How Erdoğan’s Populism Won Again – Sebnem Gumuscu & Berk Esen / JOURNAL OF DEMOCRACY

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Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won a third presidential term in May 2023 in a close race that constituted the opposition’s best chance ever to defeat the long-serving president at the polls. The election was neither free nor fair, but it was real. Erdoğan coupled sophisticated strategies with ethnoreligious themes to win the race against a backdrop of rampant inflation and disastrous relief efforts following the massive earthquakes that struck Turkey in early 2023. The opposition rallied behind a joint candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, but failed to capitalize on Erdoğan’s vulnerabilities. Their campaign remained weak and uncoordinated, giving little reason to long-time Erdogan supporters to defect.

By Sebnem Gumuscu & Berk Esen in The Journal of Democracy on July 2023.

In an election widely seen as its best chance in years to vote out autocratic populist president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish opposition came up short. The incumbent, burdened by his record of economic mismanagement and a poor response to catastrophic February earthquakes, had seemed surprisingly vulnerable before the 14 May 2023 first round against a field of three challengers, including longtime opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

But Erdoğan came out on top in the first round with 49.5 percent and won the mandatory runoff (no first-round candidate above 50 percent) with 52.2 percent of the vote based on 84 percent turnout (voting in Turkey is compulsory though not strictly enforced). His rule dates to 2003, making him longer-tenured than other populist autocrats such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, India’s Narendra Modi, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro (though the Chavista regime in Caracas goes back to the late 1990s). Backed up by the majority that his coalition has long held in the Grand National Assembly, Turkey’s unicameral 600-seat parliament, Erdoğan has been able to capture the state bureaucracy, erode institutional checks and balances, and limit media freedoms. After more than two decades in power, the 69-year-old president and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have become expert at using the intertwined bureaucratic and party networks of the “Frankenstate” to outmaneuver and override opponents.1

For a time, opposition prospects had looked good. The economy was struggling with 60 percent inflation, a plunging lira, dwindling foreign-currency reserves, growing poverty, and high youth unemployment. In early February, the powerful quakes that struck the southeast took more than fifty-thousand lives and left millions homeless. Erdoğan’s urban-development [End Page 21] policies—especially a 2018 “construction amnesty” to retroactively accept structures not built to code—were partly to blame for the high death toll, and there were massive failures in relief and rescue efforts.2 Finally, the usually fragmented opposition had agreed on Kılıçdaroğlu as its unity candidate, and some polls had even placed him ahead of Erdoğan. In the days leading up to the election, expectations for a “liberalizing electoral outcome” rose.3

Still, Erdoğan prevailed. This was his third presidential election, and the first time that he had failed to win a majority in the first round. Erdoğan’s intense stoking of an already polarized electorate won him victory and his coalition a renewed parliamentary majority even though his own AKP dropped 27 seats (to fall to 268) while the main opposition party added 23 seats.

Erdoğan’s win despite economic troubles and a questionable governance record underlines the colossal challenge of unseating a populist autocrat who wields strong control over political and judicial institutions and dominates the media against his opponents. Faced with policy failure and crisis, such an incumbent can maintain a diverse coalition by handing out public and private resources to key groups while bullhorning negative partisanship and ethnonationalist appeals through a tame media to change the subject. Erdoğan offset his losses in big cities with strong support among religious and conservative voters in smaller towns and rural areas. And while the opposition coalesced, it still gave way to enough infighting to ruin its efforts in a contest where its margin for error was tiny.

The Uneven Playing Field

Turkey has a long history of competitive multiparty politics. Since 1950, Turkish governments have come to power through elections, even if parliamentary rule was interrupted by brief bouts of military rule in 1960, 1971, and 1980. Just a few years after legal authorities had forced Erdoğan out of the Istanbul mayoralty and sent him to jail for Islamist rhetoric, the AKP won the November 2002 parliamentary election (with a huge seat bonus thanks to a 10 percent vote-share threshold that shut smaller parties out of parliament) and made him prime minister. The AKP has been the majority party or the head of the majority coalition ever since, racking up more electoral wins starting in 2007. The map of recent results shows the AKP carrying nearly all jurisdictions aside from big cities, coastal areas in the west, and the Kurdish southeast.

After 2011, Erdoğan began using this consistent electoral dominance to subvert democracy. Every election since then has been less free and fair as critical safeguards of democratic politics have fallen under his control. He has packed the courts, politicized state institutions, and turned the vast bulk of private as well as public media into mouthpieces [End Page 22] for himself and his party.4 Not only the urban poor but many businesses look to him for partisan largesse with public resources.

In 2023, access to media was grossly unequal. A handful of pro-opposition outlets aside, television aired Erdoğan’s messages while shutting out Kılıçdaroğlu. The state broadcaster, TRT, is supposed to be impartial and independent, but during the campaign it gave Erdoğan 32 hours of airtime and his rival 32 minutes.5 Erdoğan’s friendly interviewers contrasted strikingly with the hard questions that Kılıçdaroğlu had to face during his few times on the air.

Exploiting his media control, Erdoğan vilified the opposition and positioned himself along two major fault lines in Turkish politics. First is the question of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish-separatist group that Turkey, the European Union, and the United States officially designate a terrorist organization. Erdoğan several times accused the opposition coalition of having terrorist ties. At several rallies he even showed a doctored video that portrayed PKK leaders singing along with Kılıçdaroğlu’s campaign song.

Second, Erdoğan played on the Islamist-secularist cleavage to evoke the Islamic sentiments of an increasingly conservative Turkish society. Kılıçdaroğlu leads the Republican People’s Party (CHP)—founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—whose secular reforms in the 1920s and 1930s Islamists see as anti-Islamic. Erdoğan has been denouncing the CHP’s legacy of authoritarian secularism for years, and calling its leaders out of touch with the values of the Turkish people. He accused CHP supporters of being against Islam and “pro-LGBT,” often appearing at Istanbul’s grand mosques to join prayers and urge a new “conquest” via the ballot box.

There was violence against the opposition on the campaign trail and during election day. Security forces stood by as opposition leaders, activists, and offices were attacked. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) was the main target, though in Erzurum (a conservative-nationalist stronghold in eastern Anatolia) Erdoğan supporters threw rocks at a CHP vice-presidential nominee, causing multiple injuries.6

Erdoğan used his control of the courts to sideline foes. In June 2021, in a blatant case of “autocratic legalism,”7 the public prosecutor moved to shut down the HDP. Five years prior, the party’s charismatic leader Selahattin Demirtaş had been arrested and sent to prison, where he remains [End Page 23] despite a 2018 European Court of Human Rights ruling that the detention violates his rights. The shutdown case dimmed the HDP’s electoral prospects even further. Its candidates had to run under the name and logo of the Green Left Party (YSP)—a serious problem given that many HDP voters are older Kurds who are among the roughly 3 percent of adult Turkish citizens who cannot read. The national election authority then denied the HDP any seats on the local ballot councils that oversee the casting and tallying of votes. Many seats went instead to the AKP.

Istanbul’s CHP mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, the target of the Erzurum rock-throwers, was also victimized by politically motivated legal charges. Considered a major presidential contender, he was hit with a criminal case claiming that he had defamed the national election authority. In late 2022, he was convicted and banned from politics. He appealed, but in the meantime the verdict made his candidacy so uncertain that the opposition could not risk nominating him. Erdoğan had neutralized another rival.

The Elections

The Turkish electoral process is well designed and administered, and Erdoğan likes to impress foreign and domestic observers with the idea that he respects the people’s will, so there were (as of this writing in June 2023) no conclusive signs of systematic vote-rigging in the May 2023 elections. As Nancy Bermeo reminds us, only amateurs steal an election on election day,8 and Erdoğan is no amateur. On both May 14 and May 28, the AKP was as usual well organized to mobilize its supporters and protect their votes. It sent rafts of poll watchers to the voting stations and was a disciplined, dominating presence on the ballot councils in both rounds. The opposition’s poll watchers also showed up, but in the first round at least, AKP activists outnumbered them.

In contrast with the campaign period, the May 14 voting was generally peaceful. Long, orderly lines formed at polling places, with some people waiting for hours to cast their votes. Except for irregularities in a few provincial towns and villages in the east and southeast, the counting process was clean. In those areas, the banned Kurdish party is the AKP’s only effective opposition, so the integrity of the electoral process was at risk there. Journalistic accounts tell of ballot-box stuffing as well as bloc voting by tribal leaders and village heads.

In the second round, the opposition mobilized thousands of volunteers to ensure electoral integrity. This threatened the AKP’s dominance over election proceedings and caused tensions during the runoff. Fights broke out at polling places as pro-Erdoğan poll watchers harassed volunteers. When opposition activists showed up in problem areas to observe the runoff, some were beaten by the locals for enforcing legal requirements. In all, irregularities are unlikely to have affected the election outcome by more than two percentage points. Since Erdoğan won the runoff by [End Page 24] more than that (albeit not by much more), it is unlikely that irregularities can explain the opposition’s defeat. Economic troubles and weak government performance should have given Kılıçdaroğlu a path to victory, but they did not.

Why Erdoğan Won

Defying expectations, the president on May 28 added 1.5 million votes to his 2018 total, while his party and its People’s Alliance captured a comfortable majority in parliament. Economic downturns, it seems, need not always hurt competitive authoritarian regimes.9 Most Erdoğan supporters remained loyal. What explains this success?

Erdoğan is not only an autocrat, he is a popular one. Millions of voters support him. There are several reasons for this popularity. First, Erdoğan is still what James D. Fearon calls a “good type”—that is, a politician whom voters trust to “act on their behalf independent of reelection incentives.”10 Rather than punishing him for his weak economic record in recent years, his core supporters see him as the only able leader the country has to govern it going forward. This is partly due to Erdoğan’s long tenure, during some of which he did deliver economic growth, improved social services, and infrastructure development.

Second, Erdoğan shifted the election’s focus from the economy to national security.11 In this, he got a boost from Turkey’s geopolitical situation, which involves one war to the country’s south (in Syria, where thousands of Turkish troops are occupying border zones) and another to its north (between Russia and Ukraine). Using his media monopoly, Erdoğan framed the race as an existential battle between “the people” and its “enemies,” both internal and external. Citing Kurdish support for the opposition, his campaign claimed that the PKK would prevail, its leaders would be released, and Turkey would lose its territorial integrity if Kılıçdaroğlu was elected. Erdoğan’s interior minister called the May 14 election a “political coup attempt” and claimed Western complicity.12 In the end, Erdoğan consolidated his base and appealed to independents by painting Kılıçdaroğlu as a PKK ally. Security concerns topped economic issues.

Erdoğan vowed to defeat “un-Islamic” forces and said that Turkey needed a world leader such as himself at the helm. He stressed Turkey’s growing military-industrial complex.13 He was photographed visiting a combat-drone base in a military-style flight jacket, and campaign posters showed him wearing it, as well as aviator sunglasses, against a backdrop featuring a warship, drones, the Turkish flag, and a slogan asking voters to “stay on track with the right man.” He peppered his speeches with talk not only of the drones, but of the new fighter jet and main battle tank that Turkey is building. In April, he commissioned the Anadolu, the Turkish Navy’s first aircraft carrier. [End Page 25]

Even as he talked up security, Erdoğan took steps to alleviate the hardships caused by high inflation and the weak lira. In the months before the election, he passed an early-retirement program, expanded government hiring, gave businesses cheap credit and homeowners subsidized gas, promised new public-housing projects, and raised pensions, the minimum wage, and civil-service pay. This free-spending largesse cushioned many AKP supporters from harsh economic conditions and helped Erdoğan to keep his voter base intact, particularly in the provinces. After the earthquakes, the ruling party prioritized its own partisan strongholds when directing relief efforts. Extensive patron-client networks gave the president the tools to shield his followers from the economy and natural disasters, and in doing so shield his own electoral prospects.

Fear, loyalty, nationalism, and polarization fueled record turnout among Erdoğan supporters. The strong party organizations of the AKP and its junior partners were key to mobilization, illustrating the central role that Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way ascribe to such organizations in competitive authoritarian regimes.14 Through both rounds the AKP rank-and-file worked tirelessly, overwhelming opposition cadres and sparing no effort to turn out ruling-party voters.

Why Kılıçdaroğlu Lost

In competitive authoritarian regimes, opposition parties have strong incentives to unite to defeat the incumbent. After 2018, the year Erdoğan moved Turkey to a hyperpresidential system with limited checks and balances, the center-left CHP began working with the nationalist-leaning Good Party (İYİP) to field joint candidates for the 2019 mayors’ races across the country. In the lead-up to 2023, this alliance expanded to include an array of parties ranging from the opposition-mainstay CHP and the İYİP to four minor right-wing parties (including two AKP splinter parties). They united in opposing Erdoğan’s rule and pledging to return Turkey to strengthened parliamentarism, expanded political freedoms, and better economic policies.

Avoiding the ethnic and religious cleavages that Erdoğan played on, the opposition aimed to rally ethnically and ideologically disparate voters on the side of democracy versus authoritarianism.15 The opposition bloc focused in the first round on an inclusive message of “hope and change,” while promising voters concrete material and policy gains, too.

Months of talks produced a common six-party platform, a single presidential candidate, and joint parliamentary-candidate lists. Presidential nominee Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the 74-year-old CHP leader, spearheaded the alliance, while leaders of the other five parties became candidates for vice-president (a president is allowed to appoint one or more vice-presidents). Mayor İmamoğlu and Ankara’s mayor were added to the list [End Page 26] of vice-presidential nominees as well. Kılıçdaroğlu drew support among the Alevi religious minority (he is a member), from Kurds, and from some Turkish nationalists, meanwhile prying away enough conservative voters in larger cities to surpass the incumbent there.

Yet he failed. Anti-incumbent sentiment was strong, but not enough for a majority. Despite the presence of the nationalist İYİP in the alliance, the government’s linkage of Kılıçdaroğlu to the PKK limited his nationalist appeal. So did growing sentiment against migrants and refugees.

Moreover, Kılıçdaroğlu carried political baggage that made reaching out to Erdoğan supporters difficult. The CHP head is an uncharismatic figure who has led the main opposition party since 2010 despite poor showings in elections that stretch back to the 2009 Istanbul mayor’s race. Erdoğan and his press have had years to slander Kılıçdaroğlu and slather him in negative coverage; a short campaign period marked by limited media access could never reverse that. As an Alevi, the challenger belonged to a heterodox religious group within Islam that many devout Sunni voters view with coldness and even suspicion. Erdoğan’s polarizing religious discourse was aimed at them. Kılıçdaroğlu tried to counter this with a short video addressed to young voters in which he said that he was an Alevi and a Muslim, and asked them to look beyond “identities” that cannot be chosen in favor of a choice for freedom and prosperity. The video racked up tens of millions of views online.16 Its impact on Erdogan supporters, however, remained limited.

Third, the opposition campaign suffered from infighting. As chances of defeating the incumbent seemingly improved, parties started to lean away from “do what it takes to win” and toward “position ourselves to benefit from the win.” The CHP had dibs on the presidency and major cabinet posts, but İYİP and its right-wing rivals began jockeying and jostling, while other parties worried about being sidelined altogether. The net effect was a loss of focus and unity as parties began changing their messages and strategies on the assumption that election day would bring a coalition victory and subsequent division of spoils.

Without clear institutional channels to work through, opposition leaders postponed critical decisions. The naming of seven vice-presidential candidates and the failure to publish a joint cabinet list typified this spirit of “deciding not to decide.” Looking on, voters worried about the alliance’s ability to govern. Erdoğan, ever alert for signs of weakness, began associating the opposition alliance with the shaky and ineffective coalition governments of the 1990s.

Fourth, the opposition wasted crucial time by not choosing a joint presidential candidate until just ten weeks before election day. In a competitive authoritarian system, a unified opposition must pick a standard-bearer who is popular enough to defeat the incumbent and trustworthy enough to honor a power-sharing agreement after victory. In Hungary [End Page 27] in 2022, rivalries inside the coalition produced a low-key lead candidate who lost to Orbán. In Malaysia in 2020, the refusal of joint opposition candidate Mahathir Mohamad (who was 94 years old at the time) to step down as prime minister two years after his election victory led to the new government’s collapse.

Turkish opposition parties needed a joint candidate who could rally voters across ethnic and ideological lines, and who would be willing to give up the vast powers of the presidency (tailored for himself by Erdoğan) in favor of a transition back to parliamentarism. Kılıçdaroğlu had seniority, bureaucratic experience, and status as head of the biggest opposition party. Party cadres and opposition elites liked him—they thought that he was the best person to hold the alliance together and scrap hyperpresidentialism—but mass appeal was another story. The years that Erdoğan had spent calling him an incompetent and a terrorist sympathizer did not help.

Fifth, the opposition lacked focus and policy cohesion. It spent months writing a 244-page program, but voters showed little interest in it and opposition leaders failed to highlight its important parts. Instead, leaders’ campaign statements on key foreign and domestic matters contradicted one another. Kılıçdaroğlu made numerous personal pledges on the campaign trail that undermined his alliance’s agenda. While Erdoğan highlighted a few simple (and polarizing) messages in his speeches, the opposition failed to stress key themes and promised populist measures such as canceling credit-card debt and airing football matches on state television.

Erdogan’s traditional-media monopoly forced his rivals into excessive reliance on social media to get their message out within a too-short timeframe. Kılıçdaroğlu made brief videos in his modest kitchen, and used Twitter to share his political views and reactions. Mostly he was preaching to the converted, however, reaching those who already backed him (often younger voters more prone to use social media) while Erdoğan dominated the public print and airwaves on top of a digital AKP campaign. The incumbent, in other words, had more messaging “bandwidth” than his opponents did.

Facing the runoff, Kılıçdaroğlu opted for a nationalist turn. This was a bid to attract people who had voted on May 14 for Sinan Oğan, the right-wing nationalist who had won almost 5.2 percent (or about 2.8 million votes) that day. Kılıçdaroğlu failed to gain the support of Oğan himself, but the CHP leader did win the backing of another ultranationalist politician by signing a pledge to send millions of Syrian migrants back across the border. Collecting an ultranationalist’s endorsement without pushing away crucial Kurdish voters was difficult; intensified rhetoric against immigrants seemed like a way to solve the dilemma. Opposition street rallies and a YouTube show on which Kılıçdaroğlu spent nearly all night fielding young people’s questions were meant as [End Page 28] responses to Erdoğan’s vilifications. But there seems to be little doubt that the Turkish-nationalist tone adopted in the two weeks between the rounds ended up alienating some Kurdish voters.

Trying to come from behind—in runoffs, the top vote-getter from the first round usually wins—Kılıçdaroğlu sought to take the fight directly to the president, charging him with doctoring videos and demanding a televised debate. Erdoğan sidestepped, ignoring the attacks and acting as if he was “above the fray.” Kılıçdaroğlu’s decision to pivot to immigration had handed the government a pass on the economy, provided cover for voter suppression in heavily Kurdish provinces on May 28, and generally left the opposition discredited. Since persuading Erdoğan voters in two weeks was not a realistic goal, the opposition tried to mobilize its voters by denouncing pro-AKP media bias. On May 28, this strategy worked to maintain high voter turnout in opposition strongholds, but it was not enough to beat the president.

Whither Turkey?

Given Erdoğan’s win, what awaits Turkey? Will the country descend further into autocracy? The answer depends on the opposition forces and Erdoğan’s political calculus going forward. Turkish prodemocracy forces are resilient and consolidated, although they have had a hard time breaking the wall that Erdoğan erected between the opposition parties and his supporters.

External factors are likely to matter less given the overall reluctance of the international community to uphold democratic values and norms plus the transactional approach that governments and international institutions take in dealing with Erdoğan amid the migration crisis and the war in Ukraine.17 To use Levitsky and Way’s terms, Western linkages to and leverage over Turkey’s competitive authoritarian regime are weak, and the regime is consequently more resilient.

Unable to look to the West for much help, Turkey’s prodemocratic forces must rely on their own resources and organizational capacities to stop further autocratization. The game now is Erdoğan’s maneuvers to maintain his ruling coalition versus the opposition’s ability to learn from its mistakes and grow its ranks. Oppositionists may feel demoralized, but they control eleven of Turkey’s biggest economic and cultural centers and govern more than half the electorate. Mayors such as İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş enjoy wide popular appeal; even some backers of the AKP and its junior partners laud these mayors’ administrative skills. Municipalities give the opposition means to reach a mass public via social programs, and Erdoğan’s own career attests that big-city elected office can be a springboard to national politics. It is no wonder that the president has sought to obstruct municipal services in opposition-governed cities and that İmamoğlu—seen by many as the [End Page 29] president’s most serious rival—has been mired in a court process that may ban him from politics.

Finger-pointing after a defeat is inevitable, but opposition elites should worry lest too much infighting dishearten their voters and leave the electoral field to Erdoğan’s coalition. If that happens, Turkey could slide deeper into authoritarianism. Since 2014, the year then–Prime Minister Erdoğan won his first presidential election, Turkey has consistently and sharply declined on several indices (such as V-Dem) that grade countries on democracy and the rule of law. Given the opposition’s continued electoral strength, what motive does the president have for continuing to allow multiparty electoral competition? What instruments can and will his regime use against its opponents in the presidential and parliamentary term now beginning?

There are strong reasons to expect Turkey’s competitive authoritarian regime to remain robust at least until the upcoming March 2024 local elections, rather than follow the path of Belarus, Nicaragua, and Venezuela by rendering elections meaningless. First, Erdoğan faces major structural weaknesses and vulnerabilities that will limit his capacity to curtail political space. There are strong signs that the current policy of low interest rates will further devalue the lira and trigger a balance-of-payments crisis. Lacking rich natural resources to sell, Erdoğan needs financial resources to keep his cross-class coalition together and business supporters in his corner. The earthquakes’ terrible economic toll will also act to restrict patronage opportunities. A recent study estimates US$39 billion as the sum it will take to repair or replace damaged and destroyed apartment buildings alone.18 Erdoğan is currently presiding over an economic catastrophe. Swap deals and handouts from Azerbaijan, the Gulf states, and Russia (Putin gave subsidized natural gas) helped to keep the economy going through the campaign period, but the campaign is over. With more migrants in his country than any other head of government in the world has to deal with, Erdoğan may also find it hard to manage the millions of Syrians living in Turkey if the economic crisis worsens.

As his capacity to deliver economic well-being shrinks, Erdoğan is likely to pursue a more divisive and repressive identity politics targeting groups such as women, Kurds, and LGBTQ persons. His increasingly fragmented ruling coalition and the AKP’s decline relative to its junior partners will reinforce this trend. This coalition now includes different strands of far-right Turkish nationalists as well as Kurdish and ethnic-Turkish Islamists. As the president struggles to maintain his parliamentary coalition with fewer material means to do so, far-right nationalist and Islamist parties may extract policy concessions from him. One contentious policy change concerns the secular civil code that protects women’s rights in marriage, divorce, and child custody. In his May 28 victory speech, he denounced opposition leaders, Turkey’s LGBTQ community, [End Page 30] and the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish movement (amid chants from the crowd demanding the latter’s execution). Erdoğan’s hawkish messages gave clues to his future autocratic steps. The resilience of Turkey’s democratic forces will determine whether he will succeed.

Looking at the vigor of the campaigning and the genuine uncertainty surrounding the outcome, many postelection commentators have claimed that Turkey is still a democracy after all. They are mistaken. Democracies, as defined by Robert A. Dahl, minimally require free, fair, and regular elections; universal suffrage; a wide right to run for office; and freedoms of expression, information, and assembly.19 Turkey has elections that are competitive despite being neither free nor fair. Erdoğan’s control of private and public resources—including the national media—tilt the playing field heavily in his favor. His regime systematically violates the freedoms of expression, information, and assembly while using lawfare to strip key rivals of their right to run for office. This is not to say that Turkey is a full-fledged authoritarian regime—it is not—or that it is the same as electoral autocracies such as Lukashenka’s Belarus, Putin’s Russia, or Maduro’s Venezuela, where electoral outcomes are no longer in doubt. Erdoğan does not steal votes on election day, but neither does he allow free and fair competition for those votes before election day.

In the end, Turkey’s regime still qualifies as competitive authoritarian since elections remain meaningful despite the unlevel playing field. The opposition can win, as it did in the 2019 local elections. Few authoritarian regimes that allow competitive elections endure over the long haul, but Erdoğan’s rule has survived mass protests, a major corruption probe, a coup attempt, and the loss of the AKP parliamentary majority. The Turkish case indeed represents the “new face of competitive authoritarianism.”20 It relies on sophisticated strategies and popular mobilization, usually with an ethnoreligious theme.

Berk Esen

Berk Esen is assistant professor of political science at Sabancı University.

Sebnem Gumuscu

Sebnem Gumuscu is associate professor of political science at Middlebury College.


1. Kim Lane Scheppele, “The Rule of Law and the Frankenstate: Why Governance Checklists Do Not Work,” Governance 26 (October 2013): 559–62.

2. Gonul Tol, “How Corruption and Misrule Made Turkey’s Earthquake Deadlier,” Foreign Policy, 10 February 2023,

3. Marc Morjé Howard and Philip G. Roessler. “Liberalizing Electoral Outcomes in Competitive Authoritarian Regimes,” American Journal of Political Science 50 (April 2006): 365–81.

4. Berk Esen and Sebnem Gumuscu, “Rising competitive authoritarianism in Turkey,” Third World Quarterly 37 (September 2016): 1581–1606.

5. For the OSCE’s report on the May 28 runoff, see

6. Hamdi Firat Buyuk, “Turkish Opposition Challenger Imamoglu Blames Govt for Erzurum Violence,” Balkan Insight, 8 May 2023,

7. Kim Lane Scheppele, “Autocratic Legalism,” University of Chicago Law Review 85 (March 2018): 545–84.

8. Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy 27 (January 2016): 5–19.

9. Stephan Haggard and Robert R. Kaufman. The Political Economy of Democratic Transitions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

10. James D. Fearon, “Electoral Accountability and the Control of Politicians: Selecting Good Types versus Sanctioning Poor Performance,” in Adam Przeworski, Susan C. Stokes, and Bernard Manin, eds. Democracy, Accountability, and Representation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 56.

11. Selim Erdem Aytaç, “Effectiveness of Incumbent’s Strategic Communication During Economic Crisis Under Electoral Authoritarianism: Evidence from Turkey,” American Political Science Review 115 (November 2021): 1517–23.

12. “Turkish Interior Minister Likens May 14 Elections to 2016 Attempted Coup,” Stockholm Center for Freedom, 28 April 2023,

13. Digdem Soyaltin-Colella and Tolga Demiryol, “Unusual Middle Power Activism and Regime Survival: Turkey’s Drone Warfare and Its Regime-Boosting Effects,” Third World Quarterly 44, issue 4 (2023): 724–43.

14. Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

15. Orçun Selçuk and Dilara Hekimci, “The Rise of the Democracy-Authoritarianism Cleavage and Opposition Coordination in Turkey (2014–2019),” Democratization 27 (December 2020): 1496–1514.

16. “‘I am Alevi’: Turkish Presidential Hopeful Kilicdaroglu Breaks Religious Taboo in Video,” France 24, 26 April 2023,

17. Beken Saatçioğlu, “The European Union’s Refugee Crisis and Rising Functionalism in EU-Turkey Relations,” Turkish Studies 21, no. 2 (2020): 169–87.

18. Selva Demiralp, “ The Economic Impact of the Turkish Earthquakes and Policy Options,” Istanpol, 8 April 2023,

19. Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).

20. Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, “The New Competitive Authoritarianism,” Journal of Democracy 31 (January 2020): 51–65.

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