Making sense of Erdoğan’s victory

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Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s electoral victory in May 2023 bears witness to several features about contemporary strongman leaders in the non-western world – among others, Narendra Modi in India, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. First, they are popular. Second, their popularity, at least in large part, builds on the successful manipulation of media, successful constitutional tweaking, and state capture. And some raw power politics.

Erdoğan won what is understood to have been a relatively fair vote by securing support from more than fifty per cent of those who exercised their electoral duty in the presidential election. However critical one might be of the Turkish president and his policies, we need to acknowledge that he has broad support in the country and the diaspora. Constituency-wise maps show that he is more popular in the central Anatolian areas than along the coast or in some main cities. But this does not subtract from the fact that many Turkish voters happily applaud his now two-decades-long leadership of the country. And decided that they wanted it to continue.

If we were to look at his ‘colleagues’ in other countries, a similar picture emerges. Narendra Modi in India and his Bharatiya Janata Party may lose a state (province) or two or even more, but he is personally enormously popular, even revered. His most ardent supporters are referred to as devotees. Similarly, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines had an astounding 80% approval rating when he left office. The president cannot be re-elected in the Philippines, but his popularity was transferred to the new president, Ferdinand R. Marcos, jr., popularly seen as his heir, and the new vice-president, Duterte’s daughter Sara. Both were elected with unprecedented support, with well over fifty per cent of votes cast.

We could continue the list. Bolsonaro in Brazil narrowly lost against the leftist Lula da Silva, former US president Donald Trump almost won re-election and remains popular enough to gain re-nomination, Gota Rajapaksa won in Sri Lanka on the strength of the popularity of his authoritarian brother and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, and there is a series of leftist authoritarian populists in Latin America (Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Nayib Bukele in El Salvador) who are popularly elected and some re-elected.


Identity politics

Certain policies are common to these leaders, which we also find in the case of Erdoğan. Central to their appeal is nationalism or some form of identity politics. They are protectors and promoters of their nation’s proud past and glorious future. Erdoğan speaks of Turkey’s century. A particular strongman feature is the proven willingness to ‘stand up to the West’. Examples include Modi’s unwillingness to follow Western sanctions against Russia after the Ukraine war and Duterte’s refusal to visit the US and calling President Obama a ‘son of a bitch’. Bolsonaro aggressively dismissed criticism from liberals in Europe and the US, even though he admired Trump.

A weak spot for strongman leaders is that they build their reputation on being popular, the people’s representative, and as such, they need regular confirmation of this popularity. For Erdoğan, as for the others, the confirmation can only come through an election and is based on continued control over media and state institutions. This is not easy. The internet is hard to control because it is open to impressions and ideas from around the world, and the state institutions are handled by people who need to stay satisfied. A wrong turn for the economy can spell danger or a rival with more efficient spin doctors.

Erdoğan has cleverly played it cool concerning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, continuing to talk to President Putin while supplying Ukraine with Turkish-made drones. Before this, he was the first and only NATO head to buy Russian military equipment; and he is refusing Sweden entry to NATO. He has also held the EU on tenterhooks regarding refugees from Syria. What other countries see as recalcitrant and unpredictable, his supporters see as expressions of strength.

Another central piece of strongman appeal is building infrastructure. Strongmen are often ‘concrete populists’. Duterte had a programme called ‘Build! Build! Build!’, and similarly, Modi and Bolsonaro have been intensively promoting highways, ports, railways and airports. Here too, Erdoğan excels. He has built airports, ports, railways, bridges, mosques, and social housing. Many buildings erected since Erdoğan took office collapsed during the devastating earthquake in which more than 50,000 died. For many years, construction moguls had skirted materials and construction codes thanks to unprecedented immunity under the president’s patronage. In these substandard buildings, almost everyone inside perished.

Of these many building projects, some tend to be oversized. This is common among authoritarian leaders, copied from the textbook of old-style dictators and their predilection for monumental, often devastating, water infrastructure projects. Both Nicolae Ceaușescu in Romania and Saddam Hussein in Iraq attempted massive river diversions, while Mao’s dam projects, the North Korean West Sea Barrage, and Stalin’s canal undertakings are infamous for their severe human, environmental, and financial costs.

During Erdoğan’s leadership, areas previously protected for their natural or archaeological significance, such as the almost 4000-year-old town of Hasankeyf, have been bulldozed or flooded. However, the Istanbul Canal is the most ambitious and potentially harmful water project. Designed to serve as a second Bosporus Strait connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, this project disregards resounding warnings from scientists about the inevitable damage it will inflict on the seas it links. But again, among significant segments of the electorate, such outrageous projects only seem to consolidate their admiration.

There is another way in which strongmen express their nationalist zeal, which has more to do with symbols and gestures. Erdoğan’s nationalist appeal comes out in furthering Turkey’s Ottoman and Islamic past and heritage. He transformed the Hagia Sophia from a museum back into a mosque. At the inauguration, the president of the secular republic led the opening prayer, while the director of the Diyanet (more of which is below), wielding a sword, delivered his sermon.

This not-so-subtle gesture, aimed at restoring Muslim pride in the eyes of the world, reportedly evoked feelings of pride among many Turks. Erdoğan is also building mosques and supplying development aid, including emergency aid to a large number of Muslim countries, such as Somalia, Bangladesh (the Rohingya crisis), and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. To many Turkish voters, Erdoğan’s policies underscore Turkey’s potential greatness, projecting the country’s obligations to Turks everywhere and the Muslim ummah beyond the nation-state. Erdoğan, Modi and Duterte have made reaching out to their respective ex-pat constituencies a core policy of their regimes.

A particular audience and pillar of Erdoğan’s support is the Turkish diaspora in Western Europe. Many are descendants of the ‘Fremdarbeiter’ from rural Anatolia who have transitioned into middle-class Western Europeans. Turkey has become little more than a budget-friendly holiday destination to them, and a shaky Turkish economy only heightens its appeal.

Interviews with Erdoğan supporters in the EU countries, where the diaspora vote helped tip the elections in his favour, suggest that many appreciate his efforts to contain Afghan, Iranian, and Arab ‘terrorists’, ‘thieves’, and ‘rapists’ within Turkey’s borders, preventing a potential influx into the EU. Though seldom acknowledged, this perspective may be significant in understanding Erdoğan’s enduring support in the diaspora. The oppositional newcomers to Europe, who have fled Erdoğan’s regime and represent a new ‘brain drain’, are still outnumbered by the enthusiastic Erdoğan supporters.

Surrounding himself with imperial symbols, Erdoğan has deliberately portrayed himself as a neo-Ottoman sultan, committed to restoring the glory of the empire and Turkish-Islamic pride at home and abroad. After being elected president in 2014, he desired a new palace. Atatürk’s modest residence was deemed insufficient for this ‘man of the people’, as his supporters continue to describe him. Consequently, he ordered the construction of a new, extraordinarily expensive palace in Ankara, with over a thousand rooms, four times larger than Versailles.

The palace also includes the country’s largest library, a conference centre, and a mosque. Rumours suggest even the toilets are made of gold. In response to criticism, Erdoğan countered by asserting that Turkey should have its White Palace if the USA has its White House. Moreover, ‘This is not Tayyip Erdoğan’s palace!’ he insisted, referring to himself in the third person. Emulating the lifestyle of a tsar, he soon decided he also needed a winter palace, a summer palace, and a new 250-room residence. For many Turks struggling to make ends meet, such extravagances only enhance his aura of greatness.

Photo by Özgür Zülâl

Media manipulation

A central cornerstone of strongman leaders’ hold on power is their ability to control and manipulate media. It is increasingly common in many countries that newspapers, television channels and internet providers are owned not by media people but by business interests. And these business interests are invariably aligned with the rulers. In India, for instance, the last of the independent news channels, the very popular NDTV, was recently bought by Asia’s (at the time) richest man, Gautam Adani, a close friend and ally of Prime Minister Modi.

In Turkey, too, media ownership is highly concentrated and characterised by ‘clientelism’ and ties to the rulers, according to reports. Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey at 165 of 180 countries, with 90 per cent of the national media under government control. ‘Frivolous lawsuits’ against critical media outlets and misuse of the judicial system are core features of the situation. Thirty journalists are detained, and in an environment where almost half the population is deterred from voicing their political views on social media due to fear of repercussions, the foundations of free and fair elections are inherently undermined.

A parallel strategy is to introduce legislation against online slander. This is in some ways in line with how liberal democracies see the legislation as necessary to protect against the excesses of the internet – including pornography, harassment of individuals, online trolling, etc. However, such legislation can also be used to oppress the opposition. An obvious example from Turkey is how Erdoğan’s high-profile opponent, the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, has been accused of ‘insulting’ public officials by publicly calling them ‘fools’. At most, he called the minister a fool, but the case against him has been twisted to ensure he spends much energy fighting a legal case.

In the 2023 presidential election campaign, Erdoğan was prominently featured while his rival was marginally represented. One report found that he was given more than 32 hours of coverage while his opponent was given 32 minutes. During the last leg of the campaign, for the second vote, Erdoğan showed a deepfake video of a group of banned Kurdish militants expressing support for Erdoğan’s rival. ‘This is very important’, Erdoğan is said to have underlined. Despite the video being a deepfake, no police or judicial case has been made against him.

The situation is similar in the Philippines, for instance, which has been characterised as ‘patient zero’ of fake news, or India, which has become particularly famous for ‘trolling’. In both cases, opposition activists are targeted by police and judiciary using existing ‘anti-fake news’ legislation while the dominant party gets away with it. The political use of state apparatus expresses the widespread phenomenon of state capture.


Controlling the state apparatus

State capture refers to a situation in which state institutions are taken over and controlled by people with particular political or private interests. In the case of strongman leaders around the world, expressions of state capture could be that the police will respond to certain calls but not to others. In most countries, elite members can typically call on the police to protect their beautiful lives or ask the police not to prosecute. Elite capture is typical in all societies. However, state capture by political interests is increasingly common for strongman leader states.

Opposition politicians are, for instance, investigated for minor misdemeanours such as failure to fill out the correct tax return form, while ruling party people elude even major fraud. The case of the mayor of Istanbul is an excellent and depressing example; a small comment is a reason to drag him to court while the ruling party men are engaging in large-scale corruption. Another is opposition leader Rahul Gandhi in India, who lost his seat in parliament due to a comment on the surname Modi.

A significant expression of state capture in Turkey is the Diyanet or Directorate of Religious Affairs. From a humble existence as a state caretaker of mosques in the pre-Erdoğan era, it is now a behemoth of 150,000 staff that espouses Erdoğan’s Islamo-nationalist policies at home and abroad. The directorate oversees 85,000 mosques at home and 2000 abroad, offers cultural activities via its more than 1,000 inland branches and its operations in 145 other countries, and has a budget that exceeds most ministries. It has a television channel that transmits day and night, offers educational provisions for children, and gives religious instructions on a range of issues.

But more crucially, it has been recast into a front organisation for the kind of Turkish-Islamic nationalism that has sustained Erdoğan leadership. Above all, it effectively undercut his rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, as an alternative for many Turkish Muslims, due to Kılıçdaroğlu being an Alevi Muslim, a stigmatised and historically oppressed religious minority.

A slightly different expression of how he has used the state to secure his position is the issue of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have been given Turkish citizenship. The numbers may remain uncertain, but the impact on tightly contested elections is clear. The support for Erdoğan in this demographic segment was vividly demonstrated by the street celebrations in Syria following his electoral victories.

And yet another expression of state capture was the arrest of thousands (90,000 in one counting) after the failed 2016 coup attempt against him. The people arrested and the tens of thousands who lost their jobs were alleged to belong to the extensive network of the Gülen movement, an influential network which, albeit previously allied with Erdoğan, had become a competitor network.

The persecution of alleged Gülenists was a drastic way for the president to rid himself of a powerful rival following a golden opportunity that arose when disgruntled army officers decided to rise in mutiny. His handling of the situation on that day was a demonstration of power. As Erdoğan quickly marshalled popular opinion to his support, he underlined his image as a man of action on behalf of the people, a decisive and fearless champion of the popular masses.

Erdoğan is, of course, one of the most successful strongman leaders when it comes to state capture. A few months after the failed coup, he made the state his own. The constitutional amendments passed after a referendum in 2017 provided for an executive presidency – where the president is both head of state and government. This is similar to the system in the US and the Philippines. More crucially, the amendment gave the president powers of oversight over the judiciary and thus effectively dismantled the separation of powers that is the bedrock of democratic statecraft. The amendment also gave the president the power to rule by decrees and side-lining parliament, at least for a period.

A final and more sinister form of state capture is international repression. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has been asked to investigate the Turkish government’s persecution of no less than 200,000 oppositional activists – including wrongful imprisonment and torture. There are also seventeen abduction cases of opposition activists from other countries, including Kenya, Cambodia and Albania. Those targeted chiefly belonged to the Gülen movement.


What now?

Erdoğan has been elected and re-elected since 2003 and is now ready for another five years. Will he ever resign, or is he the 21st-century Turkish sultan who will rule until the end?

In many ways, Erdoğan is one of the most successful strongman leaders of the contemporary world. Trump, Bolsonaro and Duterte all had to give in. The institutions and oppositional forces proved to be stronger. There are others whose tenure has not ended yet, and new strongman leaders are always appearing (last week, a clear example was elected president in Nigeria).

A weak spot for strongman leaders is that they build their reputation on being popular, the people’s representative, and as such, they need regular confirmation of this popularity. For Erdoğan, as for the others, the confirmation can only come through an election and is based on continued control over media and state institutions. This is not easy. The internet is hard to control because it is open to impressions and ideas from around the world, and the state institutions are handled by people who need to stay satisfied. A wrong turn for the economy can spell danger or a rival with more efficient spin doctors.

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