Once again, Erdoğanism has come out victorious from the recent round of elections. Initially, he secured an absolute majority of parliamentary seats for his ruling coalition, People’s Alliance (CI), on 14 May with slightly more than 49 percent of the vote and making a second round of presidential elections necessary due to no candidate receiving the 50 percent+1 votes necessary to win the first round. Thereafter, on 28 May, Erdoğan won that second round of presidential elections with 52 percent of the vote against his competitor Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and of the main oppositional coalition, the Nation Alliance (MI). How do we analyze those results? And what do we do about them?
First of all, the election results are proof of the astonishing durability of institutionalized authoritarian populism in power. The most serious possibility to stop Erdoğan’s fascization process—at least for some time by electoral means and open the window of opportunity for democratization—has been lost. Liberal analyses like to point out that the opposition is comparably much more successful in garnering voter support in Turkey if compared to oppositional forces in other authoritarian regimes such as in Hungary or Russia. However, they often fail to stress enough the fact that no other right-wing authoritarian regime in the world is going through the multiple profound crises confronting the regime in Turkey, at least from a popular point of view. A disastrous cost of living crisis with inflation unchained, the most destructive earthquake in modern Turkey’s history, and a dismal public health performance in the Coronavirus crisis are a few of these crises—in spite of all of this, Erdoğanism remains the dominant force in the country.
True, all the usual caveats concerning elections under a “competitive authoritarian” regime continue to apply full force in Turkey: neither the 14 May nor the 28 May elections were fair nor even really free. The main pro-Kurdish, left party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has thousands of its cadres in prison and is currently threatened by a closure case presented to the Constitutional Court. All major television channels were closed to the opposition and Erdoğan could distribute endless dishonest lies and humiliations concerning the opposition nationwide without any negative sanctions. AKP militants and security forces were intermingling with the voting process, especially in the Kurdish parts of the country. And fraud has likely taken place, again, especially in the Kurdish areas of the country, the scope of which remains up for speculation. Still, these alone cannot explain the still overwhelming popular support for Erdoğan and his parliamentary alliance.
Erdoğan obviously was successful enough in embedding his scheme of neoliberalization with minimal social welfarism, which he and his party have articulated with populist language. This language capitalizes on widespread antagonism against elites by equating the opposition and “Western imperialism.” Coupled with conservative discourses and practices that gave their followers a feeling of social participation and exaltation, this created the basis for a strong link between Erdoğan and his followers. This, in turn, was only made possible by de-linking older class-based and social-democratic identities, a strategy rooted in neoliberalism itself. This de-linking and authoritarian re-linking of identities is an important factor for explaining the success of Erdoğanism and is quite often overlooked by the liberal literatures focused on the subject of “competitive authoritarianism.”
It is only upon this background and interlinking that Erdoğan was able to anchor his gradually escalating polarization tactics, according to which Turkey is under siege by an unholy alliance of gays and lesbians, terror, dark forces, and imperialism, all of which unite in an opposition camp geared toward bringing down Erdoğan, the country, and “the moral values of our nation.” This polarization-based hegemonic complex by now is one that is deliberately restricted in as far as it no longer actively aims to capture the active or even passive consent of the remaining half or so of the population. On the contrary, Erdoğan’s deliberately restricted hegemony is one that tries to ride on the stormy waves of the crisis of hegemony as it relies on the weaponization of oppositional unruliness for his polarization tactics. Thus, the material severity of the pandemic, economic crisis, and earthquake were in themselves not strong enough to pierce through the material-social polarization-based hegemonic complex constructed under Erdoğan. His followers tended to believe Erdoğan’s warped version of the story—excellent public health management, economic problems as results only of exogenous factors, and a mostly natural disaster—and, prospectively, Erdoğan’s ability to solve the remaining problems over the opposition’s ability to do so. This, however, also had something to do with the main opposition itself.
This is because, second, the main opposition’s only half-heartedly progressive neoliberal alternative failed. Economically, it did not promise much more than a restoration of neoliberalism, which did not present a convincing alternative to what existed and what exists under Erdoğan. There is no popular appeal in a return to neoliberal orthodox monetary policy which will lead to skyrocketing interest rates in the short run with a promise of trickling down economic gains in the future. Everybody knows this is a neoliberal lie whereas Erdoğan raising the minimum wage, lowering the interest rate, or introducing rent caps are tangible gains, even if they are populist lies structurally speaking and in the mid- to long-term. “Neoliberal erosion,” that is, an incremental erosion of neoliberalism from within a regime that once anchored neoliberalism and still does not fully abandon it, thus can portray itself to be more people-friendly than neoliberal restoration.
At the same time, the main opposition’s call for democracy mostly remained limited to intra-state and state-society relations. There were many good points about, for example, reforming the judiciary. But the MI’s proposals did not really reach out to intra-social relations other than very general, undetailed calls for pluralism. But in detail, due to the predominance of right-wing parties and tendencies within the main opposition camp, exclusionary Turkish nationalism remained dominant with, at best, troubling or vague comments and, at worst, outright hostile ones regarding Kurds, Alevis, refugees/migrants, LGBTQI+ identities, and changing the fundaments of the military-imposed Constitution of 1982 that enshrines exclusionary Turkish nationalism and authoritarian statism. All of this coupled with a political practice that actively shunned popular mobilization and discouraged self-active organization due to the conservative fear that one would not be able to control the masses once in action.
That the main oppositional bloc was only half-hearted in its progressiveness became disturbingly clear in the limbo between 14 May and 28 May. Up until after the first round of elections on 14 May, there remained at least superficial inclusionary positive messaging that glossed over the right-wing conservative undercurrent that otherwise perhaps would have even explicitly dominated the main opposition bloc. Liberal analyses would tell you this was the key in winning over Istanbul and Ankara for the opposition in 2019: “radical love” against Erdoğan’s vile polarization. This time around, “radical love” was perhaps best exemplified by Kılıçdaroğlu’s “hearts & love”-hand sign that became popular. After 14 May, however, exit the hearts and love pageant, enter the hell of rough ’n tough toxic masculinity, rapid nationalism, fake news, and reactionary fear-mongering à la “10 million migrants have flooded Turkey, another 10 will join them and criminal gangs stuffed with migrants will sweep through our cities.” Because, you know, “you can only walk that far with love and hearts and femininity and stuff like this”, according to a CHP-insider. This nationalist turn seemed to be in line with the incremental rise of neo-nationalism which became tangible in the 14 May elections in that explicitly nationalist parties garnered up to 24-25 percent of the vote and nationalism became an important element of the political discourse of most of the parties that were not explicitly or mainly nationalist, within the regime as much as within the opposition camp. By 28 May, the liberal thesis of “autocratization versus democratization” seemed to have evaporated into the antagonism between “nationalism my way, or nationalism highway.” The MI’s democratic potential had weakened as its authoritarian, nationalist tendencies strengthened.
The proximate reason was that the main opposition camp thought the key to winning the second round of presidential elections was to convince the third presidential candidate, the extreme rightwing nationalist Sinan Oğan who had garnered slightly more than 5 percent of the votes in the first round, to join their camp. That tactic backfired spectacularly. Sinan Oğan, once an adamant nationalist enemy of Erdoğan and his allies, became a strong supporter of the same within days, as did so many extreme right-wing nationalists before him. Even though the nationalist alliance underpinning Oğan’s presidential bid broke apart with most fringe extreme nationalist parties of that same alliance supporting Kılıçdaroğlu, this does not seem to have helped Kılıçdaroğlu’s run for the second round as the Oğan-votes seem to have been more-or-less evenly split, while Kılıçdaroğlu for sure also did lose Kurdish votes due to his extreme nationalist turn.
The whole morbid play was merely symptomatic of the failure of the main oppositional alliance, a failure which can be summed up in the simple question: Why should people vote for a light version copy if they can vote for the original? The whole Sinan Oğan sweet-talk episode only further underlined the conclusion of critical analyses that without developing and practically and socially anchoring an overall alternative to the existing regime, the attraction of the same cannot and will not be broken that easily, even in times of dire crises for the broad population. Kılıçdaroğlu himself surely thought his outward nationalist turn to be more of a tactical nature as there remained differences between him and the extreme nationalists supporting him in the second round of the presidential bid. Still, there is an extreme nationalist core also within the CHP only waiting for the right time to assume power within the party again. As inadvertent as it might be, Kılıçdaroğlu strengthened this core in the limbo between 14 May and 28 May.
Whether neo-nationalism and/or Erdoğanism after 28 May becomes the new or remains the old glue holding together a polarized society creaking under economic hardship for the many leading to a decisive right-shift of the country depends on a range of factors. First of all, the economic crisis is looming large. Keeping mindful of the fact that the existence of an economic crisis does not always indicate an incipient turn to negative economic growth. Rather, the current economic crisis in the case of contemporary Turkey means the unsustainability of the growth model as exemplified by major macroeconomic imbalances that will be—most probably in the form of a balance of payment crisis—the proximate reasons for an explicit economic crisis, should it come to one. This is not even to mention the major distributional shock experienced by the majority of the population in the face of rampaging inflation. The durability of institutionalized authoritarianism in power is astonishing, but it is not indefinite. After a certain time and the rising intensity of hardships, it also risks breaking as the leap of faith invested in Erdoğan’s prospective ability to solve the costs of living crisis then withers away. Second, while neo-nationalism is now a major force to reckon with, it remains split and diffused amongst a multiplicity of parties and leaders with Erdoğan, given he is now the sole actor who can give it a relatively unified representation. There is nobody in the right-wing camp besides Erdoğan who seems to be in the making for a dominant leadership position. Even Erdoğan’s own party, the AKP, has been slashed to the classical 35 percent of the vote share that center-right parties in Turkey historically were able to garner.
Third, both the economic crisis and the splitting within the right-wing camp have opened gaps for the popular democratic alternative that was and is on a parliamentary level organized by the third main coalition, the Labor and Freedom Alliance (EÖI) led by the HDP to emerge as the sole guarantor of democratization in Turkey. Although it lost some of the voter share, it can still easily become the beacon to galvanize the democratic potentials and aspirations within society. This is because all other leading actors in Turkey continue to ignore formulating an economic alternative for working people and, in the case of the main opposition camp, incrementally abandon the quest to achieve even the minimal substantial elements of democracy. The social longing for the latter has only been submerged under neo-nationalisms rise, it has not disappeared, even within CHP voters and some rank and file. Complaints about the malfunctioning judiciary, corruption, enforced and politicized religiosity, polarization, repression of lifestyles, lack of freedom of speech, and, last but not least, the longing for social peace remain widespread. Now, it is time for the popular and democratic forces to weather the storm of Erdoğanism resurgent in order to fight back against fascization and neo-nationalism getting even stronger within the opposition in the name of popular democratization. The rocky road to the local elections in Spring 2024 will be the next proving ground for the future of Erdoğanism, neo-nationalism, and democratization in Turkey.