This week, the Turkish government announced it will raise its monthly minimum wage by 34 percent to address inflation and the economic crisis in the country. Despite the long-standing problems in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently won a contested reelection, further consolidating his 20-year rule. This week on Intercepted, Gönül Tol, the founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program, joins Murtaza Hussain to discuss the Turkish elections. Tol runs through Erdogan’s decadeslong history in office, how economic and social problems in Turkey contributed to the election’s rhetoric, and what Turkey’s future may look like under Erdogan’s autocratic government.
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Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
Murtaza Hussain: Welcome to Intercepted. I’m Murtaza Hussein.
Last month, Turkey completed a historic election that sought its incumbent strongman Tayyip Erdogan return to power. Erdogan has now been the leader of Turkey for two full decades, a period in which the country has been increasingly transformed into its own personal fiefdom.
The Turkish economy is presently in a state of crisis due to inflation and currency devaluation while its political system has become polarized to the point of dysfunction. Turkey is a NATO-member country straddling both Europe and Asia, and its future political and economic fate is a matter that will determine the stability of both those regions.
To discuss the future of Turkey in the Erdogan era, we are joined by Gonul Tol, founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey Program, and author of Erdogan’s War: A Strongman’s Struggle at Home and in Syria.
Gonul, great to have you with us.
Gonul Tol: Thanks for having me.
MH: So, Gonul, first can you give us some background for our listeners on these recent elections? Specifically, who were the major challenges to Erdogan, and what segment of the Turkish population did they represent – or segments of the population did they represent – in contrast to his base of supporters?
GT: Well, there were three candidates running, Murtaza, for the presidential bid… And, obviously, president Erdogan, who has been ruling the country for the [past] 20 years was on the ballot. And challenging him is Kemal Kilicdaroglu. He was the candidate of the anti-Erdogan opposition, he led a large six-party group coalition, and they are ideologically very diverse. You have Islamists in their ranks, you have nationalists, secularists, radical secularists, and people in between. So, that’s a group of people that are very diverse, ideologically, a socioeconomically diverse group of people.
And then we had the third candidate, Sinan Ogan, who was the candidate of the far right. He ran on a platform, a very anti-refugee platform – there are millions of Syrian refugees in the country and there’s a strong nationalist backlash against their presence – and also an anti-Kurdish, very nationalist campaign, and he captured a little over 5 percent of the vote.
MH: You know, one thing that has been discussed in recent years is the Democratic backsliding in Turkey, which we want to talk to you more about in the course of this conversation. But one thing I was very curious to get your take on, in the context of this election: we had some reports, including at The Intercept, about international election observers who were arrested and expelled during the vote-counting.
Were these elections fair? How do you describe, on the spectrum of free and fair, how far do they fall on the fair side, and how far were they controlled?
GT: The elections were highly unfair, and I would say partly free. Now, I have a problem with those concepts, which I will come to in a minute, but let me first talk about why the elections were unfair.
They were unfair because the playing field had been heavily tilted in Erdogan’s favor. He controls state media, 90 percent of Turkish media is controlled by Erdogan, and he controls state resources, state institutions, and he put them to use during his campaign.
On the other hand, his most significant opponent Kemal Kilicdaroglu lacked those resources, so the playing field in that regard was heavily tilted in his favor. For instance, Erdogan got 32 hours of airtime on the state broadcaster TRT, while Kemal Kilicdaroglu got only 32 minutes, and that’s just one of the things that he had used in his favor. So, it was very difficult for Kemal Kilicdaroglu to get his message across.
And Erdogan used fake videos on the campaign trail, because a lot of people — And we’re mostly talking about people who live in the heartland of Anatolia. They’re not necessarily on Twitter, they don’t have an alternative source of information other than the pro-government media, so whatever Erdogan says is a fact for them. So, I think all those things made it very difficult for the opposition to compete.
And when we talk about autocracies, we usually call them “competitive authoritarian regimes,” right? So, in that regard, I think in the Turkish context, the elections were not as competitive, because those who were trying to challenge Erdogan did not have a full platform. They did not have the resources, and that means the voters were not provided the full spectrum of options. So, that covers the unfairness of the vote.
And, when it comes to whether the vote was free or not, it was partly free, because Erdogan jailed one of his most popular opponents. Selahattin Demirtas is the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish party and, in 2015, he did a great job in terms of challenging Erdogan, captured a historic 13 percent, which denied Erdogan’s AKP the parliamentary majority, and he was sent to jail shortly after that. So, I think if he had been out campaigning, talking to people, I think his party – the pro-Kurdish HTP – would have done better, and that would’ve worked in Kilicdaroglu’s favor.
And another opponent, Istanbul’s popular mayor from the opposition party, Ekrem Imamoglu, was threatened by a court case by Erdogan. So, all those things, really, should make us question whether an unfair environment is really conducive to a free vote.
In other words, if the playing field is so tilted in favor of the incumbent, can we talk about the vote being free? So, if Erdogan has done so much to make sure that he controls the field [that] on the day of the election, the ballot box is already stuffed; so, that’s why I call it, “partly free.”
MH: So, Gonul, you describe the Turkish opposition as comprising this very wide spectrum of different parties and forces, often many of which are at odds with each other in Turkey, including radical secularists and Kurdish groups and Islamists and so forth.
Can you give a sense of the context in which all these different groups were compelled to come together against one party? How did that come about? Why did they feel that the need to put aside their ideological differences was more important than accepting another AKP term?
GT: Well, that is the only way for them to stand a chance at winning, right? And there are two reasons for that. Usually, again, in autocracies – and Turkey has become a highly personalist autocracy – for the opposition to have a shot at bringing down the incumbent through elections they have to have a united stand, they have to be united, the opposition has to be united. And what makes a unification among different political parties in the opposition even more urgent in the Turkish context, is the fact that Turkey, in 2017, with the referendum, switched to a presidential system.
So, under this new presidential system, one has to capture 50 percent-one-plus votes to be able to win the elections. Under the parliamentary system — and Erdogan came to power in 2002, and Turkey then had a parliamentary system — under the parliamentary system, you can capture 34 percent of the vote, let’s say, and that’s what the AKP captured. And you could still have 60-plus percent of the seats in the parliament, because of the specifics of Turkey’s electoral law. But, under the presidential system, you need a majority to win, and that simply makes unification a necessary thing for the opposition, otherwise, they would not have stood a chance.
So, let’s say the CHP, which is the secularist main opposition party, they usually commence somewhere between 20 to 28 percent of the vote. That’s not enough, obviously, for them to win if they ran on their own, and others as well. So that’s why the presidential system, as well as the specifics of Erdogan’s personalist autocracy, pushed them together.
MH: So, one thing that’s very interesting, Gonul, is, in Turkey today, if you’re following, the economics situation is very poor. There’s very rampant inflation that’s been taking place, it has a very negative effect on the Turkish middle class and, really, all Turks.
And, in addition to that, in the last few months there were these devastating earthquakes which took place in Turkey, which killed tens of thousands of people, and seemed to be credibly, at least in part, attributable to government mismanagement. A lot of the cities which were affected by the earthquakes were in known fault line areas, and yet shoddy or unregistered construction seemed to have ben allowed, which allowed far greater damage than may otherwise have taken place.
So, there seemed like a lot of reason for public anger or rejection of the incumbent government. You know, people don’t have food, meat is becoming very expensive for people in Turkey. And yet, you still saw the incumbent government manage to overcome and win this election which, to me, was very, very surprising for a number of reasons. Not because I didn’t know that the government’s popular, but it’s not something – Usually, in many countries, when the economy is suffering so poorly, it’s very much to the detriment of the incumbent.
Can you explain how it came about in Turkey? Tactically, how did Erdogan manage overcome that and maintain his base of support, such that he could still prevail in the election?
GT: Well, that’s the million dollar question, right? How do underperforming autocrats retain power? Well, some might say that by simply stealing elections, or by manipulation or coercion and, in some autocracies, that might be true. But in others like Turkey, autocrats have – some of them – might have genuine popular appeal.
Now, that’s not to say that the uneven playing field that we just talked about, and manipulation, did not play a part in Erdogan’s victory. But I think here there is a larger context that we all need to focus on. And the big question is, how does one explain Erdogan’s mass appeal, despite his poor economic performance and the many problems his policies have created for the country, including the millions of refugees?
I think the most fundamental background factor is that Turkey is a troubled society. It is a deeply polarized country with existential anxieties, right? And feeding those existential anxieties are several factors: one of them is the historical rift between Turks and Kurds, which has been exacerbated by the war in neighboring Syria. Kurdish gains there heightened Turks’ fear of an independent Kurdish state carved out of Turkish territory, and Erdogan added fuel to the fire, heightening those fears. He wrote the ensuing nationalist wave to consolidate his power, and on the campaign trail he used fake videos linking his opponent to the outlawed PKK, the terrorist organizations. He called the opposition terrorists, he made false claims that his opponent would release the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, if he were elected.
And, although the PKK has not mounted large scale attacks inside Turkey’s borders recently and has been weakened by Turkey’s military campaign in neighboring Iraq, I think Erdogan’s fearmongering heightened the anxieties of a society that believes it’s already under assault by millions of Syrian refugees.
So, that brings me to the second factor, why there’s so much heightened anxiety. Anti-refugee sentiment runs high in today’s Turkey, both among nationalists, Kurds, every segment of the country fears that the presence of those Syrian refugees is a threat to them, and it was Erdogan’s open border policy that led to the influx of refugees in the first place. Yet, for many Turkish voters, only Erdogan can fix that problem.
And also, if you look at the earthquake zone, yes, the country was hit by a devastating earthquake. Eleven provinces have been hit, tens of thousands of lives have been lost, and that is, in itself, a huge source of anxiety, right? People don’t know what’s going to happen next, they don’t know when their cities will be built. So that’s a big source of anxiety.
And yet, I think those growing anxieties drove voters to support the very man whose slow response, and years of corruption, and policy of granting construction permits and amnesties to unsafe buildings, have really exacerbated the death toll. I think you can only explain that by looking at how people behave during times of extreme radical uncertainty; they usually rally around the leader. And Erdogan – and this is from a conversation that I had with an earthquake victim who had never voted for Erdogan before – but he told me that he was going to in this election.
And he said that he really respects Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition candidate, that he’s always voted for his party, and yet he was concerned that Kilicdaroglu was going to have a full plate if he were elected. From switching to the presidential system, to solving the country’s Kurdish problem, to tackling economic issues, that his family and the earthquake victims were not going to be on his priority list. And, on the other hand, he said Erdogan is a dictator, which means he can make things happen faster.
So, I think that really explains how anxiety can drive voters, at times of uncertainty like this one, to support underperforming autocrats. And Erdogan did a masterful job in terms of capitalizing on all of these anxieties. So, I think his resilience is the product of his ability to convince popular majorities in Turkey that he and he alone can fix the problems that he created.
MH: So, Erdogan has been ruling Turkey for two decades now and, with this electoral victory, could be another five years on top of that. Can you tell us a bit about the evolution of his government and his style of governance over this time?
One thing that’s very interesting is that, particularly in the West, his reputation has sort of changed over the course of these two decades. I think people may remember – it was quite some years ago – but he was seen almost as a Democrat, or very much a reformer, and certainly an economic reformer, very widely brought, at least among many observers of Turkey.
Can you tell us a bit about, has he changed, or has he always been the same? Or has something in the circumstance of Turkey changed [that] led to a change in his governing style? How has his rule evolved over this very, very long period in which he’s been in power?
GT: Well, some of his change – his policies, I should say. His narrative, his policies have changed, some of them. Some aspects of it have remained the same.
When he first came to power, he framed his party as a conservative democratic party. He told people that he was not an Islamist anymore. You know, he comes from an Islamist background, and when he first came to power there was a lot of anxiety around his election victory, particularly among the secularists of the country. Thinking that, here we have, we have an Islamist in power, and he has a strong popular mandate, and he is going to change the country to the core, and he will reconstruct the country in his image, in an Islamist image. So, that was the fear.
And yet that did not materialize immediately, right? Because he, I think up until 2011, there were some things that he did well for the country. The Turkish economy was growing, he carried out democratization reform. So, when he came to power, he was not the leader that he is at the moment, in terms of policies.
But on the other hand, I think, from the first day on, he was always a populist. He came to power claiming that he was an outsider, that he was someone who could get things done. And this is not really unique to Erdogan, if you look at other autocracies, too. I mean, compared to the 20th century Stalins, Hitlers, Mussolinis, we live in a completely different era where these authoritarian leaders, they resort less to coercion. They come to power through legitimate elections, and yet they take those democratic institutions and bend them to the point where the country, you cannot call it a democracy anymore. They establish their one-man rule.
And there is no rubicon, there is no point where, one day, you just wake up and you find yourself in a completely dramatically different autocratic country. They take incremental steps.
So, Erdogan came [up] against the background of extreme uncertainty, going back to my original point, and I think this can be said for other countries. From the U.S., from Italy, European countries, Brazil, other countries where autocracy is on the rise, right?
So, the 1990s were a lost decade for Turkey. A lot of people had lost hope and faith in democratic institutions, in liberal democracy, because it wasn’t delivering for them. Economically, from a security point of view, it was just – liberal democracy was not doing the trick for them. So, in the 1990s, Turkey had this huge economic problem. You had coalition government after coalition government, which fed the sense that institutions don’t work, governments don’t work. You had corruption, you had a peak in terrorist attacks, so there was this great sense of frustration in the political class.
Erdogan came [up] against that background, claiming that I am the man that you need. I can fix things, I can bring stability, I can bring prosperity, I can help those who have been marginalized by this corrupt system and those corrupt elites. That’s how he came to power, and that’s what makes him a populist.
And yet, he didn’t embark on a project of undermining – I mean, there are, in retrospect, there were a lot of red flags, even in his early years. And yet, they didn’t culminate in a dramatic change that changed Turkey’s democratic rule from democracy to autocracy overnight. So, he took incremental steps, and he used foreign policy to furnish his brand.
Initially, it was his conservative democratic brand. Later, once he managed to sideline his opponents and centralize power, and that happened in 2011. By 2011, he had sidelined the secularist establishment, and managed to bring under his control media, the state institutions, bureaucracy, and even business community. And, from then on, he started taking steps to establish his one-man rule. Again, as I discuss in my recent book, “Erdogan’s War,” he turned to foreign policy. Foreign policy played a key role in his efforts to consolidate his rule.
So, in a nutshell, Turkey’s transformation – degeneration, I should say – from an imperfect democracy to an autocracy did not happen overnight. Erdogan did that by taking incremental steps, by exploiting the cleavages, sociopolitical cleavages, pre-existing cleavages in the country. And, again, using foreign policy. And I think it received a lot of help from western countries, and also from his own domestic opponents.
MH: In Turkish history, there’s been this cycle of military control and coups, and periods of authoritarian rule or authoritarian-type rule interspersed with democratic attempts to expand Turkish political participation.
Can you talk about how Erdogan fits into that history? Or what sort of history informs his own actions and worldview in becoming the type of leader he is today?
GT: Well, he comes from an Islamist background. So, if you look at Turkey’s history, the secularist military played an oversized role in politics. And, thanks to that, Islamist parties – and others as well – have been shut down, their leaders persecuted. And Erdogan, actually, in 1995, and that was when we had an Islamist Prime Minister, he was forced to step down by the military shortly after taking power. So, Erdogan witnessed those years as a young Islamist, and he saw that directly clashing with the country’s generals was not a great idea if one wants to survive politically in the Turkish context.
So, what those years – the 1970s, 80s, and 90s – had taught him was that he had to find other ways of challenging and curtailing the influence of the secularist establishment, and he found that in Turkey’s E.U. membership. He thought that, instead of having a direct clash with the military, if he embraced Turkey’s E.U. membership, he could be able to sideline the military in the name of democratizing the country, because E.U. membership required a smaller role, curbing the influence of the generals in Turkish politics. So, that’s exactly what he did.
When he first came to power in 2002 he campaigned on a very pro-E.U., pro-reform agenda. So, I think those years, the way they informed his initial years in power was that he had to embrace a pro-reform and pro-E.U. agenda if he wanted to defeat the generals, and he pretty much achieved that. Again, also with help from his own opponents. The missteps taken by his opponents helped him a great deal.
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MH: Can you talk about how in Turkish politics, the issue of culture war tends to be used by politicians to galvanize support? And, certainly, by Erdogan in the past election.
One thing that’s been very interesting – and you mentioned Gonul, that the secularist establishment that was at the forefront of holding onto power through course of means for many, many years – but the opposition to Erdogan in this case came from a really diverse set of people who have a lot that are not in common with one another. Including Islamists, who used to be aligned with Erdogan, Kurdish nationalists or people supportive of Kurdish rights in in Turkey, and the same secularist establishment you’re talking about.
How did Erdogan manage to portray this very diverse, culturally, set of opponents as being part of one homogenous opposition to the type of politics which blends religion and nationalism that he represents?
GT: You know, modern day autocrats, as I said before, they don’t have to resort to coercion to convince people to vote for them, right? They can spin the narrative, and that’s how they managed to build and secure consent. And it’s easy, very easy to spin the narrative if you control the country’s media. And that worked [and] became a great advantage for Erdogan because, again, on the campaign trail, he often appealed to the nationalist sensitivities of Turkish nationalists, for instance, by saying the opposition candidate is in alliance with the terrorist groups.
So, if you don’t have a an alternative source of information, it’s easier for you to believe that false narrative, and Turkey is a country where nationalism runs really deep, and it cuts across party lines. You have nationalists among Islamists, you have secular nationalists. Nationalism is just everywhere and, if you play to that sentiment, it really pays off.
And, in the past, cultural wars has always been part of Turkey’s politics, but I think Erdogan has taken this to a whole new level. The country has never been as polarized, and you can tell that by looking at the election results, right? Erdogan captured 52 percent and his opponent captured 48 percent, which means that it’s almost 50/50. Half of the country thinks that they are in a war for their survival, and the rest things that if you lose power, they’re going to lose everything.
So, if the elections are framed as an existential war, what politicians say on policy issues, policy stances, don’t really matter, right? Because they stick to their own leader, because this is just a war to survive.
MH: You know, it’s so interesting, in the Turkish election there were extremely high participation rates; I think higher than 90 percent, which is very unheard of in a U.S. election, you would say. And, on the one hand, it seems like it’s a good thing, because people are interested in democracy, they want to participate. But, on the other hand, it does kind of speak to the same dynamic you’re referring to, that the election just seems existential. So, you need to vote, because the stakes are so high that everything could come to an end if the wrong party wins. People believe that. Whereas in other countries the stakes may be a bit lower, and that drives lower participation. It’s kind of an interesting quirk.
But one thing I was really fascinated, and that you’ve written about in the past, is that Turkey’s changed at a very institutional level, as a result of being governed in the way it has over the past two decades. And I think this is something which is very important, because, you know, even for non-Turks, Turkey’s a very, very important country. It’s a NATO-member country, it’s in a very strategic location, economically and militarily. Its influence is very, very important, both in Europe and the Middle East, and in Central Asia.
How have Turkish institutions transformed? And I assume they’ve transformed for the worse, governing by how autocracies tend to manage themselves. How have they changed, institutionally? Do things in Turkey work as well as they used to? And how might we expect those changes to evolve if it keeps going down the path it has in the past few years?
GT: Well, Erdogan basically undermined institutions. And, again, this is not unique to Erdogan, that’s what autocrats do. And, even in this country – I mean, if you remember Trump – I mean, that’s what they do. They equate the country’s institutions with the corrupt elite, and they try to ban the rules, undermine those institutions. And they claim that they represent the real people, and those institutions are part of the political culture that is being created and constructed by the corrupt quote-unquote “political elite.” So, that’s their narrative.
One of the first things that they do once they consolidate power is they start attacking those institutions, and that’s exactly what Erdogan has done in the 20 years that he’s been in power.
Turkish democracy was never perfect, right? Even before Erdogan came to power, it was an aspiring democracy. Yet there was something that was dramatically different between pre-Erdogan years and Erdogan years, and that is, before Erdogan came to power, there were institutions. Policymaking was done at the institutional level.
Let’s take foreign policy, for example. The Minister of Foreign Affairs was key to foreign policymaking, so things were a lot more predictable. You had people who had the necessary credentials to be holding key positions, for instance. And the country’s education system, it really helped Turkish bureaucracy, in terms of feeding excellent, very educated people.
When I was a kid, there was a university exam, for instance. And I come from a working class family, and yet, thanks to that education system, I managed to go to the country’s top university. So, universities and the education system provided upward mobility for lower classes. There were things that didn’t work, but institutions did work. But right now there are no institutions. One man calls all the shots.
Again, giving the example of foreign policymaking, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs have long ceased to be a player in foreign policymaking. Its inputs are not necessary. Erdogan makes all the decisions, and the rest of Turkish bureaucracy, their main task is to follow orders.
I think that presents a very dangerous trajectory, in the sense that Turkey is a large country. And we’ve seen that, in the aftermath of the earthquake, how incapable institutions, incapable rulers, how they fail the people at times of great need.
MH: Looking at the Turkish currency, looking at the economy at the moment, it’s suffered quite precipitously in the last few years. Inflation, I mentioned earlier, is a very, very huge issue for people around the world. But really, if you look at U.S. inflation compared to Turkish, you know, you’d be envious of the U.S. position, given how bad things have gotten in Turkey.
Given the way that the country’s being governed in this sort of, by diktat – by one man, as you said, or a coterie of people around one man – how might the economy continue to change in this way, too? Because I know that it’s very difficult to maintain a robust middle class, or the same sort of structures which allow people to rise from the working class to higher levels, when you have a situation when the economy’s becoming so unequal. If you see another five years of the same sort of economic policies, which have seemingly weakened the Turkish economy in this manner, how might the country transform from what existed prior to it going down this path?
GT: Well, there’s a lot of optimism in Western capitols. I live in Washington and I’m seeing that firsthand, that people working for the Biden administration in the thinktank community, there’s a lot of positive vibe that Erdogan is going to moderate, including on the economic front, right. And he put together a cabinet with moderate names that really fed that optimism.
But I think, judging by his victory speech, in which he doubled down on the culture wars, by attacking the LGBTQ community, I think one can expect a continuation of polarizing rhetoric and policies which will further undermine the pro-democracy forces. And he’s also talking about drafting a new constitution, and he promises that it will be more democratic.
I would’ve been thrilled to hear that, had I agreed with his notion of democracy, but I don’t. Because, to Erdogan, democracy means winning elections, and that’s about it; and imposing the values of the majority on the rest of the country. There are no safeguards for the remaining 48 percent, for minorities’ individual rights and liberties, rule of law, separation of powers.
So now, why is that important? Because that’s important for the country’s economy. Unlike Russia, for instance, we don’t have oil, we don’t have natural resources, which means Turkey’s economy is heavily integrated with Western markets. The European Union is Turkey’s biggest trading partner, and that means that we rely on these Western institutions. Turkey needs foreign direct investment. And if you have zero Democratic credentials, if you don’t have the rule of law, if you don’t have those institutions in place, it’s very difficult to attract Western foreign direct investment.
That means he has to do something about it, and many think that he is already doing something about it. He put together an orthodox economic team that is led by Mehmet Simsek. Mehmet Simsek was in charge of the country’s economy until 2018, and he was one of the very few market-friendly faces. He wanted to pursue orthodox policies, and he was forced to resign when Erdogan brought his son-in-law on board to take charge of the country’s finances. And now he’s back, Erdogan brought him back. And now we have a young female head of the Central Bank, and people think that this is the most significant sign that Erdogan is going to moderate.
It may be true, but I believe for only some time. Because Erdogan will be facing local elections in 2024, and his next goal is to capture big cities that he had lost in 2019, including Istanbul and Ankara, which means he will revert back to his unorthodox ways. So, that means I think he’s given a green light to the new economy team until the end of the year but, starting from 2024, he will be pursuing the policies that he had pursued before.
MH: Very briefly, because this aspect is very interesting to me, these policies you describe as unorthodox which Erdogan’s been pursuing, can you describe very briefly what these are? Because it’s very fascinating that a country seems to be deliberately or indifferent, at least, to the weakening of its currency to such a great degree, or the generation of inflation over some time. But, presumably, even if it’s harmful to some segment of the population, there’s reason that the government or people close to power may benefit from policies which seem to be, as you said, unorthodox or even harmful to other sectors.
Can you describe, very briefly, what sort of path he’s taken economically?
GT: Well, he has been a strong opponent of high interest rates. He always believed that that would lead to high inflation, while orthodox economists are saying that it’s the other way around. And yet those unorthodox policies that Erdogan had pursued basically offered cheap credit to his cronies in the business sector. So, for him, that pro-growth policy worked in his favor, because the country hasn’t – yes, there is inflation, but many people say that, you know, Turkey in the 1990s had high inflation, and the people can live with it.
So, Erdogan thinks that this is actually working, and this is keeping his base together, this is keeping the elite coalition that he struck, again, with people in the business community that is working for him. But, obviously, it’s not. I mean, there’s the double-digit inflation in the country. And particularly concerning to voters is the food prices, which is among the highest among the OECD countries. So, something needs to be done.
And Mehmet Simsek signaled that, in fact, after he was announced as the new Finance Minister, one of the first tweets was in English, in which he said, from now on, we will pursue rational policies. And that is a signal to the outside world, to the markets that things are going to go back to normal, but I doubt that he will be given enough time to implement what he thinks is necessary.
MH: So, a few more questions that I wanted to ask, just to get your perspective. One of them is the issue of Syrian refugees in Turkey, and you mentioned earlier that this issue has become very, very salient to Turkish voters, and very polarizing.
During the second round of the election, I noticed the opposition made this more of a primary focus of their messaging, and Kemal Kilicdaroglu actually said that we’re going to send all the Syrian refugees back, which seemed to be more of a right turn than the opposition took in its first round. And I believe Erdogan at that time sort of took a more conciliatory view, although he also seemed to bring on this coalition partner whose platform is very hostile to refugees’ presence.
Can you talk briefly about how Syrians fit into Turkish politics today? Given that there are several million of them living in the country at the moment.
GT: Well, as I said, Turkey is already a country where nationalism runs very deep, but for decades the main target of Turkish nationalism has been the country’s Kurdish minority. And, right now that’s changing, because now there is a significant number of Syrian refugees, and also others from Afghanistan, from Iran, so another ethnic group is going to pose a huge challenge to a country that is not known for its accommodating policies, vis-a-vis different ethnic identities.
So, it’s going to be a huge problem moving forward for Turkey economically, politically, and socially. And I think one of the most dramatic impacts of that on Turkey’s politics has been the rise of these far-right movements. We have several figures whose only agenda is to send back the Syrian refugees.
This is something that we had seen in the European context, right? Particularly [how] the conflict in Syria, and the wave of immigrants, refugees, going to Europe, led to the rise of far-right parties. In Turkey, we did not have a far-right party in that regard, anti-refugee party in that regard but, right now, Turkish politics will look a lot like politics in Europe, in the sense that the anti-refugee sentiment, anti-refugee policies, anti-refugee narrative is going to occupy a significant place in Turkish politics.
And this is going to make things even more difficult, because I think one of the things that really poison politics in general, but Turkish politics in particular, is the strength of nationalism. Because if nationalism is very strong in a country like Turkey, where 15 to 20 percent of the country’s population is of a different ethnic origin, like the Kurds, that it gets easier for populist leaders like Erdogan to exploit those differences to undermine pro-democracy forces. That’s why I get worried when I look at Turkish politics at the moment, seeing the rise of anti-refugee policies and anti-refugee sentiment.
I think the main impact of the Syrian refugees has been taking a nationalist country further in that direction.
MH: You know, Erdogan’s won his next term, he’ll be in power for the next five years, ostensibly. If the country continues on the same path it’s continued in the past five, ten years, what might we expect in Turkey in terms of polarization, economic changes, and also the social changes that you alluded to earlier, in your comments about how he’s shaped the country and a new direction?
GT: I think the first challenge facing Erdogan is the economy. The question is, how is he going to fix that? Will he be able to fix the country’s growing economic problems?
So, if he takes the route of, let’s say, relying on other friendly autocratic countries – like China, like the Gulf countries – to offer a solution to the country’s economic problems, that will mean a further gap between Turkey and the West. And that could mean further clamping down on opponents, further repression. So, that’s a route that he can take.
But there is another route, and that is, if he decides that relying on the Saudis, the U.A.E., and other autocratic countries, is not going to be enough to fix the country’s economic problems, that he’s going to have to turn to the West and maybe to the IMF. Although he had said before that he was not going to do that. But, if push comes to shove, and if he makes that decision, I think that will come with some conditions. That will mean he will have to fix some of the country’s democratic shortcomings. He will have to assure markets and investors that there is a rule of law, that there is no arbitrary law, that he’s not going to be jailing his opponents.
So, if he takes that route, I think the country’s problems are still going to be largely there, but we could be in a slightly better place, in terms of rights and the rule of law.
So, I think, again, a lot of people think that he may take that second route, and I can only hope so. But I’m not sure, because if, let’s say, he cannot solve the country’s economic problems, that will mean he will be facing a more unstable domestic context. And autocrats, usually, when they face more unstable domestic context, they double down on repression, and on aggressive, militaristic foreign policies.
MH: Gonul, you’re a scholar of Turkey, but also a scholar of democracy in general, and you use a very interesting term – “competitive authoritarianism” – to describe Erdogan’s rule In Turkey.
It’s a very fascinating sort of concept, because when we think of dictatorships, we don’t think of elections which people think are competitive enough to take part in. Or we think of, maybe, a press, but a press which is so controlled that you can’t say anything negative, or else you’ll be killed by the dictator. But in Turkey it’s a little bit different, because you do have elections. And there is a press, it’s just very pressured and controlled, and it’s a bit unequal in terms of access. And it seems like this is maybe, in some ways, a more sustainable model for autocracy than maybe what you’d see in Libya or Syria or countries like that.
Can you talk a bit just about this concept of competitive authoritarianism and the threat that it may pose to genuine democracy, whether in Turkey or in other countries?
GT: That’s exactly right, Murtaza, it’s more sustainable for modern day autocrats. Again, we don’t have Hitlers, Stalins, and Mussolinis of the 20th century, who largely used coercion to remain in power. But, in this age, relying solely on coercion or outright election-rigging is not sustainable. There is a smarter way, even for underperforming autocrats, to remain in power, and elections in that context is absolutely essential, because they come to power claiming that they represent the silent majority.
They come to power through legitimate means, and that legitimacy is very important for them. And, after a while, after they consolidate their power, the only leg of that legitimacy remains the elections, but they end up with democracy without rights. So, that means the only reason to call that country a democracy becomes the elections themselves and nothing else.
There are no individual rights and liberties. The electoral field is dominated by the incumbent. It’s transformed to favor the incumbent. Rules of the games are mostly bent in the incumbents’ favor. And there could be some election manipulation, but still, modern-day autocrats, they don’t want to give up on the idea of elections. They are risky because, again, they cannot engage in outright rigging, but they have to take that risk to be able to retain that veneer of legitimacy.
So that’s why elections are important. But, again, autocracies are not created equal. We are not talking about Russia or China. In the Turkish context, in some autocracies, elections matter more than others. They are more competitive than they are in other contexts. That’s why when you look at the Turkish elections, you have to keep that in mind.
So, moving forward, Erdogan cannot eliminate elections altogether, right? Because I’ve seen analysis saying that, from now on, he’s not going to hold elections. They have to hold elections, because their legitimacy depends on elections, and that’s about the only leg that their legitimacy relies on. So they have to have those elections.
And elections are popular in countries like Turkey, right? People, they might want to be governed by a strong leader who is willing to bend rules every now and then to get things done, but they don’t want to give up on the idea, they don’t want to give up on the right to elect their ruler.
So, that’s why elections, they have to be there. And rigging elections in a very outright crude way can create a backlash against those autocrats.
MH: Gonul, I have one final question for you.
Now that Erdogan has won the election, he’s going to be in power for some time to come. What’s next for the Turkish opposition, after narrowly losing this election?
And, as a general question about the future of his rule: oftentimes, in autocratic systems, the issue of succession is very, very difficult, because so much of it has been drawn down to one particular person. If, in the future, when Erdogan passes away, if he’s still in power, could we see a situation where he tries to create a familial sort of rule, or is that not plausible in Turkey?
What’s next for the opposition, and what’s next for Erdogan after winning this latest victory in the election?
GT: Well, for the country’s opposition, especially the main opposition party, the Republican, the CHP, I think there is going to be a lot of soul-searching. Although they captured 48 percent, and especially given the conditions that they had to compete under, it’s not an easy feat capturing 48 percent. And yet, from the point of view of opposition supporters, this is a major failure, given all the policy blunders, and the missteps, and the problems that Erdogan’s policies have created.
So, the question for an opposition voter is: what else has to happen for the opposition to win elections? You have double-digit inflation, you had a devastating earthquake. His slow response made things worse. Nothing works in the country. Major key constituencies are just fed up. Women are fed up, they’re getting killed every day in growing numbers. The country’s youth, they don’t have a future for themselves in this country. The Kurds, they don’t see a future for themselves in this country, either.
So, what else needs to happen for the opposition to win elections? If not now, when are you going to win elections? So, that creates a lot of frustration, which forces the opposition leaders to do some soul-searching, but I don’t think it’s there.
There’s a lot of pressure on Kilicdaroglu to resign, and I’m not sure whether he is considering that. I think he should, because there are structural problems here, too. And the main opposition party, while doing that soul-searching, I think it should also look into the organizational problems, for instance. The CHP’s party local branches, they were not on the ground enough. There is not just the same amount of mobilization, mobilizing power by the main opposition compared to the ruling AKP.
There are organizational problems, there are problems, there are structural problems with the country. So, how are they going to approach those to be able to beat him next time around? That’s why I think it’s going to be chaotic moving forward for the opposition.
And, as for Erdogan, on the campaign trail he said that this was going to be his last term, but we had heard that before. And I know his health is not in great condition, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he wanted to seek another term after this, if his health allows.
If not, what will happen? Is there a successor? I really don’t know. But there’s one. For many years we thought that his son-in-law, he has two sons-in-law, and one of them was in charge of the country’s economy, he’s now out of the picture. But there’s another one who could make a better candidate. He’s in charge of the country’s defense sector. He’s the one who is making Turkish drones.
He’s a successful young man and he could be next in line, but it’s really difficult to tell.
MH: Gonul, thank you so much for joining us today on Intercepted.
GT: Thanks for having me.
MH: That was Gonul Tol, the founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey Program and a Senior Fellow with the Black Sea Program.
[Intercepted ending theme music.]
And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted. Intercepted is a production of The Intercept. José Olivares is the lead producer. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Roger Hodge is editor-in-Chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed our show, and this episode was transcribed by Leonardo Faierman. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
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Thank you so much for joining us. Until next time, I’m Murtaza Hussain.