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The Turkish elections: Time for a new spring?

I was born in September 2003 in Istanbul. I have not known a day in my life where Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) have not been the dominant political force in Turkey. Since Erdoğan’s inauguration in March 2003, the country has slid down the democracy index as civil rights have been eroded, public institutions politicised and press freedoms curtailed. However, all is not yet lost, and the ruling paradigm of political Islam is about to face its toughest challenge in 20 years.

The triumph of democracy and secular values could herald a new age for Turkey and send a message to all aspiring autocrats across the world. The long fragmented opposition has united under presidential candidate Kılıçdaroğlu whose pledges demonstrate the dire situation: He promises to tackle corruption, restore ‘meritocracy’, bring back judicial due process and freedom of the press. 

His allies in this project are a motley crew of secular social democrats, liberals, Turkish nationalists, communists, Kurdish nationalists and even Islamist ex-ministers of Erdogan sidelined by his authoritarian drift. With an upswell of support in the recent polls, the opposition has embraced the inevitability of change in their slogans; “I’m Kemal, on my way” is one of Kılıçdaroğlu’s catchphrases plastered across the country. As Turkey enters its 100th year as a republic in October, another slogan is on the minds of many younger Turks like me who are hopeful about the future: “We’ll have springs again”. 

To contextualise, I have provided a short summary of Turkish political history, followed by an analysis of the electorate, and finally taking off my rose-tinted glasses in the hopes of elucidating the likely outcome both for Turkey and the world.

The Turkish Republic was proclaimed on October 29th 1923, emerging from the ruins of an imploded Ottoman Empire. Since its inception, Turkey has been locked in an identity crisis between its Islamic Ottoman heritage and the secular nationalist alternative inspired by the French Revolution, implemented by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. To this end, the military has acted as a violent enforcer, with the aim of containing Islamist or socialist lurches through coups and crackdowns to keep the country on the long and narrow path. Even through this tumult, Turkey was a bastion of secularism in the muslim world, often inspiring secular activists in other countries by showing them that Islam could co-exist with liberal values. Turkey’s past as a bridge between East and West as well as being a bulwark against political Islam could, perhaps, be restored once more under a Kılıçdaroğlu government.

With this background, it’s easy to see the appeal in Erdoğan’s image as a voice for the average devout muslim, willing to stand up to the ‘secularist elite’. When he entered office in 2003, Turkey was recovering from a recent economic crisis and the global economic conditions favoured developing countries willing to accept foreign investment. This allowed him to further consolidate popular support by claiming credit for the ensuing economic miracle. Furthermore, his initial politics were much more liberal, promising reconciliation with the Kurdish minority and progress towards EU membership. To his credit, Erdoğan and his clique made wonderful use of every development to further their own gains. They expertly exploited the construction boom funded with western ‘hot money’ to enrich Erdogan and his cronies by awarding government contracts to the politically connected. Some allies went on to use this newfound wealth to buy media outlets which became the only perspective for many as the government suppressed dissenting press. The parliamentary super-majority gave him a blank cheque to appoint party members across the state bureaucracy and start chipping away at judicial independence. A politically savvy leader presiding over a growing economy, Erdoğan was able to fragment the opposition and consolidate his one-man rule. 

This all eventually exploded in his face, as the economic growth of the country started faltering, and then reversing. Claiming to be an economist, Erdogan sacked 3 central bank governors after they refused to lower interest rates, which ultimately led to an 86% inflation rate in October 2022. The deadly earthquakes this February further revealed the true incompetence of his government as the nation quickly figured out their “earthquake taxes” had been squandered to cronyism and corruption. Erdogan’s case is a typical one for many authoritarian regimes: it turns out that a state based on political appointments instead of meritocracy doesn’t perform so well. With his government’s economic failure presenting the first genuine opportunity for change, it seems that the old adage is confirmed once more: “It’s the economy, stupid”.

Perhaps this will be my bias coming to the fore, but the most important demographic in this election appears to be the youth of the country. With 10% of the electorate being first-time voters, Millennials and Gen Z have been widely recognised as the kingmakers of this election. The opposition has tried to embrace them with open arms, including a “gaming console” tax write-off for first-time buyers. While the preposterous 70% tax on gaming consoles doesn’t help Erdogan’s support among the young, angry gamers aren’t the only demographic he’s marginalised.

As outlined above, many public and private institutions have lost their meritocratic ideals, and most young Turks would rather emigrate to a country where their talents are rewarded. I can attest to this from my own experience: out of my 10 closest friends from secondary school, 8 are now studying overseas, with little intention to return in the near future. To add insult to injury, the government is hostile to the more progressive social views of the young, seeing them as Western aberrations. Erdoğan made global headlines recently for calling the opposition “gay” and “pro-LGBT”. He also alienated many women when the government withdrew from the Istanbul Convention which aims to prevent violence against women.

With his political platform completely out of step at best, and outright hostile at worst to the ambitions of the young, it’s no surprise that the AKP polls at 20% among 18-25 year old voters compared to 40% overall. This aspect of generational conflict imbues a grander historical and global relevance to the election. Will youth discontent be able to overthrow a two decade strongman regime, or will they be crushed under their own fragmentation and alienation? 

This brings us to the chief concern for many outside observers: will Erdoğan let go of power if he loses? Most polls show that an opposition victory is likely, with one of the two smaller vote-splitting candidates dropping out 3 days before the election, further boosting their chances. The worst scenario would be a narrow Kılıçdaroğlu victory in the runoff round, followed by riots or violence from Erdoğan allied militias calling foul play, including the Kurdish Hezbollah and Turkish nationalist paramilitaries (don’t worry too much about those two being on the same side, just one of the many paradoxes in Turkish politics). With these factors, if the government tries to play by the rulebook of those like Trump or Bolsonaro, there is a real chance for a downward spiral towards conflict and insurgency. This would be the worst possible contingency, but is not very likely. Most Turkish citizens are ready for change, and hopeful that the country will return to its democratic secular heritage. 

For the first time in my life things are looking up for Turkey, and there is genuine will for change. Perhaps in my optimistic folly, I’ve already promised a round of shots to my friends if Kılıçdaroğlu wins, and they’ve promised me as many rounds as it will take for me to forget if he doesn’t. Many of my family, my friends and my generation see a light at the end of the tunnel; this time I’m hopeful that it won’t be another train. 

Image Credit: Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi//CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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