Source: Middle East Eye

Birol Başkan & Ömer Taşpınar

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s victory in May’s election has surprised many a person. That was not supposed to have happened. After remaining in power for 20 years, most surveys showed him trailing and his image of invincibility appeared to have faded. With real inflation in the triple digits, 50,000 people killed in an earthquake that, among other things, exposed poor governance, and a solidly unified opposition, economic and political conditions appeared to be ideal for him to lose the election. But, almost magically, he did not.

So, what accounts for Erdoğan’s ongoing popularity? His ability to polarize the country is the obvious answer. Erdoğan masterfully played two cards, nationalism and religion, portraying his rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, as a sympathizer of militant outfits, pro-LGBT, and anti-family.  With Turkiye’s leading nationalist party, the Nationalist Movement Party, and its two most conservative and religious parties, the Welfare Again Party and the Free Mission Party, allying with him, Erdoğan smartly and persuasively played these two cards.

Why couldn’t Kılıçdaroğlu confront Erdoğan’s cultural war? With the major Kurdish party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, declaring to back Kılıçdaroğlu rather than running its own candidate, his task was not easy. Yet, he certainly made an effort. Kılıçdaroğlu is known as Turkiye’s Gandhi for a reason. In stark contrast to Erdoğan’s confrontational image, Kılıçdaroğlu has been rather conciliatory. As the leader of Turkiye’s once-dominant secular party, Kılıçdaroğlu abandoned his predecessor Deniz Baykal’s uncompromising rhetoric, a rhetoric that alienated many voters who did and continue to vote for Erdoğan.

Kılıçdaroğlu has worked hard to demonstrate a commitment to constructive politics. To the chagrin of many of his left-wing party members and supporters, he even formed an electoral coalition with four right-wing political parties, one of which was none other than Turkiye’s traditional Islamist party, the Felicity Party. That was certainly bold and could have calmed conservative anxieties. But it also made Kılıçdaroğlu susceptible to Erdoğan’s religious and nationalist salvos. How could such an all-encompassing figure alienate Turkiye’s  largest Kurdish party, as well as pro-women and pro-LGBT+ groups? Kılıçdaroğlu promised the latter two groups that he would restore the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, or better known as the Istanbul Convention. Erdoğan withdrew Turkiye from the Convention in March 2022, to appease his religious base. In confronting Erdoğan’s culture war, Kılıçdaroğlu’s long-term goal was to establish a broad front. However, Erdoğan targeted his rival’s weakest points.

Erdoğan has so efficiently and masterfully waged the cultural war that some pundits argue that it has even eclipsed voters’ economic woes and helped him win another election. Was that so? While it is not unimportant, its impact should not be overstated either. On the contrary, it is the economy that should be analyzed as a factor. The Turkish economy is in a terrible condition. Its prime weakness is that the prices of even basic items have been soaring. The official annual rate of change in prices was 85.51% in December 2022 . That is a modest estimate. ENAG, a private research company run by economists, put the same figure at 137.55%.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s electoral campaign took issue with  inflation and several other economic problems. He relentlessly emphasized the rising prices of fundamental consumer goods, most notably onion, the staple of Turkish meals. And to add strength to his message, Kılıçdaroğlu shot his campaign’s videos in his extremely basic kitchen. Kılıçdaroğlu also regularly brought up the issue of corruption, referring to Erdoğan’s five favorite corporations as a “five-member gang” and asserting that Erdoğan’s allies stole more than $500 billion from the Turkish people. Overall, Kılıçdaroğlu projected an image of a clean, incorruptible politician, an image Erdoğan once portrayed credibly.

Didn’t it seem persuasive? It did. That is why the opposition expected the economic downturn to sway a sizable portion of Erdoğan’s supporters. It’s not that it didn’t. Erdoğan was unable to reclaim the presidency in the first round as he did so easily in 2014 and 2018. His party’s vote percentage fell from 42.56 percent in 2018 to 35.61 percent in 2023.That is quite dramatic. Here, it is important to note that elections in Turkiye are no longer fair because Erdoğan has benefitted from a massive incumbency advantage and used it to the fullest. He had practically unfettered access to the Turkish media, which Kılıçdaroğlu did not. To put it in context, Erdoğan appeared on the Turkish official TV channel, TRT Haber, for almost 33 hours from April 1 to May 1, 2023, while Kılıçdaroğlu appeared for only 33 minutes. More critically, Erdoğan had an immediate method of addressing voters’ economic concerns. In the simplest terms, he could have raised the wages. In fact, he did, declaring, for example, a whopping 85% raise in state employee salary, just three days before the election. The economic downturn did not therefore dissuade Erdoğan’s voters as much as the opposition had hoped for.

The Turkish economy was plagued by excessive inflation but did not go through any major economic collapse. Yet. Erdoğan faced an economic quandary a few years ago, one that pitted inflation against economic growth. And he deliberately picked the latter. His interest rate-inflation theory, mocked by many economists as folly, and his steadfast opposition to raising interest rates despite opposite proposals, were motivated more by this choice than by his adherence to the Quranic ban on interest rates. Erdoğan believed that Turkish voters could tolerate and adapt to runaway inflation, as they did in the 1980s and 1990s, but they cannot bear significant unemployment, a massive economic collapse, or a deep financial catastrophe. The Turkish economy is in trouble, but it has seen none of that. The unemployment rate was just 10.4 percent in 2022, falling from 12.0 percent in the previous year.

Erdoğan’s widely-mocked economic philosophy is predicated on maximizing economic growth at whatever cost. He was determined to avoid high interest rates since a recession triggered by high interest rates would almost certainly have wrecked Erdoğan’s re-election chances. Erdoğan instead chose a high-inflation/high-growth approach that allowed him to engage in economic populism by rising wages, cutting retirement ages, and giving financial credit to cronies.

But that’s not all. Despite the fact that Kılıçdaroğlu added a number of economic themes to his campaign, he did not give a clear and simple economic plan on how he would combat inflation without plunging the country into a deep economic slump. Kılıçdaroğlu commented badly about the economy. More troublingly, Kılıçdaroğlu sounded as populist in economic matters as Erdoğan did. In fact, it was Kılıçdaroğlu who literally forced Erdoğan to reduce the retirement age. Erdoğan has been resisting that for more than a decade. Kılıçdaroğlu made populist promises and Erdoğan simply signed them into law with the stroke of a pen. That’s all there is to it.

Last but not least, there is the question of how much his supporters blamed Erdoğan for their economic woes. It is possible that not many of them did. Erdoğan repeatedly claimed that not only Turkiye but also the entire international economy was suffering from severe inflation, and that the country was performing substantially better than others. Recall the infamous remark that store shelves were empty in Europe and the United States but not in Turkiye. As a result, Erdoğan’s supporters may have truly felt that high inflation was unrelated to Erdoğan’s economic policies and that it could worsen if someone other than Erdoğan were in control. 

So, now what? No good news on the domestic front can be expected. Political repression and populist nationalism will continue to grip the country for the next five years. Also, not much is likely to change on the international front. In the Middle East, Turkiye will continue to have good relations with Iran and Qatar, and improve or repair its relations with the rest. In the global arena, Turkiye will keep its good relations with Russia while improving those with China. But, it will not totally succumb to their power politics, and instead will keep its working relations with the U.S. and the European Union (EU) intact. But, we should add, it is not Erdoğan who does not want to have better relations. It is the U.S. and the EU who are not enthused about bettering them. The status quo will prevail  unless the U.S. and the EU change their courteous and cordial attitude towards the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria and the Gulenists, or, the Turkish economy totally collapses and Erdoğan is forced to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The latter is more likely to happen.

Birol Başkan is an independent political analyst, and Ömer Taşpınar is a Professor at the US National War College.