On May 14, 64 million citizens of Turkey went to polling stations in the wake of a punishing economic crisis, widening democratic deficit and a government revealed as totally helpless in relief efforts after February 6 earthquakes killed more than 50,000 people. The opposition bloc had never been stronger against an autocratic regime that is giving serious signs of mental fatigue.
Turkey is a poor country where per capita income is barely $9,000. Budget and current account deficits have been ballooning, annual inflation is running at 43 percent (official) to 105 percent (unofficial), and unemployment is soaring.
In response, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's campaign, after a rule of 21 years, highlighted "our country's survivability against major Western powers, the Crusaders, enemies within, traitors, terrorists, atheists and homosexuals." Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said that if the opposition won, they would legalize humans marrying animals.
On May 14, Erdoğan won 49.5 percent of the presidential vote against 44.9 percent cast for his rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Erdoğan's ruling bloc also won 324 seats in Turkey's 600-seat parliament. There will be a second round for the presidential vote on May 28, but an opposition victory seems unlikely.
Some of the takeaways from Turkey's election day:
- It is true that Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost two million votes since 2018 while Kılıçdaroğlu's Republican People's Party's (CHP) votes increased by 2.5 million. Good, but not good enough.
- The Turkish Hizbullah stands to gain: "If Erdoğan does win on May 14, there will be, for the first time, Islamist terrorists in the Turkish parliament. Hizbullah terrorists -- responsible for the torture and deaths of hundreds of people in ISIS-style executions -- in the parliament of a NATO member state!" On May 4 four such men won parliamentary seats.
- Disaster zone. In the aftermath of the powerful earthquake, fury in Turkey was triggered by news that when the earthquake struck, the Turkish Red Crescent had, through a little-known business arm, sold thousands of tents to a Turkish charity, and scored a profit of $2.5 million, instead of dispatching the tents immediately to the victims free of charge. Against this backdrop, and to the shock of many, Erdoğan comfortably won in the earthquake zone. He won 71 percent of the vote in Kahramanmaraş province, the epicenter of the earthquake. He won 69 percent in Malatya, 66 percent in Adıyaman, 60 percent in Gaziantep, 62 percent in Şanlıurfa, 65 percent in Kilis, and 62 percent in Osmaniye.
- Twitter. Under pressure from the Erdoğan government, which apparently feared opposition propaganda on social media, Twitter announced on May 12, two days before the elections, "In response to legal process and to ensure that Twitter remains available to the people of Turkey, we have taken action to restrict access to some content in Turkey today." Twitter's owner, Elon Musk, said that Turkey had threatened to block the whole site. "The choice is have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets. Which one do you want?" Musk tweeted.
- Russia. Turkey's opposition candidate, Kılıçdaroğlu, accused Russia of election interference days before the country's most consequential vote in a generation. He accused Russia of concocting deepfake videos and false material with the aim of tilting the vote balance in favor of Erdoğan.
- The lighter side. A total of 236,000 Turks voted for a presidential candidate, Muharrem Ince, who had long ago withdrawn from the race. One wonders what world they live in.
To understand Turkish politics, one must first understand Turkish sociology.
Turkey is a country where average schooling is 6.5 years. In other words, the average person is a 7th grade drop-out. Ninety-five percent of Turkish citizens have never travelled abroad.
Many Turks are captivated by identity politics: Ideology over everything else. Erdoğan's Islamism and nationalism still matter to tens of millions of starving Turks. This is their make-believe world: that Erdoğan will one day rebuild the glorious days of our Ottoman ancestors.
Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, must have celebrated Turkey's election day with champagne and caviar. If Erdoğan wins the runoff, as he likely will, Turkey will move further into Russia's orbit. Turkey's political distance from the West — the U.S., NATO and EU — will grow further.
According to Himanshu Porwal, emerging markets credit analyst for Seaport Global in London:
"Erdoğan win[s] – markets sell off, as BOP (balance of payments) does not add up, Erdoğan will not hike rates in defense of the lira, so it's either a) call a friend (Putin, MBS, MBZ –friendly Gulf sultans) to get more [foreign exchange] reserves to defend the lira; b) capital controls; c) let the lira sink. I think he does the latter and I think we see real macro-financial risks building here. Risk of bank runs, et al, before Erdoğan relents and hikes rates. Lira sinks to 35+, Turkey credit back near record highs."
According to Daron Acemoglu, a Turkish-American economist who has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1993:
"This [likely Erdoğan victory] is not only bad news for Turkey but also for other democracies around the world ... I don't know how Turkey will cope with a total economic collapse."
A Turkish collapse is likely -- but the Turks will probably blame it on the Crusaders while worshipping the man who caused it.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.