In centennial year, Turkish voters will choose between Erdoğan’s conservative path and the founder’s modernist vision

Turkey has two historic events on the horizon. On May 14, 2023, voters will go to the polls for presidential and parliamentary elections, and in October, the country will celebrate the centennial of the Republic.

In 1923, military leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk led the foundation of the Republic of Turkey as a secular and Turkish nationalist state, unlike its forerunner, the Ottoman Empire, which had Islamic laws and was ethnically diverse.

Since taking power in 2003, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has challenged Atatürk’s legacy. Erdoğan was prime minister from 2003 to 2014, after which he became president – a position that was largely symbolic in Turkey until a series of constitutional amendments in 2017 made the president the head of government.

During his 20 years leading the country, Erdoğan has tried to revive the Ottoman era in various ways, from the conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque again to a wildly popular historical TV series glorifying Ottomans broadcast on a state-run TV network.

As a professor of political science, I have analyzed Turkish politics for many years. The upcoming elections are truly historic because voters will choose which vision they prefer in the second centennial of Turkey – Erdoğan’s or Atatürk’s.

The presidential race

Four candidates are running in the forthcoming presidential race. But public surveys suggest that it is a two-man race between President Erdoğan and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, founded by Atatürk.

Erdoğan seeks to win the election to present himself as the founder of “a new Turkey,” where populist Islamism prevails. Kılıçdaroğlu, on the other hand, wants to revive Atatürk’s secular vision, with certain democratic revisions.

Erdoğan and populist Islamism

In his first decade in power, Erdoğan received the support of the Atatürkist establishment’s discontents. This included many Kurds, members of an ethnic minority in Turkey, who want cultural recognition and therefore resisted Turkish nationalism.

He also garnered the support of Gülenists, followers of the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, who supported an Islamization of Turkey, as well as liberal intellectuals who wanted to make Turkey a member of the European Union.

By 2013, these groups succeeded in weakening Atatürkists’ grip on politics and the bureaucracy. Then, old rivalries between them resurfaced and the alliance fractured.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech Erdoğan has drawn more nationalist supporters over the last decade. Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

Erdoğan established a new partnership with certain Turkish nationalist groups. He went back to the Turkish state’s old policies of discriminating against Kurds. For instance, Selahattin Demirtaş, the former leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, has been held in prison for more than six years.

Erdoğan also declared Gülenists, his former main allies, to be terrorists, and had over 100,000 of them jailed. This crackdown escalated after a failed coup attempt in 2016, for which he held Gülenists exclusively responsible.

Erdoğan’s oppressive rule also led to the imprisonment of many liberal intellectuals, which pleased his new nationalist partners.

This recent alliance with nationalists, however, does not suggest that Erdoğan has converted to Atatürkism. On the contrary, he has wooed nationalists to his populist Islamist regime.

For the upcoming elections, Erdoğan’s alliance includes his Justice and Development Party, the Nationalist Action Party, and two smaller nationalist and Islamist parties. All four of these parties agreed to withdraw Turkey from an international treaty on preventing violence against women, commonly called the Istanbul Convention. They argued that it threatened “family values.”

They also all support statism by way of Erdoğan’s one-man rule over the economy. And they share anti-Western attitudes, from promoting anti-Western conspiracy theories to proposing Turkey’s exit from NATO.

The Atatürkist alternative

As the leader of the CHP, Kılıçdaroğlu represents the Atatürkist alternative to Erdoğan’s populist Islamism.

Yet Kılıçdaroğlu has been an exception among the Atatürkist elite. He was born in the provincial town of Tunceli, which is mostly populated by Alevis, members of a Muslim minority that has historically been discriminated against by Turkey’s Sunni Muslim majority.

Unlike Erdoğan, Kılıçdaroğlu has defended women’s rights. For example, he has promised to return Turkey to the Istanbul Convention if he is elected. Turkey’s only female political party leader, Meral Akşener of the nationalist Good Party, is Kılıçdaroğlu’s main ally.

To oversee the economy, Kılıçdaroğlu is reportedly eyeing two candidates – a former economy minister and a University of Pennsylvania finance professor. Both support liberal market policies, which signals a turn away from the centralized state programs of Erdoğan’s tenure.

The most unknown aspect of a possible Kılıçdaroğlu presidency is foreign policy and whether he would strengthen ties with the West, given the widespread popularity of anti-Westernism in Turkish society.

Turkish presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu makes a heart shape with his hands during a rally It’s not yet clear whether Kılıçdaroğlu would continue Erdoğan’s anti-Western policies or strengthen ties with the West. Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

Candidates’ advantages and hurdles

Both candidates have strengths and weaknesses heading into the presidential race.

Erdoğan will rely on aspects of the authoritarian administration he has built over the last two decades. His system includes a widespread patronage network, near-absolute control over the media, a religious affairs agency that runs 80,000 mosques and serves his political agenda, and imposed loyalty in various state institutions.

But Erdoğan faces hurdles related to his authoritarian style, too, particularly the many discontented citizens his 20-year rule has produced. Over 1.5 million Turkish people have faced terror charges in the past seven years.

The ongoing economic crisis – with an inflation rate over 80% – is another hindrance to his reelection. And his vote could take a hit from the fallout of the recent earthquake that killed over 45,000 people in Turkey. The tragedy highlighted Erdoğan’s disastrous deregulation of the construction industry and his ineffective emergency response.

Meanwhile, Kılıçdaroğlu is likely to benefit from a large percentage of the Turkish nationalist vote, along with the support of Akşener, and a bulk of Kurdish votes. While the pro-Kurdish HDP’s support for him is only implicit – the party chose not to field its own candidate, which would divide opposition votes – the former HDP leader Demirtaş explicitly supports his candidacy, from prison.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s main weakness is that he has lost many elections to Erdoğan since he became the CHP’s leader in 2010. The majority of Turkish voters are conservative Muslims who tend to oppose the CHP’s assertive secularist policies.

To lessen opposition from conservatives, Kılıçdaroğlu has revised the authoritarian secularism of Atatürkists. He declared that the CHP will not reimpose a headscarf ban in universities and public institutions, and also asked forgiveness from female students for that previous policy.

Kılıçdaroğlu has also established a broad-based alliance. Under his leadership, the CHP has established a coalition with five right-wing parties, three of which are run by conservatives and Islamists.

Additionally, Kılıçdaroğlu has promised to appoint two popular CHP politicians who can appeal to conservative voters – Istanbul’s mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, and Ankara’s mayor, Mansur Yavaş – as vice presidents if he is elected.

A global impact?

The outcome of the upcoming presidential election will determine whether Turkey will continue to be ruled by a populist Islamist regime, or return to a path of secular modernization and democratization.

This has international implications.

An Erdoğan win will signal that the global rise of right-wing populists is still robust enough to dominate a leading Muslim-majority country.

A victory for Kılıçdaroğlu, meanwhile, may be celebrated by democrats worldwide as a defeat of a populist Islamist leader, despite his control over the media and state institutions.


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