of many people on the police and the military who were answering to Gülen as well as of wide civil society.
Gülen also was influential in some media organizations which were working not for profit but rather for the political purposes of the Gülen Movement.
What was the reason for the fallout between Gülen and Erdoğan? Gülen probably thought that since Erdoğan had become very powerful, their interests may no longer be aligned. It is not sure who started it, but to the public eye it seemed that it was the Gülen group that wanted to undermine Erdoğan – first, by leaking recordings of Erdoğan and his ministers, thus making a significant amount of corruption evident. This led to police purges, closing of all the Gülen schools and many of his foundations, and harassment of the businesses tied to the Movement. Eventually, the reaction of the officers who remained in their positions was to organize a coup. At least, this is how the Turkish people understand the situation that transpired.
Then, of course, the courts and everything that came after was not reliable in the least. The purging of tens of thousands of people without proper investigations and trials were problematic, because not everyone who had been purged was a Gülenist or, even if they were sympathizing with Gülen, they were not guilty of anything.
During the two years of the state of emergency in Turkey, there were cases of severe human rights violations. Many people lost their jobs and pensions. It was a tragedy and a civic death for many who were suspected of being Gülenists (for example because they had a certain bank account or a crypto app on their phones).
LJ: What is the role of foreign affairs in the electoral campaign? What can be done by the outside world to keep the forthcoming election as free as possible?
MGL: It is a complicated matter and even the Turkish opposition feels that we have to do it on our own. They may be a little late when it comes to figuring out how the outsiders could help. The truth is that, even if the opposition wins the election, they will find themselves in an extremely difficult position. They will inherit a very big mess, a disgruntled population, and a terrible economic situation. There will be huge support from the European Union, the United States, and the community of democratic states to get through this.
This means that, first of all, a dialogue needs to be established. We need to try to understand the position of the political actors who are trying to operate under huge pressure. Perhaps, we will need to try to mediate between the Kurds and the nationalists and try to create spaces where these forces can come together.
In terms of putting pressure on Erdoğan to not abuse certain powers, I am not entirely sure what leverage the West might have, to be honest. If, however, they find that they have some leverage, that would be immensely helpful to dissuade Erdoğan from imposing a political ban on İmamoğlu. However, I do not think there is much of a leverage in this case in the current situation.
Unfortunately, the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the war have been hugely helpful for Erdoğan. It has given a new life to his relationship with the NATO and the United States, and has, again, made Turkey invaluable and brought in funds. It has also made Erdoğan more valuable to Vladimir Putin. The burning of the Koran in front of the Turkish embassy in Sweden is, in my opinion, a Russian provocation to block the NATO expansion, and I expect that such provocations might continue until the election. Probably after the election it will no longer be an issue – but who knows?
I want to emphasize that even if this election does not go the way we are hoping for, the EU can still play an important role. There are currently many civic society organizations and independent media groups that are already supported by EU funds, Western foundations, and individuals. This is making a huge difference. There are also nationally crowdfunded independent media in Turkey. Still, it is a very difficult environment for journalists. With the current social media censorship laws according to which any youtuber might effectively find themselves in jail tomorrow.
Yes, voters make a decision, but they do not actually make the decision, because there is already infrastructure prepared for the election to be stolen, if necessary – not by stuffing ballots, but by manipulating who is on the district, province, and electoral court councils (which last time were crucial in not allowing the government to falsify the victory in Istanbul).
Therefore, the counting of the votes will be very critical after the election. Pressure and communication with the opposition will be essential in that period. This will be neither free nor fair election. This is why I urge all political actors in Europe to keep that in mind and try to understand the situation on the ground in Turkey from this perspective.
Find out more about the guest: https://www.nuffield.ox.ac.uk/people/profiles/melis-laebens/
The podcast was recorded on January 24, 2023
This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.