Erdoğan Is Undefeatable. But Why?

May 22, 2023

Erdoğan has delivered more services in the last 21 years than the Turkish Kemalist establishment has on the previous 80 years.
Turkish President and Leader of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends an election rally, organized by AK Party, in Istanbul on May 12, 2023. Photo by Anadolu Images

In countries where democratic elections are held, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been the only leader to be elected president by exceeding 50 percent in the first round in two elections (in 2014-2018) in his quarter-century political life. Despite the global COVID pandemic, a war next to its borders, an earthquake disaster devastating 11 provinces and affecting a region the size of the Netherlands, and an economic crisis, Erdoğan, this time, narrowly missed being elected in the first round, but finished the race ahead.

Despite the hateful articles and comments published under the headline “Dictator” in all Western media from the Old to the New Continent, Erdoğan finished the first round ahead. He managed this despite Joe Biden’s call as the Democratic Party presidential candidate in 2020 to cooperate with the Turkish opposition in order for Erdoğan to lose the 2023 elections; despite the U.S. actions towards this during Erdoğan’s presidency; and despite the joint EU-U.S. maneuvers to put Greece in opposition to Turkey.

Erdoğan has delivered more services in the last 21 years than the Turkish Kemalist establishment has on the previous 80 years: He democratized the military-civilian relationship in the country. Muslim conservatives have been liberated. He removed barriers to education and employment for headscarved women. There is now a Kurdish-language channel on state television. Kurdish became an elective subject in schools and Kurdish language chairs were opened at universities.

He opened Hagia Sophia for worship, changed the face of Turkey politically, militarily and economically, completely renewed transportation and health services from west to east, and took the country over several thresholds in the field of technology and space. The Erdoğan administration built the first domestic automobile, established the first nuclear power plant in the country, discovered natural gas and oil in the Black Sea region, and built the first UCAV (unmanned combat aerial vehicle) ship.

The reconnaissance and combat drones produced by Turkey “changed the world war strategy” according to Francis Fukuyama and transformed Turkey into a regional actor. Thanks to Erdoğan Turkey has risen to prominence with its humanitarian aid across Africa, and has become a military power in North Africa. Erdoğan played a key role in the liberation of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenian occupation. In fact, for the first time in history, members of the Organization of Turkic States declared their support for a leader—Erdoğan—before the elections.

Erdoğan aptly mediated many crises in the Balkans, brought together two warring countries, Russia and Ukraine, and saved the world from a food catastrophe by opening a grain corridor through a grain deal, which has just been extended yet again. Only 67 days after the earthquake, he handed over the keys to 1,442 houses, 250 village houses, and 47 workplaces. He started the construction process of more than 105,000 houses affected by the earthquakes.

Undoubtedly, over the past 21 years, Erdoğan is far ahead in terms of performance compared to his European and U.S. counterparts. The Western press also acknowledges this, albeit in reverse. In the smear campaign against Erdoğan, he used to be compared to Iraq’s Saddam and now he is compared to Russia’s Putin! After the first round of the presidential elections, this too has changed: Newsweek, which had previously described Erdoğan and Putin as two dictators who admire each other, risked contradicting itself by stating, “Stop Calling Erdoğan a Dictator. Dictators Don’t Go to Runoffs”

But what is surprising is not Erdoğan’s victory, as the Western press or the opposition in Turkey claims. After all these years, it was still Erdoğan in fact that was defining the elections as the electorate was being asked to either side with him or against him. Kılıçdaroğlu even took his election slogan from Erdoğan’s nickname for him and gladly accepted it: “(Bay Kemal) Mr. Kemal”! What is, in fact, surprising is that, yes, Erdoğan finished 5% and nearly 2.5 million votes ahead of Kılıçdaroğlu, but that Kılıçdaroğlu could still collect 44.88% of the votes!

This is a significant success for Kılıçdaroğlu, even though he has the full support of the Western world and that he has gathered five, large and small, political parties of various ideological orientations ranging from secular nationalist to religious conservative, plus, the HDP, the political arm of the PKK. The astonishing part of this success does not stem from the fact that he is an Alevi or, as the Armenian intellectual Sevan Nişanyan put it, “probably the most incompetent, defeatist and unrepresentative person in the history of politics, who ran and lost 10 [now 11] elections.”

What is surprising is that he achieved this vote share as the CHP leader in Turkey. As a matter of fact, the CHP, whose presidential candidate was considered the election favorite, received 25.35% in the parliamentary election, 10 points behind the AK Party, which still received 35% of the votes after all these years.

In Turkey, May 14, the 2023 election day, was also the anniversary of the transition from a one-party to a multiparty political life and the victory of the Democratic Party (DP), on May 14, 1950. DP leader Adnan Menderes was declared a “dictator” by the CHP just a week after the elections, just like President Erdoğan. May 14, 1950 marked the end of one-party political life in Turkey—in other words, the end of the CHP rule. The CHP has never even once been in power on its own, and on May 14, 2023, it received 25% of the votes.

On May 14, 1950, right after the DP’s greatest electoral victory, the “young military officers” had already decided to overthrow Menderes. The CHP was not only the political mastermind of the process leading up to the May 27 coup d’état, but also organized the conditions for the coup and supported it. Immediately after May 14, 1950, a trivet was set up comprising a formula that matured over time: the country was to be ruled by a tutelage system established by the military, the judiciary, and the CHP. Prime Minister Menderes and three of his ministers were executed, and the country’s future was brought under full control with the 1961 constitution.

This situation was checked and adjusted by other military coups and constitutions when necessary. As the prime minister of the minority government formed in 1963, National Chief İsmet İnönü, CHP chairman, passed a law declaring the May 27 coup a national holiday called “Freedom and Constitution Day” (Hürriyet ve Anayasa Bayramı). Muslim conservatives, Kurds, Alevis, non-Muslims, people of all identities inherited from the Ottoman Empire were oppressed by this sovereignty for 80 years. This is the whole history.

Erdoğan, too, has had to grapple with this system from the moment he entered politics: he was banned from politics, imprisoned, his party was shut down, the party he founded was sued for closure, he was the target of military coups, and attempted military coups. Finally, in the military coup attempt on July 15, 2016, there were direct attempts to eliminate him—not by execution this time like Menderes. The coup plotters tried to kill him in the hotel where he was staying and on a plane in the air. With the bitter memory of the May 27 coup and the hanging of Adnan Menderes in mind, thousands of people said “Never Again” and took to the streets, foiling the coup attempt.

As has been the case since May 14, 1950, CHP voters did not understand why their party finished the elections with 25% of the votes and why Kılıçdaroğlu, the presidential candidate, lagged behind Erdoğan. On his social media account, the left-oriented Turkish intellectual and mathematician Ali Nesin asked: “What must we have done to this people in 80 years that we can’t easily win in the first round despite 20 years of government wear and tear and economic crisis and an earthquake? Let those who have any sense think from this perspective!” As always, Nesin’s interlocutors do not seem to be willing to seek the answer to his question. Maybe they thought that with a few changes in Kılıçdaroğlu’s rhetoric and tactics over the past few years, everything would be forgotten.

As happens every time, CHP voters, led by their politicians, created outrage on social media claiming that the elections were rigged. This despite a difference of over two million votes! Clearly numbers don’t matter to them: in 2018, the difference of votes between CHP’s Muharrem İnce and Erdoğan exceeded 10 million, yet the CHP and their advocate media for a week tried to set the agenda with the same allegations. Again, as has been the case after every election since 1950, those who partially believed in the election result were insulted on social media.

They accused Erdoğan’s 26.5 million voters of “ignorance, stupidity, idiocy, and idleness.” In response to President Erdoğan’s vote support in the earthquake-hit provinces exceeding 60%, angry pro-CHP voters tweeted, “We wish you had died, we wish our hands had been broken so we wouldn’t have helped you.” A CHP mayor even kicked earthquake victims out of the hotel where they were being offered temporary shelter.

Of course, the election results are not just about Erdoğan’s success, there are other considerations that need to be assessed. There was an 88 percent turnout in the elections, with around 56 million people voting. As Erdoğan’s war against the PKK has yielded results, for the first time, the organization publicly supported a leader outside its party and even threatened the public with civil war if Kılıçdaroğlu was not elected. In line with these instructions, the HDP did not nominate a presidential candidate and supported Kılıçdaroğlu.

For the first time in history, the CHP candidate received 70% of the vote in Diyarbakır. However, the HDP, which entered the elections under the umbrella of the Labor and Freedom Alliance, lost significant votes in the metropolitan areas in the west. It received 8.8% of the vote, down 3% compared to the 2018 elections. In parliament, 16 different parties from the far left to the far right won seats, the People’s Alliance maintained its parliamentary supremacy over the Nation Alliance, while the conservative religious Kurdish party Hüda-par, which entered parliament for the first time, won four parliamentary seats.

Turkey will hold the runoff presidential election on May 28, one day before the anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul on May 29 and one day after the anniversary of the May 27 military coup. Anti-immigrant, nationalist Sinan Oğan, who received 5% of the votes in the first round, is no kingmaker and not expected to determine the final outcome, although it is debated which candidate he will support. The result? President Erdoğan, who previously invented the nickname for his rival “Bay Kemal,” has now reinvented his nickname and for the last three months, in his rallies he repeats, “Bay Bay Kemal (Bye-bye Kemal)!”

Kılıçkaya worked as a journalist for Cumhuriyet and Milliyet newspapers. In 1992 she moved to Paris and completed her studies in International Relations. After returning to Turkey in 2009, Kılıçkaya started working for Habertürk. In 2016, she formed a three-part documentary on DAESH.