Erdogan Has Mastered Democracy

For all the deserved criticisms of Turkey's president, the man knows how to win an election.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds his ballot before casting his vote for Turkey's legislative election at a polling station in Istanbul on June 7, 2015. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds his ballot before casting his vote for Turkey's legislative election at a polling station in Istanbul on June 7, 2015. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

ISTANBUL — An animated two-minute video released by supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan just days before his re-election Sunday depicted Turkey’s longtime leader as “Superdogan,” his face superimposed on the mustachioed protagonist of Nintendo’s Super Mario franchise. Erdogan racks up points as he becomes mayor of Istanbul, which he rids of pollution and garbage; he accumulates more even as the “people” free him from prison, and he becomes the country’s leader.

The points really add up as he slays inflation and allows a woman wearing a hijab into a university. He shoves aside leftists and liberals, as well as Israel, protesters at Gezi Park, reaching arrows that prompt him to continue on, developing industries and building vast projects, grabbing money from the sky, and hastily pushing aside political opponents as he scores win after win.

It’s a video that Erdogan’s critics, domestic and foreign alike, would do well to consider. There is plenty not to like about Erdogan, who will become Turkey’s longest-serving ruler if he completes his first term in the new role of executive president on the centenary of the republic in 2023. In recent years, Erdogan has been accused of undermining Turkey’s democratic institutions. He has jailed hundreds of journalists and activists, while his government has prosecuted dozens of people for critical posts on social media. He has faced allegations of undermining the independence of the judiciary, and for using state institutions for political gain.

But, amid all the criticisms, one basic fact should not be overlooked: The man knows how to win an election. And his political skills are as much — if not more — responsible for his unprecedented success as his autocratic excesses.

Erdogan, 64, is a more talented conventional politician than he’s given credit for abroad. It’s no accident that his popularity has been remarkably durable for years, even despite recent economic troubles that have increased inflation and unemployment while weakening the Turkish lira. A natural-born politician, Erdogan’s charisma is translated through his gift for public speaking and his above-average height. As he spoke triumphantly to supporters in Ankara early Monday morning after claiming victory, he exuded the confidence of a man destined for more victories. “Our nation, as it did for the last 16 years, cast its votes once more in favor of service, not conflicts,” he said. “The winner is our democracy. The winner is service-based politics. The winner is superiority of national will. The winner is Turkey. The winner is the Turkish nation. The winner is all the oppressed in our region. The winner is all the oppressed in the world.”

Even his opponents concede that he’s the most popular politician in Turkey, and that while the election campaign was unfair in terms of television coverage and resources, the election day vote wasn’t stolen. “He’s a political animal. He’s a wizard. He’s a really good orator,” said Ezgi Basaran, the Turkey program coordinator at Oxford University’s European Studies Centre. “It’s not a surprise that he wins, and it’s not a big secret. Populism is a strategy, and not an ideology.”

Over the course of his career, Erdogan has refined a populist strategy that combines strident nationalism and divisive class rhetoric, but also public service, especially highly visible projects that underscore the country’s economic development. As mayor of Istanbul, prime minister of Turkey from 2003 to 2014, and president of the republic since then, Erdogan has built his reputation on competence, even as he and his entourage have been dogged by allegations of corruption. Since he and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, began their ascent in 2002, the country’s per capita income has nearly tripled.

“People voted for the services provided to them,” Egeman Bagis, a former minister under Erdogan who remains in his entourage, told Foreign Policy. “People live much more prosperously today compared to 16 years ago. People look at what he has achieved and know that he will do even better.”

As politicians and commentators fight over the country’s macroeconomic indicators, Turks judge Erdogan, in part, by the results they can see: new highways, airports, universities, schools, bridges, mosques, shopping centers, tunnels, ports, and transit lines. Having won converts by physically transforming the country. Erdogan now promises to do more, by leveraging the country’s real estate to generate cash and deals in partnership with private sector mega-developers. Next up is a canal that will connect the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, then other ambitious public works.

“If you read the program of the AKP in 2001 and check it what has been done, you will realize that the guy has always delivered what he has promised,” said Bagis. “He promised a scientific center in the North Pole. That will be done. He promised huge parks bigger, than Central Park in New York. That will be done. He promised national libraries where every citizen will get free beverages and food where they will have a chance to study. Those have started already.”

But Erdogan has also built a highly emotional connection to his base rooted in identity politics. He knows how to work up a crowd and get his supporters excited about his elections with an “us-versus-them” rhetoric that pits the country’s various demographic groups against one another, and Turkey against the world. “He plays with the 100-year-old cleavages of modern Turkey. Secular vs. pious. Alevi vs. Sunni. But he doesn’t do it all at once. He attacks Kurds. But also secular nationalists. He arrests seculars, but not with the Kurds at the same time. He plays with the cleavages and antagonisms very cleverly,” Basaran said.

Erdogan’s instincts for cultural politics have also served him well. He began his reign touting a tolerant, light Islamism that embraced cosmopolitanism without being elitist. Under his leadership, Kurds and Armenians gained more rights and recognition, and Turkey progressed in acceding to the European Union. But at some point, Erdogan detected a political changing of the winds and embraced Turkish nationalism, exemplified by his partnership in Sunday’s elections with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). It’s a party characterized by a xenophobia and strident hostility to the ambitions of Turkey’s ethnic minorities that is diametrically opposed to the AKP’s neo-Ottoman pitch that it would protect all Turks.

“We can expect a further nationalist turn in Turkish domestic and foreign policy because I would argue that Erdogan and AKP are more reliant on MHP support,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish lawmaker who is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank. “That is a reflection of the rise of nationalism in Turkish politics. Nationalism comes in different brands in Turkey — but the overall tally of nationalist votes is increasing.”

Erdogan’s values largely coincide with those of the country’s rising Anatolian heartland. Erdogan was the son of a strict, conservative Turkish coast guard captain who moved from the Black Sea town of Rize to Istanbul. In his campaign materials and speeches, Erdogan frequently illustrates in folksy ways his upbringing and life story, contrasting it with the supposedly privileged lives of the well-heeled coastal Turks arrayed against him. He frequently denounces his opponents as spies, traitors, and atheists. “Turkey’s mainly a conservative country,” said Basaran. “It’s right-wing conservative. He keeps the antagonism alive. And it’s usually anti-intellectual, anti-cosmopolitan, and anti-elite.”

Basaran, who supports the opposition, likened Erdogan to self-styled men of the people like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. “He’s living in a palace and claiming to be the voice of the people,” she said. Erdogan held scores of rallies during the two-month campaign, including one in the Balkan nation of Bosnia. “If you look at the number of rallies he did, the number of TV interviews he gave, he worked much harder than all of his opponents combined,” said Bagis. “Hard work pays.”

His opponent, Muharrem Ince, also campaigned hard, with an equally frenetic public schedule. But like Bill Clinton, Erdogan also seems to be in permanent campaign mode. Even when he’s not running for office or promoting a constitutional referendum, he sometimes gives two or three lengthy speeches a day, meeting with everyone from trade associations to municipal ward leaders, school principals to doctors. Though he doesn’t knock on doors like he used to as an aspiring politician in the Kasimpasa district of Istanbul, he flies around the country — and flies community and civil society leaders to himself — in order speak directly to Turks.

Uncharacteristically, Erdogan stumbled repeatedly during the campaign, making several gaffes, including the time when he said if people want him to leave office, all they have to do is say enough, or tamam. #Tamam then trended globally on social media. Still, once Sunday arrived, Erdogan racked up another decisive election victory, the latest since he won the mayoralty of Istanbul in 1994 with 25.2 percent of the vote. “Every election he has entered personally, he has done better than the previous one,” said Bagis. “There’s no falling back. This guy can read his people better than anyone else. He’s very successful in understanding what his people want, and he does his best to deliver what they want.”

Borzou Daragahi is an Istanbul-based journalist who has covered the Middle East for more than 16 years. Twitter: @borzou