Ideas on Europe

Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory

Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory

For our weekly ‘Ideas on Europe’ editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we have the pleasure to welcome again Başak Alpan, from the Middle East Technical University, in Ankara.

You spoke to us just before the first round of the elections in Turkey, full of hope for change. What is your analysis after the run-off election won by President Erdoğan?

In my previous commentary, you may remember I referred to a recent ad by one of the biggest Rakı brands in Turkey with the title, ‘When that day comes’…

Well, that day came. And it came with an uttermost anxiety and excitement amongst the voters. As you know, the presidential election went to a run-off after none of the candidates reached the 50% threshold for victory.

In the closely contested second round on 28 May, the opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu secured 47.8% of the votes whereas Recep Tayyip Erdoğan obtained 52.1 % and became, again, president of Turkey. Erdoğan was able to keep the electoral block he had claimed for the last 20 years despite the ongoing hyper-inflation and recent earthquake that could not be handled very efficiently by the state authorities.

Nevertheless, in Ankara and İstanbul, which had already passed their local administration to the Republican Party CHP in 2019, the opposition got the lead, with the majority of votes going to Kılıçdaroğlu and only 46.69% and 46% obtained by Erdoğan respectively. The third biggest city, İzmir, had traditionally voted for the opposition anyway. Besides these major cities, support for Kılıçdaroğlu's presidential bid emerged solidly from all the Kurdish-majority South-Eastern provinces.

And still, it was not enough to make change happen.

It seems that the predominant strategy of the second round, which was nationalism, paid off for Erdoğan. He always had strong influence on the conservative nationalist electorate, in the traditional Central Anatolian regions in particular, which this time, was accompanied by the opposition’s clearly anti-refugee rhetoric.

Since 2011, when the first Syrian refugee arrived at Turkey, migration has become a game-changer in daily Turkish politics for the first time. The CHP revealed its perspective by clearly propagandizing against the number of refugees. In a video, they claimed “we will not abandon our homeland to this mentality that has introduced 10 million undocumented migrants among us.” On a similar note, the CHP signed a memorandum of understanding with the ultra-nationalist “Victory Party”, which stipulated that the practice of appointing trustees in place of elected mayors, whose “links with terrorism had been judicially proven” could continue, which clearly pointed at the Kurdish municipalities. This memorandum cost Kılıçdaroğlu a bulk of votes in the second round, especially in South-East Turkey, where citizens had long complained about this anti-democratic practice.

Where do you think Turkish politics are heading now?

Erdoğan’s first speech after the election already showed the prospective tone of domestic politics. He taunted his opponent's defeat with the words “Bye, bye, Kemal” and accused the opposition of being ‘pro-LGBT’. It seems that the political polarisation in Turkish society epitomised by the election results will further increase the level of antagonism in daily politics.

Nevertheless, there is one field that cannot be governed by rhetoric alone, and that is the economy. Turkish economy has been for long suffering from high inflation and dramatic slumping of the Turkish lira. The anti-popular austerity measures that would alleviate the inflation are not likely to be implemented by Erdoğan in the short-term, since there will be local elections in Ankara and Istanbul in 10 months’ time. Erdoğan has won, but he knows that his job will be even more difficult if he fails to win back the municipalities of two big cities.

Is there any silver lining on the horizon? There is, as always. Merve Dizdar, who won the Best Actress Award in the Cannes Film Festival one day before the election, delivered an emotional speech on the struggle of women in Turkey. She said that for her role of a teacher in a remote town in the movie “About Dry Grasses”, she didn’t need to rehearse because she has known how such women feel “by heart since the day I was born”. I am sure that in the coming years, there will be more momentum for grassroots mobilisation and organisation of LGBTs, Kurds, and the working class who is getting poorer every day. And for women, to whom Merve Dizdar dedicated her award with the words “to all my sisters who do not give up hope no matter what the award is, and to all struggling spirits in Turkey who are waiting to experience the good days they deserve”.

Thank you very much for having shared twice your personal views Turkey in election time. I recall that you are associate professor at the Middle East Technical University.

Interview by Laurence Aubron.