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Has Erdogan’s Populism Reached Its Limits?


By Selim Koru

ANKARA, Turkey — I am a 30-year-old Turkish man, and for my entire adult life there has been a ritual to elections: There’s a bitterly fought campaign, the polling day arrives, people vote, ballots are counted and Recep Tayyip Erdogan wins.


He stands on the balcony of his Justice and Development Party’s headquarters in Ankara and gives a victory speech to a cheering crowd. If you are part of that crowd, you feel as if you have become a little more important in the world. If you aren’t, you feel as if you have become a little less relevant. This sequence of events has repeated itself for 17 years.

Turkey voted to elect the mayors of its 81 provinces and their municipalities. President Erdogan’s party, known as the A.K.P., allied itself with the ultranationalist National Movement Party; the secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (the C.H.P.) contested in partnership with Good Party, an outfit that splintered from the nationalists in 2018.

The People’s Democratic Party (the H.D.P.), which is home to Kurdish left-nationalists, cooperated with the opposition alliance in several major cities while running against the A.K.P. in the Kurdish-majority southeastern provinces. It was a brutal contest. Erdogan personally campaigned every day and repeatedly accused his opponents of being terrorist collaborators. Most opposition candidates merely presented themselves as the non-Erdogan option.

Mansur Yavas, the C.H.P. candidate for Ankara mayor, was comfortably ahead of his rival from the A.K.P., which has controlled Ankara for 25 years. Despite the momentous developments in Ankara, all eyes were fixed on Istanbul.

Ekrem Imamoglu, a young, energetic C.H.P. candidate, was briskly tallying up votes and catching up fast with Erdogan’s chosen man for Istanbul, Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister and former speaker of the Turkish Parliament.

Our phones were exploding with WhatsApp messages. There was a photo of Yildirim writing a short victory speech. There was Imamoglu going on air and insisting that he was leading by his campaign’s calculations. People were angry because the authorities stopped publishing results as Imamoglu caught up with Yildirim in the public figures.

Then a news flash: Erdogan was on the balcony. But something was off. As he stepped up to the crowd, he began singing along to the song booming into the night: “These roses are for you; this soul is ours. Don’t be sad, don’t cry. Always smile.”

Erdogan’s speech was short and vague. He said that he was honored to carry the popular vote, and that his party had done well in many provinces, none of which he named. “Those who made false claims are welcome to it,” he said, “let us see how they govern.” This was the closest he got to admitting the calamity: His A.K.P. had lost Ankara and Istanbul, apart from other major cities.

To understand the significance of this, it helps to know the dominant narrative of Turkish politics today. It goes something like this: Throughout its republican history, Turkey has been governed by a secular elite characterized by its impish adherence to Western imperialists.

A group of plucky conservatives kept challenging this system until, in 1994, a young Erdogan and his friend (now dismissed) won the mayoralties of Istanbul and Ankara, respectively. Amid the economic crises, weak coalition governments and civil unrest of the 1990s, Mr. Erdogan and his associates were islands of good governance. They served these great cities with distinction and earned a reputation of incorruptibility.

In 2002, their movement, now under the banner of the A.K.P., was elected into national office. Under Erdogan’s firm leadership, they grew the economy, fixed the bureaucracy and won up to half of the popular vote. Turkey was booming; the world talked about the “Turkish model” of majority-Muslim democracy. By the mid-2010s, Erdogan had defanged the coup-prone military and disenfranchised the corrupt elites of old.

The jealous opposition parties joined shadowy outside actors in plotting the downfall of Turkey’s great revival. Some of Erdogan’s friends and allies betrayed him, but “the people” did not. When the economy slowed down, or the court system got clogged up, he asked people to sacrifice for the cause of what he called “New Turkey,” a nation unshackled from Western domination and free to soar to new heights.

But the myth of New Turkey is paradoxical. It was built on doing practical things in the 1990s, like filling potholes. But to maintain the myth, Erdogan sometimes asked voters to ignore those practical things and simply to have faith in “the cause.”

There was a major breach in this wall of faith, especially in Istanbul, where Erdogan’s love of the people first transmuted into government service. This was probably due to a combination of growing economic problems and an increasingly competent opposition.

It is a close count in Istanbul, and the Supreme Electoral Council has asked for three days to check everything. As things stand, it seems that Imamoglu, the young and stubbornly positive candidate of the C.H.P., will get the job that started Erdogan’s “great love affair” with the people 25 years ago.

If that doesn’t happen, and the A.K.P. holds the city, people will know that Imamoglu went up against vastly unequal odds — the government’s near-monopoly on TV, its abundant use of state resources, its threats of litigation — and probably still won.

This could signal the limits of Erdogan’s political strategy. Already in this election, opposition politicians mocked the president for calling ordinary voters terrorists. He strongly denied the claim and sued one of them. In a recently viral video, an old woman asked: “Why should the man governing Turkey make a distinction between the people? Are those [opposition] parties always evil and you [Erdogan] are good?”

When populist rhetoric comes from a fresh face and aims at a calcified elite, it sounds plausible. When it has supplanted that elite, and it has reached its demographic limits, it begins to look ridiculous.

And therein lies the problem of Erdogan’s politics: He isn’t honest with himself. He wants to dominate the political space and transform the country, but he isn’t quite willing to engage in the scale of repression that would require. He demonizes his opposition as terrorist collaborators, yet still allows them to participate in elections.

Erdogan’s style of politics demands that he either crank up the intensity, or collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.