Elections, Earthquakes, and The Quest for a New Direction

Soli Özel presents a picture of Turkey's current political topography just before the elections on May 14.

Soli Özel
May 12, 2023

This year on October 29, 2023, the Turkish Republic will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Whether this will be celebrated under the current government or under a new one formed by today’s six-party opposition coalition and its allies will give the occasion its true flavor.

Cleavages and Competing Blocs

To better understand the background of today’s elections, we must first consider the cleavages that defined Turkey’s politics throughout the history of the Turkish Republic. One of these and the most significant one for the past 20+ years has been the perennial religious/conservative versus secular/modern cleavage. The government made a great effort to deepen this cleavage by intentionally sharpening the polarization caused by it which proved to be electorally beneficial for them. The current electoral contest embodies this religious versus secular cleavage too.

However, the elections will take place as another cleavage, authoritarian versus democratic, emerges as the new dominant one. Former members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the representatives of the Islamist movement it emanated from are now on the democratic side of this cleavage, despite their previous democratically less than bright record. Additionally, the Kurdish representatives of a second perennial cleavage in Turkey, which is the Turkish/Kurdish ethnic one, also support the opposition bloc. This line-up strongly suggests the emergence of a wide democratic coalition and resists a further slide towards authoritarianism of the current regime.

Turkey’s Strategic Identity

Observers and analysts of the Turkish Republic invoked a “Turkish model” many times throughout the country’s history, referring to the exemplary modern Turkish state with a Muslim population. The first incarnation of this model was of course the founders’ project: a modernist authoritarian figure in a predominantly Muslim, pious, conservative country.

Besides, the Republic was also built on a paradox: the foundational myth is weaved around a struggle against and victory over the imperialist West. But at the same time, it continued the Ottoman quest to catch up with the West in a more radical fashion. In fact, the country set the goal of being a bona fide member of the Western club or present itself as a bridge. The bridge metaphor, the darling of so many analysts as well, also suggests “non-belonging” to either side which then creates what Sam Huntington called a “torn country” symptom.

Based on this, I propose to look at Turkey’s Western identity as a two-dimensional reality: On one side is Turkey’s socio-political and economic identity as a Western country for which membership in the EU would have been a culmination or crowning achievement. The failure of that project may well be primarily Turkey’s responsibility, but a great deal of that failure should be apportioned to a strategically blind, civilizationally arrogant collective European political leadership.

The other dimension of Turkey’s Western identity is the strategic one. Despite the AKP’s radical opposition to the Republican project and its anti-Western “Islamic civilization” discourse, Turkey’s Western identity could still not be dropped. Turkey remained strategically Western, even while vetoing Swedish membership in NATO or purchasing the still not deployed and made operational S-400s.

Defeat or Victory?

That said, was AKP’s victory back in 2002 a defeat of the Republican project or a moment of victory as it sought to become more democratic? This will be debated for some time to come even if the democratic credentials or pretensions of the Islamists have all proved false or conjectural once in power. The AKP ascended to power at a moment when the Turkish political system functioned with the military exercising disproportionate political power over the civilian/democratic politics. Their success over the military tutelage was due in part to profound sociological and economic changes inside the country and a democracy-promoting anti-military coup atmosphere around the world. The AKP took advantage of these two developments and proposed a new beginning. In the post-9/11 environment a democratically elected Islamist party running a NATO ally and seeking EU membership promoted the second incarnation of the “Turkish model,” this time in a democratic guise and with Islamists rather than secular elites as modernizers.

Now the promise of a democratizing Islamist party has long been discarded. The electoral alignment that the AKP forged has been damaged. The excessive patronage and corrupting populist policies seriously undermined its legitimacy. The intensifying authoritarianism and Sultanist governance structure alienated large segments of the modern middle classes and the youth. And the loss of the Midas touch, meaning the lack of growth and declining prosperity in the country, eroded the party’s appeal. Add to these the fact that the democratic coalition bloc finally came together.

After the Earthquakes

Nevertheless, the party and particularly its leader President Erdoğan enjoy considerable support. Until recently, the absence of a unified or appealing opposition worked to the advantage of the ruling coalition. But these conditions have now changed dramatically, not only because of the abovementioned authoritarian versus democratic cleavage, but also due to the earthquakes of February 6 which exposed the exhaustion if not the bankruptcy of the regime.

The political consequences of the earthquake mishandling are still unclear, but the disasters did reveal two truths about Turkey. The first is the lack of a capable state, while the second, a more encouraging reality, was the impressive mobilization of Turkish civil society to assist the victims by generously providing necessary materials.

There is a good chance for Turkey to end the Erdogan era on the Republic's centennial, even if the electoral campaign is not entirely fair or free. If this happens, the Turkish voters will have succeeded in removing an authoritarian government through the ballot box, setting an example for other societies worldwide that struggle against electoral or outright authoritarianisms.


About the Author

Soli Özel holds a BA in Economics from Benningon College (1981) and an MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS-1983).

A senior lecturer at Istanbul Kadir Has University, and the fellow-in-residence at Columbia Global Centers | Istanbul, Özel was a “Europe’s Futures” fellow at Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna in 2021-2022. In the year of the pandemic, he taught a course at the American University in Central Asia (AUCA) and at the Menton campus of Sciences-Po. The same year he also hosted two series of webinars for Institut Montaigne on the American elections and the changing geopolitics of the Middle East. He was a Bernstein Fellow at the Schell Center for Human Rights at Yale Law School and a visiting lecturer in the Political Science Department of Yale. He has been a columnist at Nokta magazine and GazetePazar, Yeni Binyıl, Habertürk and Sabah newspapers. Currently he writes for Deutsche Welle-Turkish, Politikyol and does a weekly commentary on world affairs for Gazete Duvar TV. He is also a contributor to the blog of Institut Montaigne. He held fellowships at Oxford, the EU Institute of Strategic Studies and was a Fisher Family Fellow of the “Future of Diplomacy Program” at the Belfer Center of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He taught at UC Santa Cruz, SAIS, University of Washington, Northwestern University, Hebrew University, Boğaziçi University, SciencesPo-PSIA, and Yale. He was a Richard von Weizsacker fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin between 2015-2017 and a visiting fellow at Institut Montaigne in Paris in 2018.

He is a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.