In recent years, Turkey has become increasingly authoritarian, with the electoral system tilted more and more heavily in favor of the incumbent. However, for the first time, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was unable to win the presidential elections in the first round, so a second round is needed. Here’s why.
The trend towards authoritarian rule
In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, Turkey is labeled as a hybrid regime, meaning that democracy is seriously circumscribed. Elections are not usually free and fair, the media is subject to censorship, the rule of law is weak, and corruption is rife. Turkey has suffered a steep decline in its score over the past decade, under the leadership of the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. From a high of 5.76 points in 2012, Turkey’s average score has fallen by 1.41 points to 4.35 in 2022. This downwards trajectory reflects the increasingly autocratic rule of its strongman president.
Mr Erdogan ramped up pressure on the media, the opposition and public dissent in 2022, but the country already has very low scores across all categories, so they could not go much lower for many indicators. The trend towards increasing repression was highlighted in October 2022 by the passing of a new disinformation law, which includes a jail sentence for “disseminating false information” about the country’s security and public order. In April 2022 Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party also amended the election law to facilitate the appointment of sympathetic judges to electoral boards and make it even more difficult for smaller parties to enter parliament via electoral alliances. (https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2022/)
Turkey ranks 165th out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ 2023 World Press Freedom Index. With 90% of the national media now under government control, the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “hyper-presidency” has stepped up its attacks on journalists in a bid to deflect attention from the country's economic and democratic decline and to shore up its political base. Tactics such as near systematic censorship on the internet, frivolous lawsuits against critical media outlets or the misuse of the judicial system have, until now, enabled Erdoğan to restore his popularity rating. (https://rsf.org/en/country-t%C3%BCrkiye)
In the World Justice Project’s 2022 Rule of Law Index, Turkey ranks 116th out of 140, with an overall score of 0.42 (out of a maximum possible of 1). Its overall score continued to decline from 2015, when it was 0.46 (not a great one either, yet a significantly better one then the 2022 score).
The score for “Constraints on government power” declined from 0.37 in 2015 to 0.28 in 2022. For “Fundamental rights”, the score declined from 0.36 in 2015 to 0.30 in 2022. (https://worldjusticeproject.org/rule-of-law-index/country/2022/Turkey/)
In V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy), Turkey’s score for the liberal democracy index declined from 0.52 (out of a maximum possible of 1) in 2004 to 0.12 in 2022. Its score on electoral democracy index declined from 0.68 in 2004 to 0.28 in 2022. And its score on clean elections index also declined: from 0.91 in 2006 to 0.35 in 2022. (https://www.v-dem.net/)
No matter where you look, everything points out to the fact that elections in Turkey are increasingly less free and more unfair, to the point when they can no longer be considered free and fair. The incumbent holds too many advantages over their competitors, and is using them in an increasingly brutal manner: if you’re contending the incumbent, you have little to none chances to win.
The Turkish paradov
In diplomatic parlance, the harsh reality of Turkey’s electoral playground is recognized by the OSCE in its statement of preliminary findings and conclusions after the first round of presidential elections held on May 14:
“In the 14 May general elections, held in the wake of devastating earthquakes, voters had a choice between genuine political alternatives and voter participation was high, but the incumbent president and the ruling parties enjoyed an unjustified advantage, including through biased media coverage. The continued restrictions on fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression hindered the participation of some opposition politicians and parties, civil society and independent media in the election process.
[…]The president is not explicitly subject to the same restrictions in the campaign period as other high level public officials, and often campaigned while performing his official duties. Moreover, cases of campaigning during the inaugurations of numerous large-scale infrastructure projects by several incumbents, the misuse of administrative resources, and announcements of significant social benefit programmes provided undue advantage of incumbency, and blurred the line between party and State, at odds with paragraph 5.4 of the 1990 Copenhagen Document.” (https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/6/2/543543.pdf)
Given the advantages he holds and the unscrupulous ways he is willing to use them in his favor, it was expected Mr. Erdogan will win in a landslide – same as he did in 2014 (51.79%) and in 2018 (52.59%).
However, this didn’t happen. Mr. Erdogan got only 49.52% of the votes, less than half a percentage point short of winning the race. (https://secim.aa.com.tr/) This is unprecedented and, most probably, Mr. Erdogan didn’t expect it. While he is still the clear favorite to win the second round, being unable to win the first one while controlling the playing field like never before looks like a paradox.
It’s the economy, stupid. Or not?
Some tried to explain this paradox by pointing to the combined effects of heavy economic downfall, huge inflation and the devastating earthquakes that hit Turkey in February this year.
At closer inspection, this “it’s the economy, stupid” explanation doesn’t hold much water. Turkey’s GDP keeps declining from 2014, with no visible effect on Mr. Erdogan’s political fortunes. The poverty headcount ratio is relatively stable since 2011, meaning Mr. Erdogan’s redistributive policies reached its limit around that time. (https://data.worldbank.org/country/turkiye?view=chart)
As for the earthquakes, they happened in “Erdogan country”. The most devastated provinces were Hatay, Kahramanmaraş, Adıyaman and Gaziantep.
In Hatay, voters were evenly split: 48.08% voted for Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu, and 48.03% preferred Mr. Erdogan. The other 3 provinces were won by Mr. Erdogan in a crushing manner: he got 77.88% in Kahramanmaraş, 66.20% in Adyaman, and 59.76% in Gaziantep. (https://secim.aa.com.tr/) The results are relatively similar with the ones of the 2014 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_Turkish_presidential_election#Results) and 2018 (https://www.yenisafak.com/en/secim-cumhurbaskanligi-2018/secim-sonuclari) presidential elections.
Values (still) matter
It looks like no matter what you throw at them – economic crises, huge inflation rates, devastating earthquakes – the supporters of Mr. Erdogan will keep supporting him. This makes the results of the current presidential election even more difficult to understand. If Mr. Erdogan increased his control over the political playing field and his supporters keep supporting him no matter what, why was he unable to win in a landslide, like he always did?
To understand this, we first need to understand that Turkey is roughly divided into two major political camps: the secularist one, who wants a secular republic in line with the founding ideology of the Republic of Turkey, developed and implemented by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, modern Turkey’s founding father – and the conservative religious one, historically opposed to Kemalism and preferring a religious republic.
If you belong to the second camp, nothing – not even death, disease, poverty or economic mismanagement – is worse than having a secular president and a secular republic. This is why members of the religious conservative camp vote for Mr. Erdogan no matter what: he represents them, and as long as he will continue to do so, they will continue to vote for him.
This is also why members of the secularist camp, the “Kemalists”, vote for whichever candidate is ready to implement their values. It’s never about the economy: it’s a “culture war”.
Mr. Erdogan dismantled the authoritarian secular regime in place in Turkey since the 1930s and heavily dependent on the military, and offered an increasingly powerful voice to the previously oppressed religious conservatives. What at first looked like democratization, gradually turned into an anti-secular authoritarian regime, culminating with the heavy-handed measures taken after the failed 2016 military coup attempt.
Mr. Erdogan’s path to power mirrored the growth of the religious conservative camp. In Wave 3 (1995-1998) of the World Values Survey, 65.4% of the Turks considered themselves religious persons. The percentage increased to 78.8% in Wave 4 (1999-2004), 81% in Wave 5 (2005-2009) and 83.5% in Wave 6 (2010-2014). (https://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSOnline.jsp)
Since the turn of the 21st century, Turks became increasingly religious, to the point that the old secular establishment began to crack and eventually collapsed. Mr. Erdogan, himself a deeply conservative religious person, took advantage of this new social wave first to rise to power and then to cling on it.
However, in Wave 7 (2017-2022) things began to change: only 66% of the Turks declared they are religious persons. At the same time, the percentage of people declaring themselves as non-religious grew from 14% in Wave 6 to 24.5% in Wave 7 – a percentage never seen before in any of the previous waves.
The decline in religiosity is inversely proportional with age, meaning the younger generations are leading the way towards a more secular social environment. In Wave 7, 90% of 65+ year-old declared themselves religious, compared to 54.5% of those between 16 and 24 year-old.
At the same time, religious people became more moderate (or at least less fervent). In Wave 6, more than 80% of the Turks were praying at least several times per week. In Wave 7, the percentage declined to 70%.
The percentage of those who agree that whenever science and religion conflict, religion is always right declined from 70% in Wave 6 to 65% in Wave 7.
Finally, the percentage of those who say that religion is very important in their lives declined from 83.3% in Wave 3 to 60% in Wave 7, while the percentage of those who display moderately religious and/or secular values grew from 27.1% in Wave 3 to almost 40% in Wave 7.
While the previous iteration of Kemalism was imposed top-down, data suggest the emergence of a new, bottom-up, moderately religious and secular trend. The inflection point seems to be somewhere between 2014 and 2018, and Mr. Erdogan’s crackdown on secularists after 2016 seems to have galvanized it.
This new wave towards a more liberal society is not yet large enough to topple down the current conservative establishment – but it’s already strong enough to deprive Mr. Erdogan of the landslide victories he grew accustomed with.
And if the wave continues to grow, these general and presidential elections may well be the last ones won by the religious conservative camp.