The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Erdogan triumphed by vowing to Make Turkey Great Again

Local residents watch Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's speech during a rally on the European side of Istanbul on May 13. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

Mustafa Akyol is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of “Why, As a Muslim, I Defend Liberty.”

On Sunday night, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared on the terrace of the headquarters of his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in Ankara to give his customary “balcony speech.” Just like in every Turkish election in the past two decades, his supporters were exuberant, while dissidents were anxious.

Sure, the presidential election was not over yet. There will be a second round on May 28. But it is likely that Erdogan, more than four points ahead of his main rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, will win. His ruling coalition already secured a parliamentary majority.

In other words, after 20 years in power, Erdogan might get five more years to rule, if not more — surpassing, by far, any other Turkish leader since the late 19th-century Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II.

Should he win, the next five years don’t look promising. After all, Erdogan has already turned Turkey into a quasi-single-party state, and worse might be in store. He may eradicate whatever is left of the independent judiciary, free press and critical academia. He has also promised a whole new constitution, which could realize many of the dreams of the religious right. Suggestions by pro-Erdogan partisans include abolishing the constitutional court, putting even more religion into public education, curbing women’s rights and banning “heretical” (liberal) interpretations of Islam.

But how does Erdogan keep winning, especially at a time many thought his support would collapse in the face of rampant inflation and an inept response to the recent earthquake?

The answer is not that he “steals” the vote. Turkey, despite its dramatic decline in free speech and rule of law, has a transparent electoral system, in which Erdogan really wins the ballots.

The real answer is that Erdogan has formed an unbreakable bond with Turkey’s largest sociopolitical bloc: religious conservatives. He also enchants them with a grand narrative: despite nefarious enemies and heinous conspiracies, he is making Turkey great and Muslim again.

The storyline, pumped by a huge propaganda machine that constitutes much of the media, goes like this: Once, as rulers of the Ottoman Empire, Turks were the masters of the world. But due to European plots and “traitors” within, they were brought to their knees. Worse, oppressive secularists dominated Turkey from the 1920s to 2000s, humiliating the pious by closing their mosques or banning their headscarves. It is only Erdogan who ended this long age of disgrace.

That is all why, the story goes, “they” are constantly attacking Erdogan. This “they” is a rich mix, containing opposition parties, liberal critics, Western media, capitalist cabals, George Soros, “the American deep state,” European courts, Kurdish terrorists, LGBTQ activists or defectors within the religious camp. These “enemies of Turkey” are trying to force the glorious nation, and its leader, to fall. Against them, the pro-Erdogan folks cry, “yedirtmeyiz!” — a slogan that roughly means, “we will not allow you get him!”

Soner Cagaptay: Even if Erdogan is defeated, Turkey is still up for grabs

The euphoria is kept alive with constant fanfare. Few people in the West noticed, but Erdogan’s campaign for this election featured the announcement of two new war machines: Turkey’s first-ever drone aircraft carrier, the TCG Anadolu, and its new “national combat aircraft,” the Kaan. Both were launched at public ceremonies with huge crowds, and genuine enthusiasm with newfound greatness. Around that time, Erdogan updated his Twitter profile to feature a photo of him in resolute pose wearing a jet pilot uniform. Two weeks later, he crowned his campaign with evening prayers in the majestic Hagia Sophia, which he had converted back to a mosque three summers ago.

Meanwhile, from the kitchen of his modest Ankara apartment, opposition candidate Kilicdaroglu was criticizing the rising prices of onions in Turkish markets. The pro-Erdogan propaganda machine lashed back: “This is about independence, not onions!”

In 1992, Bill Clinton won his election on the back of the scathing slogan “It’s the economy, stupid.” This time around in Turkey, it was all about culture war and religious nationalism.

In the months ahead, the economy is likely to keep bleeding, especially if Erdogan continues to impose his eccentric theories about interest rates on the country’s Central Bank, despite the dramatic decline of the Turkish lira. It’s not a foregone conclusion, as Erdogan has shown a pragmatic streak in the past. But who knows. All policy, after all, depends on how he feels in any season, on any day.

Today, Turkey is not the only country where democracy is being transformed into a tyranny of aggrieved majorities mobilized by strongmen. Another one is India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s militant Hindu nationalism — with similar narratives of historical grievance — is threatening minorities, especially Muslims and Christians.

The remedy to this 21st-century challenge, I believe, is still good-old political liberalism: limited government, checks and balances, freedom and justice for all. But liberalism needs a new defense, a new grand narrative, to compete with the captivating narratives of the zealous populists.

We need to show, once again, that liberalism is the best system for not just affordable onions, but also for human dignity. Authoritarians promise that dignity to their followers, while trampling underfoot the dignity of others.