The unbreakable Recep Erdogan. Citizens' revolt without repercussions

Corruption is nothing new in Turkey, but the fact that the special fund for aseismic construction - which had accumulated $4.5 billion - was empty really shook Turks. Many believed that Erdogan would not rise again. The accumulated anger of the people works the same everywhere. But not in Turkey. In Turkey, anger is impermanent, it passes easily and there is ample evidence of this.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proved for the umpteenth time that he is indestructible. The first round of the presidential election made this abundantly clear. After all, it was clear from all pre-election polls that Erdogan, with around 45 per cent of the vote, would come second, behind Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the common opposition candidate, who was expected to receive 49 per cent. Meanwhile, the opposite happened. Almost half of the voters - 49.51 per cent - supported Erdogan, meaning that he chipped away at victory already in the first round. This is an incredible success, given the circumstances under which the vote took place.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu received 44.9 per cent of the vote and it is difficult to say whether he will be able to make up the difference in the second round of elections on 28 May. The stakes are huge, and not just in terms of current politics. KK, as he is called in Turkey, heads the Republican People's Party (CHP), the oldest of Turkey's parties in existence today, founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself, the founder of the republic. In five months' time, on 29 October, the Republic of Turkey will celebrate its centenary. It would be very bitterly ironic if the celebrations were patronised not by a president who cultivates Kemal Pasha's work, but by someone who has challenged and even, to no small extent, destroyed it.

President knows best

The victory of the opposition, led by the KK, was considered certain, so much so that the world media had already been full of considerations for a few months as to what direction Turkey would take in the post-Erdogan era. The question was not "if" it would happen, but "how soon" and "in what form". It was widely believed that President Erdogan had hit a wall and, although he had always emerged victorious from all oppressions, he would not succeed this time. He will not be able to control the confluence of natural factors, the international situation and the numerous mistakes he has made - a truly explosive mix. Translated into concrete terms, this means the repercussions of the massive earthquake in eastern Turkey, the war in Ukraine and inflation, which is now 'only' 60 per cent, but was over 80 per cent six months ago.
None of Turkey's presidential candidates passed the 50 per cent threshold, so the leader of the opposition Republican People's Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu (pictured with his poster), will face Recep Erdogan, who has ruled the country for 20 years, in a second round on 28 May 2023. Photo: PAP/EPA, Sedat Suna
It was precisely because of hyperinflation and the dramatic rise in the cost of living, especially the price of basic foodstuffs and the cost of renting housing, that Recep Erdogan found himself on a downward spiral a year ago. The oil to the fire was added by his stubbornness. The president decided that he would fight inflation in his own way, rather than in the way generally considered most effective, namely by raising interest rates. Erdogan was in favour of lowering rates and this is what he demanded of successive heads of the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey, removing them from office if they refused - obvious after all. This did not serve to stabilise the economy, but the president knew best.

The great mistakes and oversights of the authorities came to light after the earthquake that hit the eastern provinces at the beginning of February. Firstly, the rescue operation: late, chaotic, ineffective. In the past, it used to be the responsibility of military units to organise aid, which worked more efficiently and in a coordinated manner. The point is that Recep Erdogan, while still prime minister, made efforts to pacify the army, so to speak, and limit its capacity to act. The unexpected consequences of this have been experienced first-hand by the inhabitants of the ravaged provinces.

Secondly, the condition of the buildings. Even new houses were crumbling, burying people under the rubble, even though, had they been built in accordance with the building regulations adopted after the previous great quake in 1999, they should have been able to withstand the shocks. As it turned out, the rules were the same as business as usual, with entrepreneurs economising on materials and building construction, and building inspectors turning a blind eye to unauthorised practices.

Corruption is nothing new in Turkey, but the fact that the $4.5 billion special fund for aseismic construction (also the aftermath of the previous quake) was empty really moved Turks. Many believed that Erdogan would not rise again.

From Gezi Park to the earthquake

All of these circumstances (let's leave aside the Ukrainian war, as Erdogan's policy, swinging between Ukraine and Russia, is not particularly objectionable in Turkey) would sweep many leaders from their posts. The accumulated anger of the people works the same everywhere. But not in Turkey. In Turkey, anger is impermanent, it passes easily and there is ample evidence of this, old and brand new.

It would seem that in the quake-stricken provinces, neither the president nor his party has much to look for. Embittered people, who had lost loved ones and possessions through the carelessness of the authorities and widespread corruption, spared no criticism of the authorities and it seemed obvious that they would support Kemal Kilicdaroglu and the opposition six-party bloc. Meanwhile, if the elections had only been held in the east, there would have been no second round at all, as Erdogan would have already won in the first one. Very clearly: in the city of Gaziantep, where he fared weakest, he received 59 per cent of the vote; in the rest of the region's cities, he gained more than 60 per cent everywhere.

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This comes as a surprise - although actually it shouldn't, as it is not the first time it has happened. Recep Erdogan, who has been ruling Turkey for more than twenty years - since March 2003 as prime minister, since August 2014 as president - has already lost popularity and support more than once, but has always regained it at the ballot box. The first such attempt with the public (we are not talking about Erdogan's battles with the army during the first period of his rule) took place in spring 2013 in Istanbul. At that time, the city's residents took to the streets to protest against the intended removal of Gezi Park, a green enclave in the centre of the metropolis where a mosque was to be built. Fierce clashes with security forces took place for several days, there were injuries and, although the public lost the battle, Gezi Park became a symbol of resistance.

A year later, in the spring of 2014, Erdogan's reputation was hit hard by the Soma coal mine disaster, where 301 miners died in a fire. The prime minister showed not a bit of compassion to the families and, it was widely believed, acted callously. That year also saw the outbreak of a corruption scandal involving several ministers and their families. The public, thanks to the disclosed transcripts of wiretapped conversations, learned that among the suspects was the Prime Minister himself, who, with his son, was considering how to hide the $30 million....

Guilt let loose

All this combined meant that, for the first time, the position of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was seriously shaken. Erdogan's party suffered heavy losses in the spring 2015 parliamentary elections. Not for long, however, as six months later, in the subsequent early elections, the AKP regained everything. Turks let go of the faults of the party and its leader, in the name, it is believed, of peace, comfort and stability.

What were they driven by? The first period of AKP rule was a time of recovery and rapid economic growth, followed by improved living standards. Many ordinary citizens, not least big business linked to the AKP, had reason to be happy and did not want to jeopardise this. There were also those for whom religion and the restoration of its place in public life was important. This was all Erdogan was providing.

Does this mean that Turkish society is unpredictable and unstable? To a certain extent, yes, and the results of the current elections also testify to this. The volatility of the political mood has been plain to see since the late 1980s, when civilian rule was restored after a period of military regime. From one election to the next, the winning parties changed like a kaleidoscope, and the first to win was the last in the next election.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan's campaign poster the day after Turkey's presidential election, Istanbul 15 May 2023. Photo: PAP/EPA, Erdem Sahin
In 2002, the AKP won for the first time, and since then the pendulum has swung the other way: the same party is still in power, and the instability of the mood finds expression in revolt without repercussions. Wasn't it precisely in the summer of 2016 that the citizens saved Erdogan's rule, even though they had deprived his party of some seats a year earlier, expressing their dissatisfaction with his rule? The military coup failed thanks to ordinary people.

Prayer before the expedition

On Saturday 13 May, the day before the vote, Recep Erdogan travelled to Istanbul. There, in the Byzantine temple of the Hagia Sophia, which has been a mosque again for the past three years because of him, he said a prayer. It was no the ordinary one. Erdogan prayed for prosperity in the words the Ottoman sultans used to address God before going to war. The president, called 'sultan' with great exaggeration by his supporters - although in the sultan's court he could have been grand vizier at most - treated the vote like a battlefield. Rightly so.

Was he himself surprised by the unexpectedly good result? If he was, then, as a seasoned politician - to his credit - he did not let it show. He took his success for granted, devoted a few words to democracy as usual and indicated that if he did not win, because that would be the will of the people, he would of course surrender to it. It is a little difficult, when you know his actions and ambitions, to believe this.

Prayer is the one thing, Recep Erdogan is also not neglecting earthly, more tangible forms of gaining support. Just before the election, he announced significant wage increases of up to 45 per cent in the public sector, new social benefits and free energy, and the construction of new houses in the quake-stricken region. He set the bar high, as the original figure of 200,000 houses was raised to 650,000. That many are certainly not needed, as 200,000 is also too many, but the momentum is always impressive.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE The time before the second round of voting is filled with feverish canvassing and support-seeking. A key figure has emerged as the third presidential candidate, Sinan Ogan, who unsurprisingly won more than 5 per cent of the vote and thus stepped into the role of tongue-in-cheek. Ogan, an economist and university lecturer, is described as a nationalist (he once belonged to the Nationalist Movement Party, MHP), which in the view of Western commentators is unquestionably a criticism. But, hand on heart: who among Turkish politicians is not a nationalist, not necessarily in the bad sense of the word, especially when it comes to the Kurdish issue, Cyprus or relations with Greece? It was the prime minister from the Republican CHP, Bülent Ecevit, who sent troops to Cyprus decades ago, while Recep Erdogan renewed the fight against Kurdish separatists and sent troops to Syria.

In the great shadow of the presidential election were the parliamentary polls, won by the AKP and the bloc of groups around it. Together they secured 325 seats, a majority in the 600-seat parliament, which of course works to Erdogan's advantage. They have remained in the shadows, as the president has full power in Turkey today. Parliament can do little, counts for little and, not surprisingly, does not arouse excitement or interest. President Kilicdaroglu - if he becomes president - would like to change that. At the expense of his rule.

– Teresa Stylińska
– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Supporters of Turkish presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu chant political slogans at the headquarters of the Republican People's Party in Ankara, ahead of the announcement, of the results of the simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections. 14 May 2023. Photo: PAP/EPA, Sedat Suna
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