ISTANBUL — The result of Sunday’s presidential elections in Turkey is forcing us to come to terms with a new reality: that liberal dreams of establishing a Muslim democracy can easily be crushed by the creeping power of illiberalism. We now live in what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s supporters call “the New Turkey.” Despite the economic downturn and frustration with Erdogan’s draconian policies that suffocate a large section of the society, including secularists and Kurds, the Turkish president was reelected with 52 percent of the vote.
That is a heartbreaking defeat for those of us who had hoped that the vote on Sunday would send a strong message to Erdogan to return to the path of democracy. Yes, there was an uneven playing field in the run-up to the elections — some of Turkey’s Kurdish politicians are jailed, and yes, Erdogan controls the entire media circus in the country. But still, as the opposition candidate Muharrem Ince conceded in a WhatsApp message to a journalist: “The man has won.”
Erdogan will now lead the country under a new presidential system with sweeping powers and few checks, hoping to transform Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular republic into Erdoganistan.
But no matter how you look at it, the country is split in half. Erdogan is certainly the most popular politician, but roughly half the country is still in the non-Erdogan camp. That includes a wide cross section of Turkish society, including Kurds, secularists and some of the best and brightest — urban professionals, academics, lawyers. During the campaign, Erdogan had accused the pro-Kurdish party of being “terrorists” and the main opposition secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) of “walking arm in arm with terrorists.” All those “terrorists” will now be in the Turkish parliament on the opposition bench.
The second headache for Turkey’s strongman will be the nationalism he has unleashed. This election, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) did not perform as well as it had in the past, falling from 49 percent in the November 2015 general elections to 42 percent. That makes Erdogan beholden to his coalition partner, the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Since a failed coup attempt in 2016, Erdogan has been relying on the MHP and its leader, Devlet Bahceli, to pass laws in the parliament. Now that his party has lost the majority, he will have no choice but to continue his reliance on ultra-nationalists. That means having no room to maneuver on the Kurdish issue, no easing up on freedoms and continuing the hard-line security policies. That’s no way to stabilize Turkey.
On top of that, there will be the declining economy to deal with. More than 20 million Turks receive a government stipend of one sort or another — from free coal for the winter to unemployment benefits and poverty aid. That makes Turkey a large welfare state. But a welfare state with declining resources. Since the turn to authoritarianism, Turkey is not attracting investments. Erdogan’s zeal for a high-growth economy based on big infrastructure projects and construction is inevitably going to lead to a fiscal crisis. Rule of law is essential for businesses and for the confidence in the Turkish lira. Unless Turks put their house in order, distributing that social welfare will be harder this time next year.
No one was expecting a huge reform drive after an Erdogan win, but the AKP’s current symbiosis with Turkish nationalists makes even the slightest “normalization” unlikely for the moment. During the election campaign, the Turkish president responded to the opposition’s demands to lift the state of emergency — imposed after the failed coup of 2016 but used against a wide range of government’s critics — by saying that it would be lifted after the elections. Now he has to deliver. One of the best things he could do for Turkey would be to lift the draconian measures that come with the emergency rule, which include restrictions on freedom of assembly and the press.
On election night, I went to a polling center in the secular Istanbul neighborhood where I live. One of the things the destruction of rule of law has generated in Turkey is a deep distrust in institutions and authority. That drove tens of thousands of Turks to volunteer as election observers across the country. Students and activists from Istanbul went as observers to the rural Kurdish regions where locals felt vulnerable to government pressure. In our center in Etiler, the observers and ballot officials were all women, watching the count like hawks, marking each vote on the little printed sheets they had and uploading the results to special apps in their phones.
I was among those who thought that the elections could head to a runoff and mark a decline in Erdogan’s power, based on the energy and coordination in the opposition camp. I still believe that energy is there. With the full might of the Turkish state apparatus and full control of the media, Erdogan secured a victory from just a little over half the population. A few points up or down doesn’t change the big picture. There are many defenders of the status quo who prefer a Sunni-Turkish majoritarian rule and see Erdogan as the ultimate reflection of their historic dreams. But on the other side there is a diverse and messy group that includes Turks, Kurds, secularists, Alawites, the middle class, the business elite and the left, all wanting a return to a liberal democracy.
The struggle for a better country will go on. We will mourn, cry and start picking up the pieces from where we left off.