Center for American Progress

Erdoğan’s Reelection Illustrates the Bleak Future of Turkish Democracy

Erdoğan’s Reelection Illustrates the Bleak Future of Turkish Democracy

Turkey saw unprecedented political mobilization, partly because going to the ballot box offered one of the last opportunities to make one’s voice heard. But little changed.

Men drink chai in the street the day after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was reelected.
Men drink chai in the street the day after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was reelected, May 2023.

Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections did not bring the change that many advocates of democracy and accountability have championed. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared himself winner on the evening of Sunday, May 28, in a close and unprecedented run-off vote after securing a comfortable majority in the new parliament for his conservative block during first round elections two weeks ago.

The opposition could not seize what may have been its best chance to save democracy, despite decidedly optimistic assessments by the major polling institutes. The predicted voter turnout in the first round on May 14 was significantly higher than anticipated, exceeding 88 percent. Turkey saw unprecedented political mobilization, partly because going to the ballot box offered one of the last opportunities to make one’s voice heard. But little changed.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The May 14 vote resulted in a dramatic defeat at the parliamentary level for the democratic anti-Erdoğan alliance (also contrary to the pollsters’ figures). Three candidates fought for the presidency: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (AKP) achieved 49.5 percent; opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (CHP) won 45 percent; and ultranationalist Sinan Oğan gained just more than 5 percent. Hopes for a newly democratic Turkey were almost certainly read the last rites after the first round. With Oğan’s support moving to the AKP in the May 28 second-round election, the final vote count represented the end of the dreams of most democracy advocates.

Despite the electoral process, the elections were neither free nor fair. The power of the state apparatus, the judiciary, and the media—concentrated in the hands of the AKP—proved insurmountable, even though claims of a rigged voting process were not particularly strong. Turkey’s regime suppresses civil society organization; aggressively curbs the work of international NGOs and universities; and it is responsible for extremely high levels of jailed journalists.

The opposition parties had established the broadest political coalition imaginable—perhaps too broad. One of the encouraging results of this unique alliance was that it forced voters to act pragmatically: The national-conservative IYI party—whose leader, Meral Akşener, was visibly uncomfortable campaigning with her coalition partners—had to enter an alliance with Kurds and leftists. And the social-democratic Kemalist CHP not only nominated a presidential candidate from the Alevi minority—Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu—but CHP supporters also had to digest his highly symbolic speech in which he openly admitted his origins, thus challenging the notion of a homogeneous Turkish nationality. Such a distancing from the rigidly secular traditions of his party was historical; the video of his speech was viewed well over 100 million times. One positive consequence was the courageous election campaign that Kurds waged on behalf of the CHP in the metropolis of Diyarbakir and other Kurdish regions, where the CHP had formerly been perceived as the arch enemy.

In the weeks leading up to the election and in the face of promising opinion polls, such pragmatic behavior appeared to indicate an election outcome that would likely improve relations between Turkish society and Europe as well as the broader global arena.

However, the results turned out differently. Despite a disastrous economic situation; skyrocketing inflation; a devastating earthquake with more than 55,000 fatalities; and a negligent government response, the elections were not winnable for the coalition of secular and democratic parties.

The ethnoreligious mélange of the AKP campaign still proved irresistible to many voters and is related to the dramatic social and cultural change within the lifetime of a generation, including substantial migration from rural to urban areas. In the 1950s, only about 18 percent of Turks lived in cities; today, the urbanization rate is about 85 percent. The experience of rapid urbanization and the migration of rural population groups to metropolitan centers appears to have left its mark on people: Cultural and personal disorientation generate longings for reliable reference points. Erdoğan represents the memory of lost traditions during an era of senseless construction and industrialization.

During the election campaign, the AKP reduced Turkish cities’ dramatic and often overwhelming transformation to a simple equation: diversity, migrants, gay individuals, and Kurds were to blame. In that narrative, it is not the modern economy and AKP corruption that are spreading but, rather, incompatible minorities of various stripes. The opposition focused on “inclusion” instead as a counter-model—tolerant, future-oriented, and enlightened—but that message failed to win a majority under conditions of such sophisticated repression.

Interestingly, the AKP’s long-standing practice of limiting freedom of expression, curbing academic independence, suppressing civil society organizations, and continued clientelism did not put off many of its core urban, middle-class supporters. In addition, first-time voters made surprising decisions: 5 million Turks voted for the first time on May 14, out of a total of 65 million voters. This is a generation that was born into the economic boom of the first decade of the century and is now experiencing systemic crises. Nevertheless, there was no sufficiently intense mood for change in this group. However, the legitimate discussion of Turkish authoritarianism must consider that the country is not comparable to Syria, Azerbaijan, or Belarus. Turkish society is multilayered, complex, and, with 84 million inhabitants, one of the 20-largest nations in the world.

Why significant sections of the urban middle classes rejected political change at the ballot box despite the deterioration of the rule of law—paired with rampant corruption and clientelism—requires deep analysis. This is all the more true since the younger generation will pay an exceptionally high price for the AKP’s continued governance, particularly its fiscal mismanagement. In addition, Turkey will lose its demographic bonus within the next 15 years when society begins to age rapidly. The parallelism of authoritarian dominance, militaristic foreign policy, politically motivated social programs, free health insurance, and aging could all combine to drive an exodus of young, qualified Turks, which is likely to severely harm Turkey’s long-term economy.

Elections play an essential role in President Erdoğan’s dominant positioning because his victories legitimize his claim to power and targeted repressive action against the opposition. Votes underscore public support and are essential in a highly differentiated, undemocratic system that goes to great lengths to claim democratic credentials that, in reality, do not exist. And they immunize the president against international criticism. In a CNN interview after the election, Erdoğan replied to a comment in which President Biden had called him an autocrat: “Would a dictator ever participate in a runoff election?”

In times of high inflation and economic problems, Erdoğan could not credibly claim he was protecting the material interests of his political clientele. Instead, it became apparent during the election campaign that Erdoğan pivoted to addressing the immaterial needs of his voters. Culture war and nationalism were and still are his most successful tools in appealing to a profoundly nationalistic and conservative country. Contrary to popular belief, nativism is more prominent in the AKP than religious conservatism. Most AKP voters do not have Islamist political convictions. A significant minority of “compassionate Islamists” exists within the AKP coalition, whom the president and party leader loudly supplies with religious edification rhetoric. In addition, he has once again pushed the “restless conservatives”—a term coined by pollster Can Selcuki—into his camp. These are petty-bourgeois and often religious conservatives who were catapulted from the periphery of Turkish society into its economic and political center during the modernization phase of the past two decades. Five million new jobs were created in Turkey in the three years following the 2008 financial crisis alone.

However, mobilizing anti-Western and anti-refugee resentment proved even more critical and effective. Opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu also uses a similar rhetoric. Along with Europe, Turkey has also moved to the political right because of the accelerated influx of refugees, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan after 2015. Erdoğan campaigned on a “Turkey First” platform, not unlike Trump’s 2020 campaign in the United States, suggesting a supposed defense of culture and country. In addition, Erdoğan’s international recognition, especially in undemocratic states, and his political influence outside Turkey nourish his domestic political ambitions.

For Erdoğan, the attempted coup against him in July of 2016 (the background of which is still unclear) has become a central reference point of a new national myth: a self-referential approach to the world that sees Turkey as the natural leader of the Muslim cosmos, bundled in the slogan, “Not West, not East, we are Turkey.” Erdogan’s election campaign leaned into patriotic displays. A militaristic technology show with fighter jets and a half-finished aircraft carrier was brought forward; the country’s first (still unfinished) nuclear power plant was inaugurated together with Vladimir Putin; and, at the same time, calls were made from minarets to attend Erdoğan rallies.

The outlook for Turkish democracy is bleak. The fact that the AKP was still able to score points with the issue of “religious oppression” and that this also caught on with urban millennials shows the enormous reach of populist indoctrination. Another often neglected phenomena is women’s high voter turnout and relatively low integration into the labor market. Only one-third of Turkish women are employed, while the global average is more than 50 percent. The rest spend the day at home, where they are more likely exposed to the AKP’s constant media barrage. Election researchers have calculated that the various state TV channels broadcast Erdoğan a combined total of about 32 hours in April in the lead-up to the election, while his opponent Kılıçdaroğlu had only 32 minutes.

The election victory for the incumbent president on May 28 shows that he was able to win the missing votes from the extreme nationalist fringe of Oğan’s supporters. Under his government, Turkey has moved further to the right, so the AKP is now forced to adapt to this development. Oğan’s quick endorsement of Erdoğan would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. This principle also applies on the religious side: Hüda-Par, the legal wing of Hezbollah in Turkey, is an official ally of the AKP and is represented in the new parliament.

Erdoğan—the entire election campaign was focused on him alone—has achieved a sociological and political coup in recent years. He managed to place himself in the imperial Muslim tradition of the Ottoman Empire and, at the same time, appropriates the secular nationalism of the state’s founder Kemal Atatürk. Both traditions converge in the widespread resentment against the European Union, the United States, and “the West.” For the upcoming debates on relations with Turkey that will begin in Europe and the United States, it is essential to acknowledge that Erdoğan does not want to be a member of the “Democratic Club” because it does not benefit him. The same is true for a critical review of U.S.-Turkey policies after President Obama’s groundbreaking Turkey visit and his offer of a “strategic partnership” in 2009 that emphasized regional security and shied away from pushing harder for freedom of speech and human rights.

Democracy is dying a slow death in Turkey, and difficult years lie ahead, but the opposition has also shown that many Turks support a modern country. These people deserve the solidarity of the United States, Europe, and other allies of democratic accountability.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Michael Werz

Senior Fellow

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.