President of Turkey Erdogan (photo Mikhail Palinchak, Wikimedia Commons, 2019)

Erdogan’s Win Highlights Political Fault Lines

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By Selçuk Aydin

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan easily won Sunday’s run-off election, capturing 52 percent of the vote to rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s 48 percent. The outcome gives Erdogan, who has been president for the past decade, another five-year mandate.

Although polls had initially suggested that he risked losing in the first round because of anti-Erdoganism, the unification of opposition groups, economic problems, and Kurdish votes. The result was ultimately determined by Turkey’s political fault lines and Erdogan’s strong leadership.

The early political concepts of Ottomanism, Turkism, and Islamism can help in understanding these dynamics.

Yusuf Akcura’s 1904 treatise Three Kinds of Policy — a classic of Turkish political literature, comparable to The Communist Manifesto for communism in terms of its impact on the development of Turkism — put forward the concept of Turkism as an alternative to Ottomanism and Islamism for the salvation of Ottoman Empire.

The policy of Ottomanism pursued by Mahmud II and the Young Ottomans during the 19th century proved unsuccessful due to the emergence of nationalist and independent movements among non-Muslim groups alongside the growing demographic dominance of the Muslim population within the empire.

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As a result, Abdul Hamid II adopted an Islamic policy aimed at strengthening the Ottoman Caliphate’s role in the empire. Akcura maintained that this policy would fail, and the only way forward was through Turkism. Turkish nationalist ideas especially took root after the founding of modern Turkey in 1923.

Akcura’s ideas heavily affected the establishment of modern Turkey and he also played an active role in the country as a politician and intellectual.

His core arguments have transcended their era and remain relevant to contemporary developments, even shaping the outcomes of elections.

Coalition in Jeopardy

While Kilicdaroglu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), did not explicitly convey a sense of failure in his election-night speech, there will likely be consequences for his loss.

The support he has received from political groups that would otherwise not align themselves with Kilicdaroglu’s ideology and that was offered simply on the basis of their anti-Erdoganism, may not be sustainable in the long run. This coalition will struggle to maintain cohesion and continuity in its objectives beyond the election.

Under Kilicdaroglu’s leadership, the CHP has transformed from being fiercely secular and nationalistic to more inclusive and liberal — a modern-day equivalent of Ottomanism, advocating the notion of equal citizenship for all groups. This has found widespread acceptance among minority communities, Kurds, and left-wing and liberal political actors.

It will be crucial in the years ahead to explore how Erdogan’s strong leadership will be replaced within the conservative political tradition

Kilicdaroglu sustained the nationalistic roots of the CHP by building a coalition with the right-wing Good Party under the banner of the Nation Alliance. In the 2019 municipal elections, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) tacitly supported this alliance and helped the CHP to win in two major cities, Istanbul and Ankara, beating the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Kilicdaroglu also managed to enlarge the Nation Alliance with conservative parties in the context of “helallesme” (reconciliation), amid discriminatory and aggressive secularist state practices, such as the headscarf ban.

But some of his policies, along with Kilicdaroglu’s close relations with the HDP, have raised concerns among nationalists.

To avoid the same fate as Mahmud II, who was accused of being an “infidel sultan” because of his modernist and Ottomanist practices, Kilicdaroglu pivoted towards a hardline nationalistic discourse in the second round of voting.

This had an interesting result, as both the ultra-nationalist Victory Party and the HDP together supported Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy.

However, his support in Kurdish-populated areas decreased in the second round. The Nation Alliance now faces a significant crisis, amid a conflict between secular nationalists and leftists that could have significant implications for the upcoming 2024 municipal elections.

Different Approach

On Sunday night, Erdogan delivered a victory speech. Yet while observers have often commented in the past on the inclusiveness and conciliatory tone of his speeches, he took a different approach this time, blasting the opposition.

He took particular aim at the HDP’s support for Kilicdaroglu.

His intention is to disrupt the harmony of the Nation Alliance — a discourse that will likely continue in the lead-up to next year’s municipal elections when the AKP will hope to retake Ankara and Istanbul.

When Erdogan came to power as prime minister in 2003, despite his strong leadership in conservatism, he also initiated liberal processes such as EU integration, enhancing minority rights, and peace talks with Kurdish groups.

But after Erdogan in 2015 failed to secure a parliamentary majority, the move towards a heavily centralized presidential system began, along with an alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and liberal discourse faded.

At the same time, tensions between conservatism and nationalism have remained significant on issues such as abolishing the nationalist oath for students, and the presence of pro-Kurdish Huda-Par candidates on AKP lists. The lack of strong leadership has led to fragmentation within the Turkish nationalist movement, which has struggled to gain equal representation in a parliament that favors unified groups. While the MHP, Good Party, Great Unity Party and Victory Party received more than 23 percent of the vote on Sunday, their representation in parliament has fallen to around 15 percent of seats.

Kilicdaroglu’s adoption of nationalist rhetoric in the second round of elections reduced both the participation and support of Kurds.

The fact that the HDP cannot clearly sever its ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is recognized as a terrorist group, puts the Nation Alliance in an even more difficult position. It brings into question the future of the alliance and creates an atmosphere of uncertainty for the upcoming municipal elections.

Meanwhile, Erdogan has maintained his position as the main representative of conservatives in Turkey.

Yet, considering that this will be his last term as president, it will be crucial in the years ahead to explore how his strong leadership will be replaced within the conservative political tradition.

(Selçuk Aydın holds a PhD from King’s College in the School of Security Studies. He has conducted projects and published articles, book chapters and opinions on Turkey’s history, the Turkish diaspora, Kurdish studies, and Middle East politics. He is currently an assistant professor at Bogazici University. This commentary originally appeared on www.middleeasteye.net on May 19.)

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