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Erdogan, a 21st century sultan, wins again

The Turkish leader's blend of populism, Islamism, and nationalism has kept him in power for 20 years. He has no incentive to change.

Analysis | Middle East

What’s the difference between a president and a sultan? Not much, if you live in today’s Turkey. 

The country’s longtime president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has just been re-elected. He is likely to consolidate one-man rule to the point that he more resembles an Ottoman potentate than a democratic leader.

Autocrats are rising around the world, but Erdogan and his consolidation of power are especially important for two reasons. First, Turkey’s size, location, and geopolitical ambition make it one of the world’s most important regional powers. Second, Erdogan has designed a fiendishly effective political system that is a template for repressive rulers around the world.

“Democracy is like a streetcar,” Erdogan reasoned as his political career was beginning a quarter-century ago. “You take it to where you’re going, then you get off.”  He has gotten off.

This election result was not what the United States hoped to see. Erdogan has made Turkey the NATO ally from hell. He is friendly with Russia and does not readily accept American guidance. Yet because of Turkey’s strategic value, officials in Washington must curb their anger and cater to him. This means, among other things, that they cannot protest too loudly about the evaporation of democracy in Turkey. 

President Biden’s terse statement after Erdogan’s victory reflected the tension in this relationship: “I look forward to continuing to work together as NATO allies on bilateral issues and shared global challenges.”  Erdogan replied sharply in his victory speech, saying that Western powers “want to obstruct the country's progress. The Turkish people will not accept this.”

Democratic space is likely to continue shrinking in Erdogan’s Turkey. The few news outlets that show some independence will be brought to heel. Independent organizations that form the backbone of civil society will wither under pressure. Criticism of the government will be dangerous. Judicial independence and rule of law will fade before the sultan’s whim. 

These processes are already underway in Turkey. Erdogan’s re-election for a new five-year term will accelerate them.

Turkey had a relatively free election. A serious opposition candidate was allowed to run. Ballots were counted more or less honestly. Yet Erdogan won 52 percent of the vote. Why?

One reason is the methodical care with which Erdogan prepared for this election over the last few years. He showered welfare benefits on millions of Turks. He ordered the arrest of key opposition figures and scared others into fleeing the country. He crushed independent media and used his lapdog press to wage disinformation campaigns portraying the opposition as sympathetic to terrorism. Days before the election, he asked Twitter to restrict certain Turkish accounts and Twitter agreed. That allowed him to stage an election that may have been free but was hardly fair.

Erdogan’s victory also shows the enduring political value of fearmongering. Surrounding regions are mired in conflict and Turkey harbors more refugees than any other country on earth — nearly 4 million, most from neighboring Syria. In this climate, Erdogan was able to sell himself as a combative figure who is steering the country through dangerous times.

As often happens in countries where such leaders emerge, the opposition was fatally divided. Because of infighting and ego clashes, the candidate who seemed strongest was pushed aside in favor of an old-time party warhorse. That warhorse, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, had another weakness: he is not a Sunni Muslim, as are most Turks, but a member of the less-than-beloved Alevi sect. During the campaign, Erdogan stressed his Islamic faith. Calls for religious orthodoxy blend well with appeals to nationalism.

Erdogan’s opponent suggested that he would improve relations with the United States. Voters didn’t care. On the contrary, they cheered Erdogan and those around him when they denounced U.S. actions in the world. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu declared during the campaign that “the whole world hates America,” and warned the U.S. ambassador to “take your dirty hands off Turkey.” The regime is strongly opposed to gay rights, and Soylu seemed to strike a chord when he denounced “cultural terrorism that’s aimed at destroying the family structure, morality…the civilizations of nations, their history, our religion, our values, traditions, customs, what our mothers and fathers taught us.”

Erdogan won mainly because he staged the election in a way that made it almost impossible for anyone else to win. Yet that is not the whole reason. Another source of his popularity is the eternal attraction of the strongman. Erdogan bestrides Turkey like a colossus. During the election campaign he warned that rejecting him would be courting disaster. Many agreed. More than 80 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Millions of Turks consider Erdogan a diabolical dictator, but more evidently consider him a great leader.

Newly re-elected, Erdogan could now feel secure enough to ease his suffocating restrictions on political life. The opposite is more likely. He won the way he always has: by shouting, snarling, accusing, denouncing, and threatening. 

His blend of populism, Islamism, and nationalism has kept him in power for 20 years, so he has little incentive to change.

More challenging may be the looming economic crisis. Turkey’s central bank has spent heavily to prop up the lira, supported by billions of dollars in pre-election deposits from Russia and Persian Gulf sheikdoms. Nonetheless the currency is weakening and inflation is intensifying. Erdogan recognized this in his victory speech: “Resolving the problems caused by the price increases and by inflation is the most urgent topic of the coming days.”

Turkey is deeply divided politically and regionally. Pious voters in the heartland still outnumber secular cosmopolitans in big cities and along the coasts. Under a presidential system in which the winner takes all, that’s all that matters.

Turks now face years of increasingly sultanic rule. Americans will have to deal with an obstreperous ally. The world gains a chilling example of how the rules of democracy can be used to destroy democracy.

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