Identity Politics Works: Turkey

To the surprise of many, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan contradicted poll predictions by garnering in the Turkish national election of May 14, 2023 significantly more votes than his opponent – 49.4% for Erdogan versus 44.9% for Kilicdaroglu – barely missing obtaining a majority in the first round, and at the same time having his party secure a majority in the national assembly. Erdogan is virtually certain to be re-elected president in the runoff election at the end of the month.

Turkey and the US are very different countries, Recep Erdogan and Donald Trump are very different individuals, yet the parallels between Turkey and the US are uncanny and the results of the Turkish election gives us a clear example of the impact of identity politics in the hands of a skillful politician.

Among the similarities between Erdogan and Trump, each has:

– Developed the unconditional loyalty of a nativist base, that is totally in support of their candidate, irrespective of his policies or actions;

Demonized the opposition, including makiing numerous false accusations;

Attacked the press, the political establishment, their central banks;

– Identified fundamental historical fault lines in their country, taken one side and vilified the other;

Accentuate the fractures in their country, establishing an “us” versus “them” scenario, making no effort to unify;

– Campaigned emphasizing identity, appealing to voters’ emotions rather than their reason;

-Succeeded in overcoming major crises that many predicted would have eroded their power; and

– Often been underestimated in polls, have used their political talent to reach exceptional levels of success.

Of course, there are major differences, Erdogan has been able to impose his will without having to fight US “checks and balances” with 250 years of institutional history. He has been able to chip away at the democratic institutions of Turkey, turning the country into an electoral autocracy. According to Regimes of the World, there are four types of political systems: closed autocracies, electoral autocracies, electoral democracies, and liberal democracies[1]. Erdogan’s Turkey is maybe the leading example in the Twenty-first Century of an electoral autocracy, a hybrid system in which democratic practices, such as elections, are imitated, but are combined with authoritarian practices that make the system undemocratic.

What is the essential characteristic of a democratic regime? For the leaders to be selected by free and fair elections. Turkey’s recent election was free, participation was 88.8% and there was no evidence of massive election fraud. However, as is typical of electoral autocracies, the election was far from fair. In addition to eliminating some opponents by having them jailed, Erdogan has gradually taken control of the judiciary and the media, and has cut off access to the media for his opponents. He alone was able to flood the waves with his messages, particularly to the 80% of the population that is unable to read any language other than Turkish: this was not a fair election, it is obvious that the rules were heavily biased in his favor.

But nevertheless, he did get nearly 50% of the votes, half of the country likes this authoritarian, populist ruler. And close to half of American voters appear to like Trump, irrespective of his totally unsubstantiated claim that he actually won the presidential election of 2020, they have come to accept his vilification of Biden and the Democratic Party and to forgive Trump for whatever faults he may have shown.

Will the American political system prevent Trump from being elected and once elected, continue to degrade American democracy in the manner he exercises power? It is too early to tell, but such a scenario is quite plausible: the success of Erdogan should give us pause.

[1] Regimes of the World by political scientists Anna Lührmann, Marcus Tannenberg, and Staffan Lindberg4, published by the Varieties of Democracy project