There Was Once a Dream That Was the Turkish Republic
Elections in Turkey are scheduled for June 2023, the centenary of the Republic. It’s a nice symbolic year, and the government of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has quite the show planned for its voters: an indigenous electric car, a sleek new fighter jet, a nuclear power plant, and the launch of Turkey’s first space mission. Erdoğan is also going ahead with his “crazy project” to dig a whole new waterway through Istanbul. He is proud of the economic growth the country has clocked in during the pandemic, and is determined to see Turkey into the world’s top 10 economies in his lifetime.
While the president is busy with such epic tasks, nearly everyone outside of the presidential palace is preparing for elections in 2022. Inflation is decimating households, and public despair is turning into anger. Opposition politicians call for early elections every time they see a microphone. Journalists cycle through endless possibilities as to the reasons why these elections would be held, their timing, and the likely outcomes. Pollsters furiously shovel data into this mill of speculation. Erdoğan, the only person with a definitive say on the matter, periodically denies planning early elections, but nobody will listen. He threatens his political opponents with greater punishment, but they aren’t as scared of him as they used to be.
Before we can understand what elections mean in Turkey today, we need to first engage with the arguments for and against early elections. The main argument for an early election goes something like this: The government, which is formally an alliance between the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the Nationalist Movement Party (or a hostile takeover of the latter by the former), is bleeding votes. Judging by the dire state of the economy, the best thing for Erdoğan to do would be to launch a stimulus with some short-term spending and throw his government into the earliest election possible, which would be in 2022, rather than the year after, when they are currently scheduled. If he doesn’t, economic misery will turn into street protests, at which point the Nationalist Movement Party (which is popularly known by its Turkish acronym, MHP) might abandon the president, tipping the balance in parliament and practically forcing the government into early elections anyway, and without a critical electoral ally.
The main argument against early elections is that the government is already far too unpopular to win an election. While the country is still posting strong growth figures, inflation has eroded the savings and incomes of most households. The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the long-suffering education system. Having hollowed out the country’s institutional structure, the Erdoğan government is powerless in the face of these problems. It is now polling below 40 percent as votes are steadily trickling into the columns of an ever-multiplying set of opposition parties. Why call for early elections? Why shouldn’t Erdoğan bide his time and come up with a solution?
As with most political predictions, the wish is father to the thought. Those who want early elections find a way to argue that they are inevitable, while those who don’t say that they won’t happen. The more interesting question is this: What kind of elections will Turkey have?
Erdoğan’s supporters will simply say that elections continue to be fair, and that the president will win them every time because he is the country’s natural leader. Those with opposition sensibilities have a wider range of ideas. A friend of mine is convinced that the economy will give out, there will be early elections, Erdoğan will be voted out, and a liberal, more conventional government will take his place. “We’ll see him sitting on the opposition benches … I think he’d be good in the opposition,” he says. I’m afraid my friend (and I tell him this) is an especially egregious example of what journalist Hakkı Özdal has called the “restorationist opposition, with a political horizon trapped into ballot box arithmetic.”
People who are of a liberal disposition, or who are over the age of 45 (and therefore have a vivider memory of pre-AK Party Turkey), tend to believe that the old rules can somehow catch up with the Erdoğan government. They also tend to believe that a restorative era can take place where Turkey de-politicizes its institutions (read re-liberalize), rebuilds the technical capacity it has lost, and restores a semblance of parliamentary democracy.
The problem with this view, of course, is that Erdoğan has already fused with the presidency. He is no longer an ordinary citizen or an ordinary political leader, but the personification of what so many imagine to be the mainly Muslim popular will, and therefore a kind of divinely ordained sovereign. He considers himself a force of history, the long-awaited leader to take Turkey out of its long decline. There is no mechanism for him to step down. It would be unfathomable for anyone at the presidential palace to bring it up. In the few cases where Erdoğan has privately listened to criticism, his response has been that the opposition would never let him live in peace if he lost. He’s probably not wrong. He has single-handedly upended the constitution, rewired the economy, and reshaped the institutional landscape of the country. One can’t do those things without making enemies.
Elections for the Erdoğan government have to feel serious enough to grant the government some legitimacy, but they can’t be competitive enough to make it dangerous for them. Think of the ending scenes to Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator,” when the Roman Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) has Maximus (Russell Crowe) under arrest. At this point, Maximus has earned the love of the people as a gladiator and is somewhat of a symbol of defiance against the dictatorial Commodus. He is too popular to simply be executed, so Commodus resolves to face him in the colosseum himself. Before the fight, however, Commodus stabs Maximus in the side and has the wound concealed. The crowd is supposed to think that this is a fair fight, but Maximus is silently bleeding out as he is deflecting the emperor’s blows. In the end, Maximus is able to kill the cheating emperor before succumbing to his wound.
There is something immediately relatable about competition, even if the contest is unfair. The citizens of Turkey know that Erdoğan owns mass media, the police, and the judiciary and that he commands practically unlimited resources, but there is still something exciting about election time. People feel freer to speak their minds, to argue with relatives and post on social media, and to push and pull the country in their own direction, no matter the odds. Our collective imagination thereby probes for possible paths into the future, paths that may or may not involve Erdoğan.
So, is the spectacle necessary? I always thought Commodus was a fool for entering the ring. There is certainly no expectation for him to do so. He could have executed Maximus and taken the political hit — it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. No, Commodus enters the ring less out of political necessity and more because of his personal jealousy of Maximus, who has earned the love of the people. Perhaps personal vanity can drive rulers to take unnecessary risks in the real world as well, but it’s a young man’s mistake. Rulers who’ve made it to the top on their own know to stay out of striking range. They instinctively know the Machiavellian dictum that, “if you have to choose, it’s much safer to be feared than loved.”
Of course, the Erdoğan government already works diligently to make elections safer for itself. It has imprisoned the most promising opposition figures, most famously Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-chair of the People’s Democratic Party; has removed dozens of opposition-elected officials; and is shaping the opposition that remains. What may be different in the coming period is that the government could push this process further and disenchant elections entirely, changing the chemistry of the ruling bloc itself. Erdoğan’s way of governing up until now has relied on the emotional energy that electoral competition, to the extent it still exists, generates. It isn’t that he needs to prove his mettle, but he seems to think that elections are a way of maintaining the motivations of those who work for him.
The language of the AK Party reflects this mentality. Public service and politics are “a competition in service” (“hizmette yarış“). There is an outer competition against a ravenous opposition, and there is an inner competition over earning the public’s approval and thereby keeping the opposition at bay. Erdoğan is the arbiter in both competitions. Like the teacher keeping a pop quiz in his back pocket, Erdoğan wants his people to feel the pressure of an election at all times, believing that this will keep them motivated. Party members knows that early elections are unlikely, but not impossible. The party’s work ethic encourages constant campaigning “as if elections will be held tomorrow.”
The inner competition takes place by pitting oligarchic figures against each other. Sedat Peker, an organized crime boss who has campaigned for the Erdoğan government before, but is now in self-imposed exile, has explained some of the culture among government elites in a series of YouTube videos. Speaking to Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu (and later writing again in a tweet), he said, “did you not say about the honorary president that his greatest quality is that he likes to knock men against each other [“adam tokuşturmayı sever”] and made me an enemy to Berat Albayrak?” This is supposedly why Erdoğan reportedly encouraged his interior minister and his son-in law, the finance minister at the time, to compete. The idea appears to have been that they would compete in striking blows against the opposition, as well as growing the government’s commercial and political space.
Intra-government competition doesn’t have rules, per se, but it does have a referee. Senior government figures all know, for example, that they need to be careful when speaking to the president. When someone working for Erdoğan (basically anyone in government or big business) complains to him about someone else who works for him, Erdoğan will sometimes immediately stop the conversation, summon the person being complained about, and carry on with both people present. If the person is physically distant, he will join on speaker phone. Erdoğan’s men answer to him, not the law. The law is for other people. “Knocking men” against each other in this controlled way is meant to garner votes and build up the country into fighting shape, to realize the slogan “it was a dream, it became reality” (“hayaldi gercek oldu”).
When speaking of the maintenance of his party and state apparatus, Erdoğan is partial to elemental analogies. In the 2017 referendum on the presidential system, despite the advantages of his domineering incumbency, he barely squeaked by the finish line with 51 percent. A month later, Erdoğan engaged in a rare bit of self-criticism, which came to be known as the “metal fatigue” (“metal yorgunluğu”) speech:
Until the end of this year, we must renew the provincial, county and town administrations. I see a sort of aging of metal. Wherever we have deficiencies, we must address them. We will set up a team here [at the AK Party headquarters] and a team at the presidency. We must make sure that the complaints we receive are met with outcomes.
Despite various expectations, Erdoğan never launched an anti-corruption drive the way Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping did. He silently asked some officials, including mayors, to resign, but never said why. No heads were served up to the public, not a single example was ever made. A year later, in May 28, 2018, the president said “there is no longer any metal fatigue. With Afrin, the reawakening movement has started once again.” He was referring to Operation Olive Branch, which had started 10 days before. Turkey’s military incursion into Syria’s Afrin region, governed at the time by the Syrian Democratic Forces (an affiliate of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party) had received the reluctant support of the main opposition Republican’s People Party and Good Party in parliament, while the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party refused.
This made Erdoğan, and those serving under him, feel safe again. His “metal fatigue” comment had also received a lot of gleeful opposition coverage, so he might have wanted to move past it and boost morale. Who needs to work hard to earn the public’s approval if the occasional beating of the war drum gets it done? Better line your pockets and let Ankara worry about elections come 2023.
In 2019, opposition victories in regional elections made the rust in government ranks all too visible. And, while the early months of the novel coronavirus were good for Erdoğan, his top-heavy economic policy, favoring mega-projects and exporters at the expense of household incomes, has been an unmitigated disaster. It has pushed the country into an inflationary spiral that will make it all but impossible for Erdoğan to feel safe entering the electoral arena, no matter how unequal the contest.
Still, speaking to party members in Hatay over the summer, Erdoğan sought to strike the fear of the ballot box into them. “We want you to work with this understanding day and night, without a single day’s rest, until the 2023 elections” he said. The economic policy that has caused popular discontent, as well as the date of the elections, are presumably fixed. What should change here, according to the president, is the effort of his foot soldiers. If they knock on enough doors and talk to enough shop owners, they can make up for his top-heavy economic policy. While they do this, they should feel half the country breathing down their neck, wanting them to fail — to pull them down and expose the worst things they’ve done.
And many do want those things. The opposition calls for early elections on an almost daily basis, a way of signaling to high officials, especially in the judiciary, that they should start hedging their bets. As economic misery increases, the thinking goes, bits of the Erdoğan apparatus are going to reach a point where they fear the opposition more than they fear Erdoğan. The main opposition Republican People’s Party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu recently tweeted:
Erdoğan and the governor of the Central Bank have joined forces and are making our people poorer. This is open oppression of the people. Let me say this, the central bank governor’s responsibility in this treason is increasing. I will not forget this!
You are not officials of the Erdoğan family, but officials of this honorable state. This is the last call your older brother Kilicdaroglu will make for you to come to your senses. As of October 18, all of the support you have given to this order’s illegal requests will begin to be your responsibility. You cannot wiggle out of these dirty deeds by saying “I followed orders.” Whatever you are asked to do illegally, stop doing it as of Monday.
Remove your hands from this parallel system. Those who make you do these things will of course receive different treatment. As Said said, “mercy on the oppressors inflicts suffering on the poor.” To sum up, the Turkish state has once again begun to be the people’s state. Those who have turned the institutions into the barn of a person or family will surely be held accountable.
This is unusually personal and aggressive language for the otherwise mild-mannered “Ghandi Kemal.” It shows how the main opposition party is leaning into public expectations for Erdoğan’s departure to create momentum for such change. Meral Akşener, a hard-nosed nationalist, former interior minister, and current leader of the fast-growing opposition Good Party took a more indirect route. She said that she was a candidate not for the presidency, but for the prime ministry, a position that no longer exists with the transition to Erdoğan’s super-presidency. Akşener’s statement signaled her determination to restore the parliamentary system once the Erdoğan era ends, but it also implied protection for currently serving bureaucrats, who would dread the idea of a vengeful opposition figure taking over Erdoğan’s powers and reigning down punishment on them.
This is a delicate game. Threaten them too much, and senior figures have an interest in holding the palace line. Remain soft, and you fail to generate the political energy needed to get to the post-Erdoğan era. The challenge for opposition politicians is to channel the desire for change without giving in to the instinct for revenge. This requires immense emotional and strategic maturity, focusing on the future, not the past.
Forgive me for returning to the “Gladiator” analogy here, because it isn’t just the setting of the competition that fits, but also the way it ends. During his fight against Maximus, Commodus loses his sword and asks Quintus, his doggedly loyal head of the Praetorian Guard, for his. Quintus not only refuses, but commands the surrounding soldiers to sheathe their swords as well. Commodus panics, pulls out a dagger up his sleeve, but to no avail. As Maximus stands above the dead emperor, he turns to Quintus and orders his men to be freed and the Roman Republic to be restored. Having thus fulfilled his transitional role, he dies.
For months, poll after poll has been conducted measuring the performance of possible candidates in the presidential race against Erdoğan. By far the most successful candidate is Ankara mayor Mansur Yavaş and, like Maximus, he looks like he’d rather be home than in the arena. He is the dutiful custodian of the old ways, a return to the republican order before the Erdoğan presidency.
Whether Yavaş runs or not, his popularity should be worrying. “Gladiator” is a nostalgic fantasy, and so is the idea of returning to a harmonious center-right order. At a time when technology, inequality, and great-power competition are accelerating change, Turkey needs to find a politics that builds up a new kind of society, one that dreams not of the republics of the past, but of those to come.
Selim Koru is an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) and a Eurasia fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI).