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How to Explain Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Electoral Optimism Despite the Economic Crisis

18 May 2023
By Professor Ihsan Yilmaz
Banner of Justice and Development Party. Source: Ayratayrat/

Common wisdom in political science is that incumbents usually lose elections when there is an economic crisis. However, that does not seem to apply to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In Türkiye, inflation is astronomically high, unemployment has been on the rise, and over 25.5 million out of a population of 85 million people are living below the hunger threshold. Despite this, Erdoğan’s 52 percent share of the vote in the 2018 presidential elections has decreased to only 49.5 percent as of the last week’s election. Secular parties before him were electorally decimated in similar economic circumstances. So, what is behind this puzzle, and what does it mean for Türkiye’s foreign policy outlook?

I will explain this complex phenomenon by mainly relying on a scholarly journal paper I published more than five years ago with Dr Galib Bashirov. To provide a holistic picture of the emerging personalistic regime (Erdoğanism) at the time, we analysed the regime’s electoral, economic, ideological and strategic features, which corresponded to electoral authoritarianism, neo-patrimonialism, Islamism, and populism, respectively.

The recalcitrance towards Erdoğan’s electoral support at the 14 May elections by many in Türkiye can be defined by his electoral dominance and the political machine he has developed over the past 20 years. While there are other factors to this dominance, the four aforementioned elements are key. The first two features have mainly domestic consequences, the last two (Islamism and populism) have very strong foreign policy repercussions.

Electoral authoritarianism

An important feature of Erdoğanism is electoral authoritarianism: an uneven playing field for the opposition, particularly in elections that are neither fair nor free, and a widespread crackdown on fundamental freedoms. Opposition exists, but it is not allowed to win a majority of votes. The existence of the opposition parties mainly serves to legitimise the authoritarian political system. Elections for legislative and executive offices occur regularly, yet they are often rigged in favour of the incumbent. Political freedoms are severely curtailed.

Since 2018, all of these feature of the political system have simply worsened. Freedom House classifies Türkiye now as unfree. Many of the democratically elected Kurdish mayors and parliamentarians have been in jail despite the verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights supporting their release. Many more have been living in fear of government retribution. Türkiye is one of the worst jailers of journalists in modern times.

Political economy: neo-patrimonialism

A neo-patrimonial regime does not rely exclusively on traditional forms of legitimation or hereditary succession. It provides loyalty and submission to a ruler using both formal and informal mechanisms. The patron transfers public goods and services to his clients (family members, cronies, supporters, and loyal voters). The loyal support of voters has been gained through the provision of public welfare as “charitable patronage,” redistribution of public resources, and loyalists’ access to public jobs, health services, and public housing at the expense of other demonised ethnic, religious, and political groups. The regime deliberately channels state funds, such as free goods and services, to the districts and cities that vote for the party, and effectively punishes those who do not.

Thus, despite the economic crisis, unemployment, and hunger, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) makes sure that its loyal supporters are not affected much. It buys their loyalty further by providing them extra welfare benefits and help from its municipal governments, pro-regime NGOs, and so on.

AKP’s ideology: Islamism

Islamism is a form of instrumentalisation of Islam by individuals, groups, and organisations that pursue political objectives. After it consolidated its power and captured the state in 2011, AKP started openly advocating the Islamification of Turkish society and politics. Erdoğanists long for the Ottoman past, a caliphate under Türkiye’s leadership, and the glorification of Turkish–Ottoman history. AKP’s Islamism has been demonstrated in the party’s foreign policy as well.

Since the Gezi protests in 2013, which the AKP suppressed with state violence, the AKP has grown increasingly anti-Western in its outlook. It went so far as accusing the US and EU of being behind the failed coup of 15 July 2016. Additionally, Erdoğan has revived religio-civilisational animosity against the West and pro-Western opposition in his rhetoric. He and his media constantly propagate the existence of a holy war between the Muslims (i.e. the AKP’s supporters) and the Christian West and claim that the latter is bent on the former’s destruction. Dissidents and critics in Türkiye are claimed to be non-Muslims, fake Muslims, hypocrites or deviants.

He has also been using blatant Sunni sectarianism and pitting Sunnis against Alevis. In this narrative, the Alevis are framed as existential threats to Sunni Turks’ religious identity and are also presented as collaborators of foreign powers such as Iran, Syria, and the West.

Political strategy: populism

Populism divides society into two: the morally pure people and the evil elite that deny the people their rightful sovereignty. This is a core feature of Erdoğanism. In the first ten years of his tenure, this populism targeted the secularist sections of society in Türkiye as the “corrupt” elite. However, since the Gezi protests of 2013, his Islamist populism has become increasingly prominent.

He has also broadened his definition of “evil elite” by adding a civilisational populist dimension. These people have been portrayed not as domestic sources of corruption, but rather as shadowy, non-identifiable, international forces aligned with the “Crusader Imperialist West” and its Zionist supporters. In this narrative, the West and Jews hate Islam and Muslims and seek to oppress the Muslim World, such as illustrated by long-standing issues between Israel and Palestine. In this narrative, Türkiye under the leadership of Erdoğan stands up to them.

This civilisational populism relies on charismatic, personalistic, and paternalistic leadership. In this imagination, Erdoğan is the genuine leader of the Muslim Ummah. His cult of personality attributes divine characteristics to him.

Erdoğan’s success

The AKP either controls the public media or indirectly owns the prominent media companies through its cronies who have been made rich with public tenders. Under these circumstances, the AKP constructs the narrative as it wishes and demonises the opposition in the eyes of Sunni Turks who represent 70 percent of society. About two-thirds of these Sunnis are either very conservative or ultra-nationalist. Thus, opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s non-Sunni, heterodox, Alevi ethno-religious identity was a big plus for the AKP thanks to its conservative masses who did not wish to risk their neo-patrimonial privileges.

For these conservative and nationalist Sunni Turks, Kilicdaroglu’s promise of creating an egalitarian and fair society means sharing symbolic, political, and economic privileges and freedoms with the Kurds, Alevis, and other demonised “pawns” of the Western imperialist powers.

Professor Ihsan Yilmaz is the Research Chair in Islamic Studies at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University, Melbourne. He has researched religion and politics, authoritarianism, and populism.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.