24 June 2018 was a historic day for Turkey as it marked the actual transferral from a parliamentary to a presidential system. For president Erdoğan it means that he finally stepped out of the shadow of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, becoming the most powerful president Turkey had since then. With 52% of the vote for Erdoğan and 42% for the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, Justice and Development Party) the way seems open for a restructuring of the country until its 100-year anniversary in 2023.
Two main positions currently dominate the public and academic debate on Turkish politics. The first constitutes a general demonisation of president Erdoğan and his politics as the ultimate evil. This position tends to a generalising view explaining everything which is happening in the country as domination, terms predominantly used being authoritarianism and hegemony. Although this position is often courageous in decrying social grievances and injustice it deprives us of the possibility to take a deeper, more analytical look and to describe the manifold social webs that accompany the current authoritarian outburst. On the long term this position may be expected to distance itself more and more - both emotionally and analytically - from what is happening in the country. Often adherents of this position argue to ‘Forget about Turkey’ as nothing good might be expected from there anyway. The second position is equally dangerous as it tends to accommodate itself with the political climate in Turkey. In order to keep good relations and access it relativises the Erdoğan government e.g. by referring to the general political culture in Turkey; the ‘majoritarian character’ of the government deduced from the election results; by comparing the current state of Turkey to other, ‘worse’ examples; or by pointing to the deceitfulness of the West. As a result, issues as the abolishment of a real separation of powers, the massive constraint of civil liberties, the war on the Kurds and the conquest of Afrin (including its highly problematic handling) are no longer part of their narrative of Turkey. As a result, both readings imply that dealing with Turkey is not much useful anyways, as it is either too bad to change at all, or not so bad (so why bother?).
What, prior to June, 24, shook the otherwise fixed positions was a flicker of hope, the feeling that another Turkey might be possible and that the AKP rule lasting since 2002 might come to an end. Last this was felt during the 2013 Gezi park upheaval. What had started as a protest against the transformation of a public park into a shopping mall soon turned into nationwide protest against an increasingly authoritarian president. The wave of hope felt back then prove premature, the different groups could not find a common ground or formulate a strategy outreaching mere opposition to Erdoğan. The president in return, who had so far been carried by political successes understood the fragility of political power and answered by a much closer grip on the country. The government became more repressive, the freedom of press and the freedom of expression were severely limited, even more so after the failed coup attempt of July 2016 on which the government reacted by a wave of dismissals, detentions and convictions. The June 24 election campaign despite being run under emergency rule and in a climate of fear, with no fair access to media representation, and with many political activists in jail was a dedicated election campaign by sides of all participants.
This climate of everything being possible was also reflected in the surveys, which, other than in previous years, were very unstable and did not show a clear preference for the president. Percentages were varying for Erdoğan between 39-50%, and between 26% and 31% for CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, Republican People’s Party) candidate Muharrem İnce. Meral Akşener, party president of the newly founded nationalist İyi-Party had the largest variations between 8% and 21%. Akşener, a former minister of the interior (1996-1997), with a long history in Turkish centre-right parties is known as both a devout Muslim and an ultra-nationalist politician. She was thus perceived as a real threat to the AKP and MHP (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, Nationalist Movement Party) being able to reach moderate to more radical voters from the religious-nationalist spectrum who were either upset by the economic situation or the leadership qualities of either Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or of MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli. However, in the election Akşener reached a mere 7,2% staying much below what the surveys had predicted for her. It might be that many conservative Turks, although being disappointed by Erdoğan, could not come to terms with possibly having a female president. Although the AKP lost about 7% compared with the November 2015 parliamentary election, Erdoğan received 52%. This is even slightly higher than the results of the referendum on the introduction of the presidential system in 2017 (51%). Apparently the perception of a strong leader is still very positive. Rather than taking a risk with a weak (or no) leader the voters have decided to stick to the one they know and who is somewhat predictable: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Particularly in central Anatolia, he and the AKP reached high numbers of above 70%. Despite the growing critique in other regions of the country, here the adoration of the ‘reis’, the ‘head’, is unbroken.
Another surprise was the relatively good performance of the MHP with 11%. The party had been written off by many observers. This was partially due to its decreasing number of supporters: the party that received around 16% in the June 2015 election completely abandoned its own political discourse in the following and only got a mere 11% in the November 2015 election. For the election of 24 June 2018 most surveys estimated it at only 6-7%. In the previous months, the MHP had presented itself rather as a branch of the AKP or its henchman than as an independent party. The predicted loss to the İyi-Party remained relatively low, and happened predominantly in the country’s Western regions. Surprising was that apparently the MHP gained votes from former AKP voters. Back in 2014, the AKP and MHP were in strong opposition, mainly due to the AKP’s peace initiative with the Kurds. Subsequently the MHP nominated the conservative intellectual Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu in an alliance with the CHP. Soon however both AKP and MHP got rid of their political allies; the MHP was disappointed that only around 38% voted for their presidential candidate, the AKP stopped the peace initiative when it became clear that the Kurds were not willing to play the kingmaker or rather president maker for Erdoğan. When, after the June 2015 election, the AKP began to actively attack both pro-Kurdish activists and politicians, as also PKK military camps, AKP and MHP began their love story. The MHP not only actively supported the introduction of a presidential system in the 2017 referendum; it also refrained from any independent political positioning. Apparently votes not only moved from the MHP to the Iyi Party, but likewise also from the AKP to the MHP. Also some more nationalist segments in the CHP felt ill presented by Ince’s Kurdish opening and thus voted for the MHP. Still the party’s success is surprising as prior to this election party president Bahçeli merely did three election campaign events, reaching only a couple of hundred people. The MHP’s good results are thus one of the big question marks behind this election.
The election also showed that despite a talented and (in the Turkish context) ideologically rather liberal CHP candidate as İnce, the party is not able to draw more than a maximum of 30%. With the exception of the 1970s, when the party reached over 40%, its core constituency is between 20-30%. The election not only showed that many voters want a strong leader, but also demonstrated the degree to which political identities in Turkey are deadlocked and tied to different lifestyles. Pious Muslims historically felt discriminated against as ‘black Turks’ and deprived of their share of the national cake. However, one should also acknowledge that although the opposition was witty, it also lacked substantial arguments. Most obvious was this with regard to the economy, the top concern of Turkish voters, as various surveys showed. It has further become obvious, that topics as the constraint of civil liberties (although highly debated in the West) were not central in the election campaigns. Surprising was, that although hotly debated, apparently the economic situation was not ‘bad enough’ to damage the president’s approval rate.
In 2017 economic growth was at a stately 7,4%, however it was mainly financed by debt, a fact coming back as a boomerang these days. Inflation is currently at over 10%, and the Turkish Lira is rapidly losing value. Since the beginning of the year the Lira lost more than 20% towards Dollar and Euro. Increase in interest by the central bank are carried out late and tentatively, also due to the influence executed by the presidential palace where it is feared that high interest hinders investment. International direct investment is decreasing due to the political situation and the structural problems of the Turkish economy. Unemployment is at over 10% and significantly higher among the youth. The economy is also voiced as the most pressing issue by the people who in various surveys name it as their number one concern. In the end, the voters did not give as much importance to the economic situation as expected. There are several reasons for that: although an inflation rate of around 20% is quite scary from a German perspective, Turks have seen much worse: When the AKP came to power in 2002 inflation was at 40%, in 1994, at the height of economic difficulties, even over a 100%. Also unemployment, albeit high, is not as high as it was past the financial crisis in 2009, when it was 14%. Also the campaign goodies as the payments retirees for religious holidays had a positive effect on the electorate. In general one can observe that state investment was (at least for the time being) able to balance the structural difficulties of the Turkish economy. A core electorate might also be convinced by Erdoğan’s statements on an ominous ‘interest lobby’ acting to wrestle the Turkish economy down. In his view financial experts asking for higher interests in Turkey are a dangerous crowd of foreign powers.
What than may we expect in the aftermath of this election? Firstly, this election was another consolidation of power for the AKP. Some observers argue, that the voters punished the AKP and that it lost around 7% compared to November 2015. However, numbers in the June 2015 election were similar to now and it might be argued, that the increase in November might have been due to the tense security situation in the country. More importantly, Erdoğan won the presidential race which is the telling argument: Some insights in the internal organisation of Turkish parties shows that the analytical differentiation between Erdoğan and the AKP seems nonsense; Erdoğan is the AKP and the AKP is Erdoğan. Secondly, this will mean hard times for the opposition. Although it is a success that the pro-Kurdish HDP managed to get over the 10% threshold nevertheless many of its activists are still imprisoned under the accusation of terrorism. Similarly, a possible Inner-Muslim opposition to the AKP has been muzzled by imprisonment, judicial threat or dismissal. It seems likely that Erdoğan will now turn to crush the CHP and Iyi Party. The public absence of their leaders and Ince’s sudden acknowledging of the election results might be a hint in this direction. Thirdly, the close cooperation of MHP and AKP can be expected to continue. The AKP which had already shown a very nationalistic face in the last years might even increase polarisation, much to the distress of ethnic and religious minorities. Fourthly, the degree of social polarisation may be expected to increase, not only in Turkey but likewise in Europe, e.g. Germany. Turkish citizens living abroad, about 1,4 million of them in Germany are a relevant factor for the election result. Traditionally they are supportive of the AKP, but also the ultranationalist networks of the grey wolves supporting the MHP are strong. In the previous election about 60% of Turkish expats voted for Erdoğan, as ties to the home land are still tight and for many, the president is a symbol for a strong, self-confident Turkey. These perceptions clash with a very one-sided perception of the country here and mutual comprehension seems to be further away than ever. More tragically, the Turkey of the future will not only be politically isolated from Europe. What is more crucial with regard to future generations are the realignments with regard to education, the restriction of civil liberties and the climate of fear leading to an intellectual isolation as well as inner emigration.