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Turkey's Best Shot for Defeating its Illiberal President Is This Sunday
If Recep Erdoğan prevails in the upcoming national election, it's game over for the country's liberal democracy
The pivotal and dramatic national election in NATO-member Turkey on Sunday presents a rare chance for improving the prospects of democracy in this Middle Eastern country. That’s because there is a real—not remote—chance of ousting Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as president. A controversial figure, Erdoğan has led the country for 20 years, first as prime minister beginning in 2003 and then as president starting in 2014.
In a region that already has too many backward-looking, illiberal leaders focused on “traditional Muslim values,” Erdoğan may not be the worst of the right-wing authoritarians, but he is still bad and loud enough in his badness that he is hardly the man to lead Türkiye—as Erdoğan renamed it in 2022—into the 21st century.
By 2016, it was clear that Erdoğan was eager to undo the secular and relatively democratic legacy of Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Enough people in Turkey became alarmed by Erdoğan’s direction that a coup to overthrow him was attempted that July but failed. Watching the coup live on my television, I discussed the threat Erdoğan posed to Turkish democracy. While I was loath to support a coup, I thought the lesser of two evils was getting rid of someone who was openly hostile to liberal democracy.
I took little pleasure in seeing those concerns vindicated a month later when a purge on a scale rarely seen since Mao Zedong’s China was carried out by the Erdoğan regime. While I despaired in 2016 that Erdoğan would be nearly impossible to get rid of, I am cautiously hopeful that he may yet be defeated, either in Sunday’s general election or in a runoff two weeks later.
The Long Odds for Erdoğan’s Defeat
To be sure, the odds of unseating the increasingly authoritarian Turkish president are daunting. For one, the opposition against Erdoğan is not competing in a free or fair election: Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have increasingly stacked and twisted the system.
In particular, public discourse has been stifled. Pro-Erdoğan forces have corrupted the media and the courts to suppress political speech, among other illiberal measures. One of the most infamous cases involved a man who publicly compared Erdoğan to The Lord of the Rings’ character Gollum. The man was prosecuted and convicted in 2016 for the crime of insulting Erdoğan. One year later, a Turkish doctor made a similar comparison and was likewise charged but acquitted, perhaps because the film trilogy’s beloved director, Peter Jackson, came to his defense to argue the comparison was not meant as an insult.
Thanks to Erdoğan, in 2022 the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Türkiye fourth worldwide in imprisoning journalists, behind only Iran, China and Myanmar. The country has also fallen dramatically in Reporters Sans Frontières’ freedom rankings. It was 100 out of 139 in 2002, the year before Erdoğan first came to power as prime minister. Last year, it was 165 out of 180. Arrests, abuse and violence against journalists have continued, especially in recent days and weeks as the election nears.
Erdoğan’s Contempt for Democracy
Erdoğan has also turned the media and law enforcement against the political opposition, resulting in the suppression, and even imprisonment, of opposition politicians. Türkiye’s majority population is Turkic, but Kurds are the country’s main ethnic minority. Conflict between the two groups goes back centuries, and Erdoğan has energetically escalated his attacks on the major Kurdish opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP).
After the post-coup purge, Erdoğan flooded the news industry as well as the judiciary and law enforcement with his loyalists. In the years since, too many opposition figures have been unable to run for office or have access to campaigning through traditional media, let alone fair coverage. Just this April, Erdoğan received almost 33 hours of airtime, his main opponent just 32 minutes.
In the Erdoğan era, opposition figures and journalists challenge the AKP regime at the risk of imprisonment or even violence. In other words, doing their jobs does not just present a legal risk but physical danger. Just days ago, a mob of about 200 people descended upon an opposition rally led by the popular and charismatic Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu. They threw stones at him and his supporters, injuring some dozen people and forcing the rally to be cut short. İmamoğlu is the vice presidential candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition party in the country, which was founded by Atatürk and represents his legacy.
The question is how far are Erdoğan, officials of his government and the AKP willing to go to hang on to power by deploying illegal, illiberal or other inappropriate means? Erdoğan’s past behavior suggests that the answer is not reassuring. In 2015, Erdoğan was shamelessly willing to stoke a war against the Kurds after the Kurdish HDP earned its first seats in the Turkish parliament and deprived Erdoğan’s AKP of its majority. Erdoğan absurdly blamed Kurds for what were likely ISIS attacks, but it worked: In an atmosphere of violence and anti-Kurdish hysteria, the HDP and other parties failed to form a coalition. A new election was held in November in which the AKP regained the majority, partly at the expense of the HDP.
The Opposition’s Best Shot
Despite all this, there are multiple factors giving the opposition not only its best—but a good chance—of finally unseating Erdoğan and the AKP in a few days. Even when cheating, Erdoğan’s side has sometimes still barely won key elections. He held a major referendum in 2017 to change the Turkish political system from a parliamentary to a presidential one, and give himself more unchecked powers. The power-grabbing reform only passed with 51.4% of the vote, a tight victory despite significant cheating.
The result was a new system granting the president far more power to stack the judiciary, bypass both the cabinet and the parliament, and act as a political partisan—all of which allowed Erdoğan to further smother political opposition. Yet even under this new system that gave Erdoğan and his AKP more power to cheat, in 2018 Erdoğan only won reelection with 52.6% of the vote, narrowly avoiding a runoff (and, yes, there was serious cheating then, too).
In spite of all this, Erdoğan’s acolytes have still sometimes managed to lose elections—as was the case when İmamoğlu won as mayor of Istanbul in 2019—not once, but twice. The Erdoğan-packed courts intervened against the initial result and forced a rerun, which İmamoğlu won by an even larger margin.
This suggests that so far at least, the AKP actually has some limits to its willingness to cheat, which leaves the door open for a strong opposition candidate to win. Türkiye, then, is thankfully not that close to a full dictatorship like, say, neighboring Syria, where Bashar al-Assad “won” “reelection” in 2021 with over 95% of the “vote.” If the victory margin for the opposition is wide enough, it might well forestall outright election theft.
A further reason for hope is that, for once, the opposition parties have almost fully united to back a single candidate and coalition—the Nation Alliance—to take Erdoğan down. That candidate is Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, now the leader of the CHP. He was chosen over İmamoğlu since İmamoğlu was convicted in December under the AKP’s draconian political speech laws for criticizing the court. He may have to serve a 31-month prison term if his appeal fails (the decision might come any day now before the upcoming election). While İmamoğlu is a more electable figure, the threat of him being imprisoned or even barred from holding office by the courts was too great, narrowing the options for an opposition keen to minimize risk.
Another major opposition figure, HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş—who had to run for office from prison in the last presidential election in 2018—is also throwing his weight behind Kılıçdaroğlu. HDP members are running on a Green Left Party slate to avoid a possible upcoming ban on their party. Others too have followed suit in supporting Kılıçdaroğlu. And while traditional media is sidelining these opposition parties, they have bypassed that obstacle by using social media.
Proving the maxim “necessity is the mother of invention,” Erdoğan’s heavy hand has succeeded in pushing most of his opposition together under one coalition banner and one candidate, making it harder to suppress them. Kılıçdaroğlu may not be many voters’ first choice—including key coalition supporters—but he may be good enough.
There is also the issue that Erdoğan’s and the AKP’s policies have failed economically. The country has been dealing with an inflation crisis since 2021, with food prices doubling and price increases later topping 80% in 2022 (in case Americans think they have it so bad under Biden). And that was before the devastating February 2023 earthquakes that hit Türkiye, magnifying economic woes for Turks.
About 51,000 people inside Türkiye were killed, according to the official count. Yet many would take issue with the statement that it was the earthquakes that were responsible for so many deaths. They blame, instead, years of bad AKP policies—corruption, lack of building code enforcement—and a clumsy and particularly slow response in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes. Many people could hear their loved ones crying out while buried for days under rubble, “wait[ing] for help that never came.”
Given that the earthquakes struck hardest in Erdoğan country, it is hard to imagine that those in the region are not disillusioned with Erdoğan and the AKP. Perhaps this “act of God” may be Erdoğan’s undoing, a gigantic straw on an already strained camel’s back.
Adding all this together, the polls consistently have Kılıçdaroğlu ahead of Erdoğan by 5 to 6 percentage points on average, according to Politico and PolitPro, respectively. Kılıçdaroğlu may even have enough support to cross the 50% threshold needed to win outright and avoid a runoff.
It is impossible to predict the final outcome with certainty. In a free and fair election, the opposition would certainly triumph. But given that this will not be a free and fair election, an opposition victory might depend on just how much Türkiye’s current officials will cheat and how they will behave if they know they are defeated. Will they cheat more than before? And if they do, will the Turkish people and security forces simply stand by?
The world watches to see what Türkiye—its people, leaders and system—decide. If wannabe Sultan Erdoğan-the-Cheater cannot be beat now in his moment of weakness by Kılıçdaroğlu and the determined Nation Alliance coalition, it will only get harder after Erdoğan has had another five years to further twist the system. Erdoğan could make a comeback after being ousted. But if there is any serious hope for Türkiye to stop its democratic backsliding in the near future, it has to start with Erdoğan’s defeat in this election.