Turkey’s Elections Crowns Erdogan’s Nationalism

Ömer Taşpınar

Turkey’s strong man once again proved his invincibility in elections. But the real story behind what took place last Sunday is not Erdogan’s Islamist victory. It is rise of authoritarian Turkish nationalism. The elections show a country deeply polarized along ethnic lines. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory came thanks his coalition with Turkish nationalists. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) will control the parliament only thanks a coalition with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), a virulently anti-Kurdish, chauvinistic party that did surprisingly well with 11 percent of the votes. Yet, Kurdish nationalism did equally well, too. Despite attempts to suppress the Kurdish vote, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) still managed to win 11.7 percent of the vote.

But when all is said and done, the real victor of these elections is angry Turkish nationalism, with its anti-American, anti-Kurdish and anti-Europe characteristics facing a resilient Kurdish vote. Make no mistake: what we are witnessing in Erdogan’s Turkey is not an Islamic revolution. Instead, it is an alarmingly big step toward a nationalist autocracy.

In addition to the parliamentary vote, Erdogan’s presidential victory is probably the most significant one in his long career. The vote grants him five more years in office as well as unprecedented powers in a hyper-centralized presidential system. On Sunday, he not only won the presidency with more than 52 percent of the votes – his closest opponent from the center-left Republican People Party (CHP) received 30 percent – but his AKP also came first with 42 percent in the parliamentary vote. Erdogan has now all the levers of political power at his disposal. He has absolute control over the legislative body, the judiciary and, of course, the executive. Power had not been so centralized in the hands of one man since Ataturk founded the republic in 1923.

Still, there is one crucial thing that Erdogan is missing: democratic legitimacy in the eyes of his opponents. Any attempt to analyze why the opposition lost should start with the obvious: these elections were not free and they were certainly not fair. People went to polls under an emergency rule that severely curtailed their freedom of expression, assembly and association; the media was largely controlled by the government; and conditions were such that the Kurdish party leader had to campaign from his prison cell. Next, the government mobilized all its financial resources to secure victory. And, perhaps most importantly, the elections were held under conditions where voters had major concerns about fraud.

Despite all this, Erdogan’s critics had hoped that this time they had a real shot at defeating the strongman. The notoriously fractured opposition had united to deny the ruling party a parliamentary majority. The CHP had fielded a firebrand candidate who was determined to reach out well beyond the party’s secularist, nationalist base. His rallies drew vast crowds. The newly founded Iyi Party that split with Erdogan’s nationalist ally looked set to draw votes away from the AKP. The opposition parties were running energetic campaigns while Erdogan was stumbling in rallies. Concerns over the economy and a plunging currency were mounting. For the first time in many years, the opposition had hopes as Erdogan looked tired and vulnerable.

But in these elections, Turkish voters for the first time cast their ballots simultaneously for the parliament and presidency. This new system paved the way for strategic voting. Most AKP supporters seem to have voted for Erdogan as president. But the drop in the AKP’s parliamentary votes suggests those who have been uncomfortable with his policies voted for the MHP. This explains why the MHP, which would have normally lost ground to the Iyi Party, still managed to do so well. The loss in the CHP votes suggests some of its progressive supporters voted for the pro-Kurdish HDP to help the party pass the 10 percent threshold.

Despite all these tactical voting, Turkish politics is still trapped in identity politics. The CHP remains the party of the secular coastal regions. The religiously conservative, nationalist central Anatolian heartland remains AKP and MHP strongholds. The pro-Kurdish HDP leads in the Kurdish region. The main opposition’s candidate tried hard to shatter his party’s image as an anti-religious, nationalist party. He took off his party badge and vowed that he would be “everyone’s president.” He reached out to the Kurds, promised reforms to address the Kurdish question if elected, and assured the religiously conservative that he would not interfere with their pious lifestyles and the headscarf that religious women wear. A gifted orator, he was nevertheless short on specifics on economic policies. This may have proved his fatal mistake.

AKP supporters disillusioned with the economy, corruption and Erdogan did not want to bet on a party they so long associated with militant secularism and elitism. Instead of betraying their conservative lifestyle and the AKP leader who raised their living standards until recently, they went for Erdogan’s nationalist coalition partner as a safer bet. Their vote clearly proved that conservatism and nationalism are very fluid terms, used almost interchangeably, in Turkish politics. The way they voted proved a victory for Erdogan’s nationalist strategy. It also proved that despite the current economic downturn, Erdogan is still perceived as the only leader who can deliver jobs, services and stability.

What’s next for Turkey? Erdogan has a new mandate and political capital. Yet, his ruling party depends on the support of anti-Kurdish nationalists. He will have limited room to move on the Kurdish question with democratic reforms. The country will also have municipal elections next year. This means Erdogan will not engage in the kind of monetary and fiscal tightening that markets are expecting. Istanbul and other urban centers of Turkey are too important for Erdogan’s economic patronage networks.

Turkey will thus remain polarized and autocratic. It will also be reluctant to take the right economic steps.

Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.