Turkish Elections in a Post-Truth Political Landscape

The scene was all too familiar in the headquarters of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) on the day of the recent Turkish election. Giant portraits of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decorated the building’s facade and all the preparations had been made for another balcony speech by the sitting president—an event that has become his signature move after every election victory. The celebration and fanfare were at their peak upon his arrival to the patio and his joyfully joining the crowd in song. The event looked like a repeat for spectators watching live at home, but with only one exception: Erdoğan was not the winner of the elections. In his preemptive victory speech, made as the votes were still being counted, Erdoğan accused the opposition of being in a rush to make false claims about the results. This accusation perfectly demonstrated Erdoğan’s masterful political skills: while claiming that the opposition was trying to turn the election into a fait accompli, he was doing exactly the same thing by giving an early victory speech.

While Erdoğan was delivering his speech, millions of votes still remained to be counted or registered. There were long lines in opposition-dominated quarters of Istanbul and other major cities because AKP members were requesting constant re-counting, an attempt to block votes for the opposition from entering the system. For example, in Ankara’s Çankaya district, a bastion of the opposition, vote counting was deliberately delayed by the Supreme Election Council. Under such pressure and stress, it took days for the opposition to realize what had happened. When the council shared data with the public, the opposition identified statistical anomalies and raised many questions, including regarding 20,000 ballot boxes containing more than 4 million votes, in places where voter turnout rates were recorded at 95 percent or more. In some cases, the situation was reminiscent of similar issues from a previous election, but at a larger scale, as analyses of the 2018 elections by international monitors indicated suspicious results, including 3,500 polling stations with comparable statistical anomalies.

But outside of the opposition’s own constituency, the questions raised fell on deaf ears. The Supreme Election Council did not respond to the inquiries, instead declaring the official results that put Erdoğan ahead of his rivals with 49.5 percent of the vote—just shy of winning the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff. Erdoğan’s constituency was already convinced that the president had emerged victorious, despite all the opinion polls and predictions to the contrary that had come out prior to the elections. After all, why should they believe the opposition after so many hours and days had passed since the election? If something was wrong, why did they not hear these objections on election night? Everyone in Turkey has thus continued to believe in their own party’s position, and the statistical data are no longer a significant part of the conversation. Indeed, Turkey’s post-election landscape is one of post-truth politics.

Was the Turkish Election Free and Fair?

Conflicting accounts of what happened on election night reflect a larger social dynamic in play: post-truth politics. The use of the term “post-truth politics” has grown in recent years, and in 2016, Oxford Dictionaries even declared it as the international word of the year. As a master politician, Erdoğan has benefited from the post-truth era, in which appealing to an electorate’s emotions and personal beliefs matters more than objective facts. Erdoğan erected fake billboards that looked like opposition campaign posters, with statements that were not part of the opposition’s campaign. Examples included a statement indicating that a pro-Kurdish party leader would be released from prison under the opposition’s watch, as well as one that presented the unpopular position that the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Defense Units is not a terrorist organization. Other innovative examples of deception included Erdoğan’s use of the opposition’s media productions in his election rallies. The president’s team edited the videos of his rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu to add the voices of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leaders in the background, thereby alleging the opposition’s support for “terrorism.” Such doctored videos were part of the fanfare in Erdoğan’s rallies. But despite the fact that most people could easily understand that the videos were fabricated, Erdoğan even answered questions on live television by narrating these supposed events—i.e., PKK leaders speaking in support of Kilicdaroglu—as if they had really happened. Indeed, Erdoğan’s persuasive power stems from a rare combination of character traits: not only is he an innovator in creating propaganda but he is also a strong believer in his own words, even if they are deceptions of his own making.

Erdoğan has benefited from the post-truth era, in which appealing to an electorate’s emotions and personal beliefs matters more than objective facts.

Given their large circulation and scale, attempts to spread fake news should be analyzed in the larger context of fairness in Turkish elections. Thanks to Erdoğan’s control of all major media outlets, the opposition has been pushed almost exclusively into the social media sphere, which has limited reach to most Turkish citizens. Many analysts have already documented the nature of Turkey’s unequal electoral playing field, which has seen the mobilization of state resources to the ruling party’s advantage; but an acute observer also needs to ask about the relationship between fairness and free elections. Having the advantage of an unequal playing field, Erdoğan has completely remade the membership of the Supreme Election Council following the opposition’s victory in Istanbul and Ankara’s municipal elections in 2019. Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Turkish citizens favor the use of indelible ink marks in elections to prevent fraud and repeat voting, Turkey’s Supreme Election Council ruled against the opposition’s demand to reinstate the practice. Thus, while the opposition is questioning the independence and integrity of the council, the issue at stake is not only fairness but also the public’s trust in free elections to select those who will govern the nation. If it continues, this erosion of public trust in free elections will have devastating outcomes in the long term. Instead of enshrining liberal rights associated with western democracies, the modern Turkish democracy has primarily been defined through free elections, starting in 1946. In other words, the institution of free elections is the only marker that distinguishes Turkey from outright authoritarianism. The legitimacy of that institution in public opinion is therefore very important for Turkish democracy.

Two Pillars of Post-Truth: Identity Politics and Webs of Patronage

In post-truth Turkey, Erdoğan’s success relies on two inseparable components. First, through culture wars and identity politics, the Turkish president presents himself as the savior of the nation. The AKP’s underdog status in its competition against Turkey’s secularist military generals has long been over, but Erdoğan continues to play on the fears of his Islamist base, including those about the possibility of a headscarf ban and other authoritarian practices that are often associated with the party’s main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which was originally founded by Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s first president. Erdoğan’s identity politics, however, are not confined to a simple “Islamism versus secularism,” as he has moved to the center-right by making strong alliances with conservative nationalists in the past decade, as well as with secular Eurasianist movements. Thus, the culture wars were defined through the idea of “making Turkey great again,” against the supposed agenda of western “imperialists” and their supporters, including Kurdish “terrorists,” LGBTQ activists, lobby groups, and others.

Yet the AKP’s prior status as an underdog and its use of culture wars could never have been effective if it had not been turned into the apparatus of the Turkish state after two decades of AKP rule. Therefore, the second component on which Erdoğan relies is equally important to analyze: a strong patronage system and clear advantages that come with such a distributive state. Consider the paradox in which Turkish earthquake victims find themselves. Their only hope for Turkish state support is through local connections to the AKP, and the stronger their connections, the better the services they receive. Patronage systems are big bribes in the modern era, and the two million survivors of the February earthquakes do not necessarily have the luxury of switching their allegiance to an untested opposition candidate. Kilicdaroglu’s party may be able to better help the victims and other Turkish citizens, but if they choose to rule the country through a similar patronage system, they will prioritize their traditional voter base over any newcomers. This factor is especially pertinent in central Anatolia and in Turkey’s small towns—although megacities are not totally immune from patronage ties thanks to the AKP’s creation of municipality-level networks.

Turkey’s Next Parliament

Among the durable outcomes of the May 14 elections were the parliamentary election results, since there are no runoff elections for parliamentary seats. If Turkey’s opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu wins the runoff elections on May 28, he will face challenges in the Turkish Parliament regarding the Kurdish issue. The new distribution of seats in the parliament favors nationalist parties, albeit in different forms. Erdoğan’s AKP won 268 seats in parliament, down 27 seats from the 2018 elections, while its ultranationalist ally, the MHP, increased its share by winning an additional seat.

The surprising outcome for the Turkish opposition was the insignificance of new parties that were established by ex-AKP figures, namely former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and former Minister of Economy Ali Babacan. Davutoglu and Babacan have become the main supporters of Kilicdaroglu’s presidential bid, and their parties have entered the race via CHP lists. The opposition’s expectation that these former AKP leaders would steal votes from the AKP’s base did not materialize. Erdoğan’s AKP and its allied parties have gained a majority in the new parliament, which means that a Kilicdaroglu presidency would be turbulent, at least until the termination of the presidential system in favor of the old parliamentarian system—an election promise the opposition has made.

The Third Candidate, Sinan Ogan, May Have Become a Kingmaker

The close presidential election has elevated the significance of a third candidate, Sinan Ogan, who received roughly 5 percent of the total first-round votes. As a rather unknown politician, Ogan does not have a traditional base to rely on; thus, the votes for him are likely a mixed bag of reactionary sentiments, including both anti-Erdoğan and anti-Kilicdaroglu voters. After holding private meetings with Erdoğan and Kilicdaroglu, Ogan recently announced his support for Erdoğan. Ogan publicly demanded several concessions, including a senior position for himself in an Erdoğan government, that pro-Kurdish parties must not have any role in said government, and that a timeline must be established for sending Syrian and Afghan refugees back home. Ogan also demanded that the fight against terrorism should remain a priority for the nation, specifically mentioning the PKK, the Gülen movement, and Kurdish Hezbollah. Other than the highly contentious refugee debate, Erdoğan’s alliance with the Hezbollah-linked Free Cause Party will remain as a matter of controversy if he is reelected.

Ogan publicly demanded several concessions, including a senior position for himself in an Erdoğan government.

Some parties and politicians that supported Ogan’s electoral ATA Alliance, however, reacted negatively to his endorsement of Erdoğan’s reelection, among them nationalist politician Umit Ozdag, who has become famous for his anti-refugee campaign in recent years. In order to attract those who voted for Ogan in the first round, Kilicdaroglu has changed his tone in the campaign for the runoff, making nationalist statements containing anti-refugee sentiments. Kilicdaroglu’s team is also conducting negotiations with Ozdag.

Both Ogan and Ozdag share a similar type of nationalism that combines secular, Eurasianist, and anti-western Kemalist stances. Therefore, regardless of who wins in the runoff, Eurasianists who have won negotiating power are the primary winners of the Turkish elections. It is reasonable to expect that Erdoğan’s reelection would mean a continuation of a Turkish foreign policy tilted toward Russia. If the opposition succeeds in defeating Erdoğan, there may be undue influence over Kilicdaroglu’s policies by Eurasian interest groups, depending on current negotiation talks. Under such a scenario, Kilicdaroglu’s recent harsh statements against Russia will likely change dramatically. The opposition will still need to walk a tightrope in its policy toward Russia as it will need both Washington and European capitals’ help in dealing with an economy that has been devastated by the February earthquakes. Providing confidence to global markets will be a priority for the next Turkish president.

Erdogan After the Runoff

Erdoğan has gained momentum for the runoff following Ogan’s endorsement. But even if he wins the election, Erdoğan is unlikely to find peace in the presidential palace. Instilling confidence in global markets will be an urgent priority. The Turkish lira has weakened to a record low against the dollar as markets grew rattled at the prospect of his reelection, which would signal the continuation of his government’s unorthodox economic policies. The currency crisis has turned out to be a chronic disease and the current trend of high inflation is unsustainable. Erdoğan will not be able to address the root causes of the financial crisis unless he undertakes significant reforms to uphold the rule of law in the country. Not only Turkey’s Central Bank but virtually all of the country’s critical state institutions are suffocating under extreme centralization, and without an independent judiciary, long-term investments will not be acquired.

Yet Erdoğan has not signaled any policy change on either the domestic or the foreign policy front. His close collaboration with Putin is highly likely to continue, but only under the law of diminishing returns. As an alternative to the West, an even more authoritarian Erdoğan may consider deepening relations with China; but such an adventure may not bring needed benefits. Regardless of the outcome, there will be no sense of euphoria the day after the runoff, neither for the next incumbent nor for the Turkish electorate at large.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Twitter/Recep Tayyip Erdoğan