Erdogan’s combative nationalism arrives with an advantage in the ballotage in Türkiye

Tayyip Erdogan in his last campaign speech in Ankara. He reaches the second round of these crucial elections with an advantage after being barely 0.50% away from winning in the first round. (REUTERS/Murad Sezer) (MURAD SEZER/)

Everything suggested that the catastrophic earthquake in February, which left 55,000 dead, and the poor government response to the millions of victims were going to put an end to 20 years of the autocratic government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Türkiye (officially Turkiye), but now everything indicates that is very close to winning the second round of these crucial elections like a superhero that recovers from the hard blow and comes out strong from between the stones. The explanation is not in the comics of Marvel that show this type of characters, but in the growing combative nationalism raised by Erdogan in these years and the network of corruption that allowed it to successfully permeate the most popular layers of the population.

Two weeks ago, Erdogan was barely 0.5% of the vote away from winning in the first round and left behind by five points the coalition of six opposition parties that led the moderate center-leftist as candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu. The opposition hopes for greater control to stop the fraude that had been registered in at least 3% of the polling stations and the conquest of the greatest number of votes in the areas where the Kurdish minority lives, were buried when the third candidate, the ultranationalist, sinan oganwho obtained 5% of the votes, called on his followers to vote for Erdogan.

To give thanks, the president went to pray at Hagia Sophia (Hagia Sophia), the mosque and former church in Istanbul that the Turkish government turned into a museum in 1934 out of respect for its Byzantine and Ottoman histories. Erdogan controversially overturned that decision in 2020, one of many populist moves that have peppered his career. Kilicdaroglu celebrated the eve of the vote by laying flowers on the grave of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic who spearheaded the secularization of the country. The polarization could not be greater.

Supporters of Erdogan's party, seduced by the nationalist and religious discourse of their candidate. ( REUTERS / Murad Sezer)
Supporters of Erdogan’s party, seduced by the nationalist and religious discourse of their candidate. ( REUTERS / Murad Sezer) (MURAD SEZER /)

Erdogan’s electoral propaganda was very effective in spreading two false ideas about the figure of the opposition candidate: that he supports the Kurdish terrorists and that he is not a good Muslim because he belongs to the religious and cultural minority of the Alevis (a mystical Shiite variant in a mostly Sunni country). The accusation of the official Justice and Development Party (AKP) it is based on the fact that the main pro-Kurdish party, the HDP, announced that it supported Kilicdaroglu. The Kurdish democratic leader of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, has been imprisoned since the end of 2016 for “terrorist propaganda”. The ruling party assures that his conglomerate “is just the facade of the separatist guerrilla” represented by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The thing about the Alevis is a deeply rooted cultural matter and promoted from the mosques. They are accused of heretics because they do not go to pray five times a day and because they do not comply with all the precepts in the celebrations.

Before the first round it seemed that Erdogan was going to be punished above all for the lack of response to the millions of victims of the earthquake on February 7 that left at least 55,000 dead. But in areas where there are still tens of thousands of families living in tents, the ruling party ended up winning in 10 of the 11 affected provinces. This despite the fact that many voters went to vote with signs that said “devlet nerede” where is the state? International observers say that it was there and in the Kurdish areas controlled by the Turkish army where a fraud occurred which, according to journalistic calculations, would have been at least 3% of the total votes counted.

And there is the growing economic recession. Inflation in Turkey is higher than in any other G-20 country except Argentina. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TUİK), it was from 64.27% in 2022, but the independent Inflation Research Group (ENAG) places it at more than double: 137.55%. Since 2021, the Turkish lira has lost half its value against the euro. Erdogan promised to make Turkey one of the 10 largest economies in the world by 2023. None of this happened. The country dropped from 17th to 19th place. Per capita income fell from $11,300 to $9,600instead of increasing to $25,000, as the president predicted.

People queue for food after the terrible February earthquake in Kahramanmaras, Turkey.  The state's poor response to the victims did not diminish the flow of pro-government votes.  (REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez)
People queue for food after the terrible February earthquake in Kahramanmaras, Turkey. The state’s poor response to the victims did not diminish the flow of pro-government votes. (REUTERS/Eloisa López) (ELOISA LOPEZ/)

The third important element in this vote is the presence of Syrian refugees. Almost four million Syrians settled in Türkiye fleeing a civil war that devastated the country for 12 years and killed almost 500,000 people. The 11 Turkish provinces affected by the earthquake catastrophe host 1.74 million migrants, according to the UN. The Turks complain that the Syrians receive more state aid than they do.

“The truth is that many Turkish voters supported Erdogan, despite acknowledging that corruption in his party has reached astronomical proportions and that economic mismanagement has caused triple-digit inflation and serious suffering. They supported him even in areas hard hit by the earthquake, where the corrupt practices of the AKP were a major factor in the incredible degree of devastation and loss of life”, wrote the famous Turkish economist, professor at the MIT US, Daron Acemoglu. “But neither can it be said that the elections were free and fair. Television and print media are under almost complete control of Erdogan and his allies. The leader of the Kurdish minority party has been in prison for several years; the judiciary and a large part of the bureaucracy are no longer independent and are systematically obedient to Erdogan”.

The answer to what happened, it would seem that we would have to go looking for it to the electoral patronage of the AKP, which is not exclusive at all. So that we understand it better in Latin America, It is very similar to what happens with the PRI in Mexico and Peronism in Argentina. During the electoral period, Erdogan increased the minimum wage and, above all, that of state employees, launched very beneficial credit lines for the workers of allied companies and distributed cash in the areas affected by the earthquake while offering victims new houses in exchange for a guaranteed vote. The rest was already rigged. Erdogan controls almost all the springs of justice, parliament, the press (In April, Erdogan had 32 hours of broadcasting on state television and Kilicdaroglu 32 minutes) and even the army that he was the greatest guarantor of Ataturk’s secular and democratic legacy.

“We will continue to embrace our nation, which It is a way of thinking that comes from our culture.”, Erdogan told CNN Turkish in an interview on Thursday. “If we win on May 28, with God’s permission, every one of our 85 million people will win.”

Kemal Kilicdaroglu's election propaganda posters.  The opposition faced a powerful state communications apparatus.  (REUTERS/Yves Hermann)
Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s election propaganda posters. The opposition faced a powerful state communications apparatus. (REUTERS/Yves Herman) (YVES HERMAN/)

The religious element is essential to explain the Erdogan phenomenon. The first round of the elections clearly shows that he won the most depressed areas in the center of the country and in the north, on the Black Sea, which are also characterized as those with the greatest penetration of Islamism. Instead, the opposition won on the southern and western coasts, as well as in the big cities, where the professional middle class is concentrated. “Erdogan has fused religious and national pride, offering voters an aggressive anti-elitism that operates nationally and internationally”, said Nicholas Danforth, historian and researcher at the ELIAMEP study center. “People know who he is and what his vision of the country is, and it seems that many approve. That said, just because you have the wind in your favor doesn’t mean that everything will go smoothly. The economy will continue to worsen, the opposition is not on the right track and many world leaders don’t like or trust him any more than they did yesterday”, he added in an interview with Reuters.

And there is the point that the magazine The Economist he remarked when he baptized it as “the most important election of the year in the world”. Turkey, led by Erdogan, plays a fundamental role in the Middle East and Central Asia. He is an ally of Vladimir Putin and wants to be a mediator in the war launched by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He has international legal authority over the straits that link the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, through which supplies for Ukraine pass and some of the wheat it exports comes out. We must not lose sight of the fact that there are three million Turkish immigrants in Germany who have a decisive influence on the politics of that country. And obviously, Türkiye is a core member of NATO that continues to veto Sweden’s entry into the organization. Erdogan’s stay in power in Ankara is a matter that goes far beyond Turkey’s borders.

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