Erdoğan’s victory is just the latest in the recent rise of authoritarian, nationalist, and populist leaders around the world.
Erdogan's supporters celebrate outside the AK party headquarters on June 24 in Istanbul. Photo by Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images.
On the Asian side of the Bosphorus Strait linking Turkey to Europe, residents of Istanbul’s Kadıköy district marched in rallies in the rain and screamed “rights, law, and justice” in a last-ditch effort for change. But on the night of June 24, they said farewell to democracy.
Hope morphed into a sense of doom as election results were tallied on Turkish television and the realization sank in that fair or not, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had won once again, beating five other candidates with 53% of the vote.
The usually bustling sidewalks of Kadıköy were silent, as Erdoğan supporters flashed Turkish flags from cars driving to one of the president’s hilltop houses in nearby Üsküdar district. The supporters lit firecrackers, fired gunshots in the air, honked their horns, and chanted “God is great” until early hours of the morning.
Voter turnout was 87% – Turks take their democratic rights seriously.
In power for 15 years, Erdoğan, 64, will continue as the president of Turkey with unprecedented leverage for the next five years under the new government system that gives him a free hand in deciding the country’s fate. Turks also voted in a rigged referendum last year that transformed their parliamentary system into a presidential one, like the United States, but without the checks and balances.
On the 24th, that system went into effect, and for the first time in Turkey, voters chose a president and a party to represent them in parliament simultaneously.
Nationalism wins again
Erdoğan’s victory is just the latest in the recent rise of autocratic, nationalist, and populist leaders around the world, like U.S. President Donald Trump, Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The win also mirrors the extended reigns of leaders like China’s President Xi Jinping, who just eliminated term limits, essentially putting himself in the position to become president for life.
Erdoğan’s win is also indicative of the global movement to the political right.
Turkey's President Erdoğan and his wife Emine on June 25 in Ankara, Turkey. Photo by Mustafa Kirazli/Getty Images.
His Justice and Development Party (AKP) teamed up with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party to maintain their majority in Parliament. The only silver lining for the opposition was that the leftist Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, whose presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş campaigned from prison, received the 10% threshold to keep their place in Parliament.
Erdoğan and his supporters were vying to push them out.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Nationalism is the real victor of these elections.[/quote]
For photographer Erol Kara, 39, who rooted for the opposition presidential Kemalist candidate Muharrem İnce, disappointment loomed, but he accepted the results.
“We actually thought İnce would win and were super surprised. But at the end of the day, what is done is done. Erdoğan is the president now. It’s time to move on,” he says.
Nuria Demir flashes the Muslim Brotherhood sign after voting for Erdogan. Photo by Fariba Nawa/GOOD.
Erdoğan’s status among his diehard supporters is prophet-like, a hero who stands up to Western imperialism and transformed Turkey — a NATO partner — from an impoverished, weak country with a secular elite to a developed nation. For his supporters, Turkey became an example of grassroots Islamic strength and dignity. He lifted up his conservative, religious constituency to the middle class, investing in ghettos and infrastructure.
Many supporters feel indebted and loyal to him no matter what he does wrong.
Nuria Demir, 45, was ecstatic to hear him win. The housewife said her life and neighborhood had improved dramatically under the president. Her children received scholarships to college, her family bought a home, and her husband, a chef, opened a business.
“We used to wait four to five hours for a health checkup,” Demir says. “Now we have affordable access to healthcare, clean water, public transport, and roads we can drive on. Erdoğan’s for our future and our kids.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Over the coming decade, Turkey will likely look more like Russia or Venezuela than the liberal democracy many dreamed of.[/quote]
For Ahmet Erdoğan, a Syrian from Aleppo who recently became one of 55,000 Syrians to receive Turkish citizenship, victory was palpable. The Syrian-Turk translator changed his last name from Ajjan (which means “spy” in Turkish) to Erdoğan to show his appreciation to the president for welcoming more than 3 million Syrian refugees fleeing war to Turkey in 2017.
Ahmad voted for the incumbent on his first Turkish election. “I believe in Erdoğan as a leader of the Islamic world, not only Turkey,” he says. “I also believe in his party’s principles of justice and development because that’s what I lacked in Syria.”
But Ahmad’s vote and victory cost him Turkish friends in the opposition.
A woman shouts at policemen on June 24 in Ankara. Photo by Uygar Onder Simsek /AFP/Getty Images.
Purges and prison
For Turks opposed to the ruling government, another win for Erdoğan and AKP means more unlawful arrests, the shutdown of a free media, intimidation, isolation from western countries, and a failing economy. Since the failed 2016 coup, in which rogue elements in the Turkish military tried to oust Erdoğan, the ruling government purged its perceived opponents. At least a hundred thousand people were arrested, including 300 journalists, and more than a hundred thousand were fired from their jobs.
Even before the coup, media outlets were seized and turned into pro-government propaganda networks. Half of those arrested have been released, but ongoing raids continue against Kurds accused of being linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Turkey has been fighting the separatist PKK in a three-decade-long, bloody battle in a conflict over Kurdish rights.
And for other religious people who are not Sunni Muslims — like the Alevis, the Muslim minority — the future could be bleak.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]The struggle for democracy in Turkey will certainly continue.[/quote]
At a school-turned-polling center, Caner Ilgın, an Alevi lawyer, 29, said he voted for İnce for president and the Kurdish party for parliament because the government jailed several of his innocent friends. On the eve of the elections, he said police raided and arrested members of the Democratic People’s Party in his Bağcılar neighborhood.
But as Ilgın spoke in his well-tailored suit and square-shaped glasses, AKP supporters circled around him and two women reporters, recording them on their phone cameras. “You’re spreading propaganda,” shouted one man with a phone pointed at Ilgın and the reporters.
Ilgın, unhindered, said the videos may be used against him as evidence if the government wins.
Turks have gone to jail on charges of insulting the president.
The next day, Ilgın was unnerved after Erdoğan’s win: “I’m very disappointed. We have to fight for everything now. We had so little access [as the opposition] to reach out to the public, and now there’s little hope for change.”
In the snap elections, originally scheduled for Nov. 2019 but moved forward to June 2018, the opposition had two months to prepare and didn’t get an equal platform, especially on Turkish television that ignored their large rallies and buoyed Erdoğan.
Çınar, a Turkish journalist who didn’t feel safe enough to share his last name, said elections have become a predictable spectacle in Turkey. In a Facebook post, he wrote, “If I challenge you to a hundred-meter dash but your shoes have to be untied and I get to start at the 80-meter line, it’s not exactly that surprising when I win.”
Çınar, who is leaving Turkey, predicted Erdoğan’s win on social media and warned his hopeful friends to prepare for a loss:
“It amazed me the collective disconnect the opposition had with reality. People were actually getting flustered when I predicted exactly this outcome. But I also tried to avoid too much commentary simply because I didn’t want to deny them these last slivers of optimism before they were finally and officially politically disenfranchised.”
Muharrem İnce holds a news conference evaluating the election results. Photo by Mustafa Kirazli/Getty Images.
Hope for the opposition
Turkey analysts are pessimistic but not dystopian about the prospect of a liberal democracy.
“The struggle for democracy in Turkey will certainly continue, as it has in the face of many major blows in the past, but there’s no denying the seriousness of the setback,” says Nicholas Danforth, a senior policy analyst for the Washington D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center. “Over the coming decade, Turkey will likely look more like Russia or Venezuela than the liberal democracy many dreamed of.”
Since 47% of the electorate voted against Erdoğan, the opposition is big enough to fight back — but they need to change their strategy by investing more in popular media outlets, says Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Nationalism is the real victor of these elections. I expect the brutal crackdown on Turkish civil society and the Kurdish movement to intensify. There would also be further cross-border military action in Syria and Iraq,” Erdemir says. “Nationalism can keep the spirits high for now, but will not offer a remedy when the current economic downturn develops into a full-blown economic crisis.”