HomeWorldAsiaErdogan Won the Election by Exploiting Fear

Erdogan Won the Election by Exploiting Fear

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The opposition in Turkey fought valiantly but was ultimately outgunned. It was not only fighting against an autocrat who tilted the battlefield heavily in his favour, but also against the strongmen of other countries, who aided President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by transferring billions of dollars to replenish state coffers depleted by preelection handouts. Pro-democracy forces attempted everything that scholars who study autocracy recommend for defeating strongmen at the ballot box, including forging a unified front, offering concrete solutions to the country’s most urgent problems, and conducting a positive campaign.

Also in Turkey, conditions were primed for change. Under Erdogan, corruption had attained astronomical proportions. His mismanagement of the economy and steadfast pursuance of “unorthodox” monetary policy resulted in triple-digit inflation and negative foreign reserves at the central bank. Beginning in February, devastating earthquakes struck the nation, and the government’s slow response increased the death toll to over 50,000. Popular clamour for change had never been stronger.
But there is a more compelling explanation for why people did not vote to remove an autocrat with subpar performance. Populist authoritarian strongmen, such as Erdogan, persevere in the face of unfavourable odds by exploiting their societies’ ontological anxieties — even if, paradoxically, the strongman’s own policies initially caused the insecurity.

This contradicts the scholarly consensus that autocrats must continue delivering in order to maintain power. Even when they perform inadequately, autocrats can garner majorities by provoking and exploiting the existential fears of the populace. They portray their opponents as incompetent, disorganised, out of touch, and downright dangerous, and they appeal to the innate human desire for stability, security, and order. When individuals fear for their physical and economic safety, the “authoritarian reflex” is triggered. The pursuit of stability takes precedence over policy preferences and calls for greater freedoms. People coalesce around the strongman, who portrays himself as the saviour and guarantees security at any cost. In times of uncertainty, individuals cling to the familiar.

And Turkey is surely not devoid of existential concerns. The conflict in neighbouring Syria has exacerbated the long-standing division between Turks and Kurds. There, Kurdish gains increased Turkish dread of a Kurdish state carved out of Turkish territory. Erdogan added fuel to the flames, exacerbating these fears, and rode the subsequent nationalist surge to consolidate his power. On the campaign route, he utilised fabricated videos to link his opponent to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). He referred to them as terrorists and made false claims that, if elected, Kilicdaroglu would liberate imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Although the PKK has not recently launched large-scale attacks within Turkey’s frontiers and has been weakened by Turkey’s military campaign in neighbouring Iraq, Erdogan’s fearmongering has increased the anxiety of a society that believes it is already under attack by millions of refugees.

Anti-refugee sentiment is prevalent in contemporary Turkey. Refugees are viewed by an increasing number of nationalists as an economic burden, a security hazard, and a threat to the country’s ethnic composition. Working-class Turks complain that Syrian refugees receive government aid while they are treated as second-class citizens. Kurds resent the Turkish government’s warm reception of Syrian refugees because they lack fundamental liberties, such as access to Kurdish-language public education. Others are concerned that Syrians will increase rental costs, reduce wages, and commute for free on the Turkish tax payer’s dime. Erdogan’s open-borders policy was responsible for the initial influx of refugees. However, many Turkish electors believe that only Erdogan can solve the problem.

In the region hardest affected by the February earthquakes, rising fears led voters to support the candidate whose slow response, years of corruption, and policy of granting construction permits and amnesties to unsafe buildings contributed to their misery in the first place. Rather than take a chance on an unknown entity, many who had lost their homes, loved ones, and communities endorsed an assertive leader who began rebuilding immediately and promised to complete it within a year. A longtime supporter of the opposition Republican People’s Party from Hatay, one of the towns hardest affected by the earthquake, told me he would vote for Erdogan even though he “hate[s] him.” “Because he is a dictator, he can move things along quickly,” he added. He requested that his identity not be used because he fears government reprisal.

Turkey’s economic issues are an additional source of concern. The nation is confronted with a faltering economy, a disintegrating currency, and an extremely high inflation rate. Millions of individuals reside below the poverty threshold. A recent survey revealed that nearly 70% of respondents had difficulty paying for sustenance. Even though Erdogan is responsible for these economic difficulties, enough people still trusted him to solve them rather than taking a chance on a leader whose party has not governed the country in decades. Erdogan’s campaign emphasised a message that if Kilicdaroglu came to power, millions of people who rely on government assistance could lose their benefits. As a result, millions of people who rely on government assistance feared losing their benefits.

Erdogan profited from all of these fears. His tenacity stems from his ability to persuade popular majorities in Turkey that only he can solve the problems he has created. The question is how long he will be able to ride this anxiety wave. The answer will be revealed during Erdogan’s next five years in office.

However, those who had promised this transformation lost. What occurred?

The essence of elections in autocracies contributes to the solution. They are neither equitable nor free. The playing field is severely tilted against the opposition in Erdogan’s Turkey. Erdogan either incarcerated or intimidated his most prominent opponents through legal proceedings. He used state resources and media control to appeal to voters, while his opponent’s efforts to convey his message were continually thwarted. In April, Erdogan received 32 hours of airtime on the state broadcaster, while his opponent received only 32 minutes. The Turkish telecommunications authority forbade Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition’s presidential candidate, from sending text messages to citizens, while government ministers bombarded citizens daily with text messages.

Some may explain the opposition’s defeat by asserting that a significant portion of the Turkish electorate lost interest in democracy. There is also truth in that. Erdogan has utilised the country’s flawed democracy to establish his dictatorship. The courts are filled with his supporters, the media is largely controlled by him and his allies, and repression has taken such a dramatic turn that even hundreds of children are on trial for insulting Erdogan. The majority of the Turkish electorate voted for him despite all of this. It is reasonable to conclude that millions of Americans prioritised partisan interests over democratic concerns in Sunday’s election.

Info source-Foreign Policy

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