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Erdogan’s Enduring Appeal

 6 min read / 

Nearly every statistic that one can quote about Turkey paints it as a nation facing a looming crisis. GDP per capita has been falling year-on-year since 2013. Unemployment has been going up since 2012, and now sits at 11.4%. Inflation consistently at above 7.5%, and the national debt has risen 65% in half a decade. This has all happened under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the Western media, he’s been called a lot of things: from authoritarian to dictator, and was the subject of criticism, satire and ridicule, including a well-publicised poem by the now UK Secretary of Foreign Affairs.

Despite this, the popularity of the newly-empowered president in his own country remains strong. Erdogan is polling at between 44% and 52% for the upcoming elections. His nearest competitor sits at 24%. Unheard of around the world? Not quite.

There are several reasons that he retains the support of the people in Turkey.

Justice and Development in Turkey

The Justice and Development Party (AK), led by Erdogan, has ruled Turkey since 2003. Voted into power in 2002, it became the first single-party government since the 1980 coup. Turkey, at the time, was in the midst of economic turmoil, the fallout from the 2001 financial crash. Political infighting and destability led many foreign companies, on which Turkey’s economy relied, to divest themselves of Anatolian assets. This had catastrophic consequences.

In stepped Erdogan… eventually. He was barred from running in the 2002 election due to a ban prompted by his recital of a poem which promoted racial hatred while he was the Mayor of Istanbul. Having this ban overturned, he took a seat in parliament after a controversial by-election.

The moderately-Islamist AK undoubtedly turned the country around. IMF reforms were undertaken; austerity was imposed and privatisation measures were implemented. This secured Turkey a line of credit. A new export-led growth strategy was followed, which focused on the automotive and electronics sector. The economy grew by about 6% every year following AK taking power. Turkey even came out of the global financial credit crunch relatively unscathed, and by 2010 the economy once again was growing, this time by over 8%. Ali Babacan, Minister of Economic Affairs during the early period of AK rule, was a technocrat, and his pragmatic approach signalled a sea change from the disastrous rule of the pre-2002 governments.

Turkey became a tourism epicentre and reaped the benefits of being culturally enchanting and geographically perfectly placed. In 2015, over 40m people visited the country, spending money and supporting the local economy. Terrorist attacks throughout 2015 and early 2016, carried out by both Kurdish separatists and Islamic State supporters, rapidly put people off. Only 30m foreigners went as tourists to the country in 2016, a drop off of 25%. Reporting of Turkey also shifted during that time, with Erdogan increasing portrayed as a populist nationalist, inflaming tensions in the region. The country was drastically different economically from when Erdogan took over, but the highs of the early to mid-2010s were not to last.

Since those heady days, fortunes have reversed for Turkey. As above, there has been a slide in what the average Turk can expect. Erdogan, though, looks set to be returned for a second term as president. Goodwill in politics can only get one so far, and whatever reservoirs Erdogan has built up, there are other factors at play which will help him win.

Turkey Rejects the West

Turkey has turned away from its previous stance of developing a closer relationship with the west. Official EU ascension talks were begun by AK in 2005, but these talks were shelved by 2017. This followed from the fallout of the failed 2016 coup. Journalists, educators, and military personnel were purged, suspected of supporting the plotters. Nearly every aspect of civil society that may have been anti-Erdogan was decimated. Negative coverage of the regime within the country has effectively been silenced as journalists live in fear of imprisonment. A pliant media reported that the US was behind the attempted coup, with Washington fearing an independent and empowered Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership. Alexander Dugin, the author of Russia’s geopolitical playbook, appeared on television announcing that the Kremlin had concrete evidence that the CIA was behind the failed seizure of power.

The turn against the West began in 2013. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, swept to power in 2012 on the back of the Arab Spring, was seen as a key Middle Eastern ally of Turkey. Erdogan may have feared that the same could happen in Turkey. His Muslim Brotherhood allegiance chimed with Erdogan, but brought him down a year after his inauguration as ordinary Egyptians chafed against his Islamist policies. Erdogan feared the same thing happening in Ankara. Prompt and violent repression met the anti-establishment protests which were sparked by development concerns in Gezi Park. Throughout June of 2013, police brutally repressed demonstrators in Istanbul.

Events in Syria also accelerated the growing division between Turkey and the West. President Bashar al-Assad was expected to fall quickly to the rebels once the Syrian Civil War broke out, and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was expected to oversee a move toward democracy. When this did not happen, and with Obama failing to enforce his ‘red line’, Erdogan took more decisive measures to support his allies within Syria, including allowing Islamist fighters to enter the war-torn country through Turkey. Against the condemnation of the international community, Erdogan’s stance was of standing up for moral principles in the face of his ‘allies’. It did not help that the US was arming Kurdish rebel groups in Syria, which Turkey sees as support for what it calls domestic terrorists agitating for Kurdish independence in Turkey. Erdogan, as a result, has been able to paint himself as a strong, independent, Muslim statesman, standing up to global and secular pressure that is firmly set against Turkish interests. It is a portrait that is believed by many within Turkey.

Turkey Votes Again on Erdogan

Erdogan is not assured of victory when the electorate goes to the polls later this month. While he enjoys large support from around half the country, the other half is staunchly against him. Unless a candidate wins over 50% of the first vote, the election will go to a run-off. Anti-Erdogan voters will coalesce around one figure, and whoever that may be, they do stand a chance of defeating Erdogan. It was a similar story in 2017, when a referendum about expanding the power of the presidency, Erdogan’s power, was only passed by 51% to 49%. Turkey is split.

If Erdogan is returned, it will likely mean a further distance from the West, further political repression and further authoritarianism. It remains to be seen if he has managed to portray himself enough as the right, the only, choice for Turkey that he will win. The vote takes place on the 24th of June, and all attention will be focused on Turkey.

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