In a double-barreled victory on June 24, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey won a newly designed strong-man presidency, and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) gained a majority in parliament by combining votes with the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP). The stakes are enormous, as the untried governmental system does away with the Prime Minister position and allows the President to control the cabinet, appoint Vice Presidents, senior judges, and officials, and to a large extent rule by decree. Will parliament be able to stand against Erdogan, who could conceivably govern until 2028? By then, the damage to Turkey’s hard-won democratic system will be difficult to reverse.
A mismatched group of opposition parties joined forces, Musketeer-style, to strategize against an Erdogan/MHP win. The secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has suffered for years from lackluster leadership under Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, mustered a relatively unknown presidential candidate, Muharrem İnce, who galvanized the part of the population that wishes to end the Erdogan era, with its corruption and stark repression of society. More than 100,000 people have been forced from their jobs and imprisoned. The continuing wave of arbitrary arrests often relies on anonymous denunciation, creating a suffocating climate of fear and distrust. In the cities, Erdogan has replaced dozens of elected Mayors, including from his own party, with functionaries that do his bidding. He controls the media and has pulled other government institutions like schools, the courts, and the military closer to his chest, upending the rule of law. He has closed down or coopted hundreds of civic organizations.
Millions of citizens came out to hear İnce promise to turn back the authoritarian tide, rewarding him with an impressive 31 percent of the vote to Erdoğan’s 53 percent. In his concession speech, İnce pointed out that, although some votes had been stolen, Erdoğan was unquestionably the victor. However, any hope that a solid win would relax Erdoğan’s iron grip on society faded when, soon after the results were announced, state-run television was already referring to the opposition as traitors and terrorists. In his victory speech, Erdoğan lashed out at the opposition and unspecified traitors and enemies of the nation. He promised to treat all 77 million Turks equally, but the very next day, the Mayor of a district in Ordu province announced that each neighborhood would receive municipal services according to the percentage of votes they gave to Erdoğan. Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of AKP’s partner, the MHP, bought a full-page advertisement in several newspapers in which he listed dozens of names of journalists, writers, and others who he claimed had criticized and slandered his party, in essence putting a target on their backs. Meanwhile, another MHP MP called for the death penalty to be reinstated.
Erdoğan won for several reasons, not least his continued popularity among the conservative, pious part of the population that, under his government, had for the first time tasted upward mobility. He also won because he made sure not to lose. His party redistricted voting boundaries, used state funds and services to campaign, denied the opposition airtime on government controlled television, and discouraged any mention of them in the cowed media. The vast sea of people at İnce’s rallies barely appeared in the Turkish news. Erdoğan trapped the opposition inside a social media bubble where only their supporters heard them. On election night, there were continual reports of irregularities and attacks on election observers. In Turkey’s eastern provinces, the government jailed many Kurdish politicians and civic leaders and moved voting locations for “security reasons,” leading voters to walk many miles, dressed in their Sunday best, to cast their votes. Despite these efforts and the fact that the presidential candidate for the Kurdish HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş, was running his campaign from Silivri prison, his party passed the 10 percent threshold and was able to take its place in parliament in opposition to the AKP.
AKP supporters were also in their own controlled bubble of information—and misinformation. Clearly something is wrong with the economy when people can no longer afford to buy potatoes and onions and the value of the lira is plummeting, but the government has blamed the country’s economic free-fall on outsiders scheming to undermine Turkey’s economy and thereby destroy the nation. It drew on a familiar cast of villains, including the United States and the European Union. Erdoğan promised that he, the powerful and caring patriarch, would fix things for his obedient citizen children if they remained loyal. His election posters insisted that a strong Turkey requires a strong leader and touted all the infrastructural projects and past economic prosperity he had brought to his people.
In many ways, this election was a victory for nationalist vengeance. Citizens were urged to stand up against the outside powers that were trying to destroy Turkey, as well as the enemies, like the Kurds, who worked against Turkey from within. Other scapegoats for economic hardship are close to hand. Three and a half million Syrian refugees now live in Turkey, receiving benefits that jobless Turks resent and doing cheap labor that undermines Turkish labor prices. The ultra-nationalist MHP is notorious for its uncompromising stand against Kurds and its deployment of violent youth groups. The party recently hemorrhaged members when a new party (İyi Party) split off to join the anti-Erdoğan coalition. Yet in the election, MHP gained a surprising number of votes, giving it the heft to nudge AKP into the majority in parliament. As king-maker, MHP will be able to influence government policies. Judging by Bahçeli’s ad and other statements, this will pull Turkey in a disastrous trajectory away from peace and instead deepen Turkey’s violent polarization.
In this highly charged environment, neither side hears the other’s story. Turkish society consists of silos that may change slightly in breadth and outer wrapping but otherwise remain regionally and culturally entrenched—the western cities, the Kurdish east, and the Anatolian heartland—their voting patterns surviving intact generation after generation.
Erdoğan’s victory is a symptom of a culture of hierarchy that pervades Turkish political life, in which a single person dominates those around him, and their relationship is based on loyalty and obedience rather than shared ideology, goals, or even competence and merit. There is no mechanism for sharing power, no mechanism for accommodating values, ideas, lifestyles, and identities that deviate from those represented by the leader. Different leaders can join forces, as they did in this election, but these are outbreaks of unity focused on a single goal—overturning Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions. With that goal now out of reach, can these very different parties retain their oath of unity or will they retreat to their silos and squabble over the small piece of the pie left to them? Already CHP’s leader Kılıçdaroğlu has criticized İnce for not winning and angrily fended off calls to resign from the party leadership. Ince has broached the idea of starting a movement of his own. As the fissures deepen, Turkey seems headed for a period of seismic social and political instability.