DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. On May 14, Turkey held its presidential election. No candidate got above 50% of the vote which means there will be a runoff between the two leading candidates on May 28.
The incumbent, Recep Tayyip Erdogan will face off against Social Democrat and former parliament member Kemal Kilicdaroglu. It's one of the most important elections in Turkey's history. It also has implications far beyond Turkey's borders on how to care for the world's growing refugee population, on the international economy, and on the rise of authoritarianism around the world.
So on this episode, we're going to look at the politics behind this incredibly close election and explore what's at stake in its outcome. To do that, I actually have a guest host on this episode, Fulya Pinar, a postdoctoral scholar at Watson's Center for Middle East Studies. Hello, Fulya.
FULYA PINAR: Hello, Dan.
DAN RICHARDS: So Fulya, you spoke with two experts for this episode, and I spoke with one. But before we hear from those experts, I wanted to talk to you about why you brought this idea to me, of doing an episode of Trending Globally on Turkish politics ahead of this election. What made you want to do that?
FULYA PINAR: Yes, Dan. We've been going through a particularly complex and important historical moment in Turkey lately. Erdogan has been in power since Two-Thousand Two as the prime minister. But in Twenty Seventeen, Turkey transitioned from a parliamentary system to a presidential system after a much disputed referendum.
DAN RICHARDS: And this referendum, it consolidated a lot of power under Erdogan. I mean, it pushed the entire country in a sort of more authoritarian direction under him, right?
FULYA PINAR: Yeah.
DAN RICHARDS: And then also, if I understand correctly, made for this sort of intense polarization where political groups that used to be really distinct are now even working together to challenge Erdogan because he's just left no room for other voices.
FULYA PINAR: Yes, exactly. And this coalition that's running against Erdogan is called the nation alliance, also called the table of six. This group is united behind candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Republican People's Party known as the CHP. But what really unites this coalition is opposition to the increasingly authoritarian government Erdogan and his party known as the AKP has created.
DAN RICHARDS: So why is Erdogan now facing such a political threat in a way he really hasn't since he came to power?
FULYA PINAR: Yeah, so I'd say there are four main factors that hurt Erdogan's chances of re-election.
DAN RICHARDS: OK, four. Wow. Well, let's hear them.
FULYA PINAR: So they are the state of democracy and civil liberties in Turkey, the state of the economy, the recent earthquakes, and the politics of migration. So first about democracy-- there has been many issues with the presidential system, one being the fact that Erdogan now has too much legislative power. And this, of course, paralyzes attempts to make legislative decisions and reforms for the other side. So democracy and freedom have been in more serious threat than ever in the history of Erdogan's rule, especially for Kurdish people, Non-Sunni people, women, and lately LGBTQ people.
In terms of economy, in Twenty Twenty-One, interest rate cuts caused the currency crisis. And this ended up with a raised inflation to almost 86% last year. Prices of even the simplest items like onions and potatoes also skyrocketed.
Then on 6th February, Twenty Twenty-Three, more than 15 million people were impacted by two massive earthquakes, leaving more than 50,000 dead the government and Erdogan particularly managed this very painful time very poorly. And finally, we have migration. So the first thing is migration from Turkey.
Many educated and skilled people usually from the middle class are leaving or trying to leave Turkey right now due to the economic crisis, but also for political freedom. And within migration, we can also count migration to Turkey which has been very central in the further consolidation of the ultranationalist right wing politicians. So these factors-- democracy, economy, earthquakes, and migration have been mobilized by the main rival of Erdogan Kilicdaroglu and Kilicdaroglu supporters.
DAN RICHARDS: So he's being pushed from the left on civil liberties, from the right by anti-immigration nationalists on his handling of the economy and on his response to this devastating earthquake. It's honestly surprising to me that he's even been able to do as well as he has so far and force the selection to a runoff. I mean, that's a lot of stuff working against an incumbent.
FULYA PINAR: Yeah. As I said, it's the biggest political threat Erdogan has ever faced.
DAN RICHARDS: So I wanted to ask you, Fulya, you're back in Turkey right now. You were in Providence when we started working on this episode. You're back in Turkey.
What has it been like there leading up to the election? Now by the time listeners hear this will probably be right on the eve of the runoff. But what's it been like?
FULYA PINAR: Citizens of Turkey have always been highly involved in the election processes with incredibly high voter turnout, usually more than 80%.
DAN RICHARDS: Oh, my goodness. Coming from America, that's incredible. Wow.
FULYA PINAR: Yeah, I know. I know, it's very different. And there were hundreds of thousands of volunteers who were there to oversee the ballots and their counting. Before the elections took place, there were all anybody was talking about basically in the coffee shops, in casual meetings with friends, on the streets, everywhere. Everyone was talking speculating about the elections. People are highly involved in the process.
DAN RICHARDS: All right. Well, on that note, let's turn to my conversation with our first guest, political scientist Mert Moral at Sabanci University in Istanbul. He helped me to make sense of these complex political coalitions that are driving this election. And we also talked about why Erdogan, despite all those challenges you just laid out, did surprisingly well in that first round.
FULYA PINAR: And later on, you'll hear my conversation with two experts on one of the most important drivers of Turkish politics, the country's refugee and migrant population.
DAN RICHARDS: But first, let's get into the details of this election and the different forces at play. So here is my conversation with Mert. Mert Moral, thank you so much for coming on to Trending Globally.
MERT MORAL: It's a pleasure.
DAN RICHARDS: So we're in this somewhat in-between period right now. The first election has come and now there will soon be a runoff. But I wanted to start by looking at why did President Erdogan perform better than expected in this initial election.
MERT MORAL: Oh, great question, Dan. So why Erdogan got as much as he got. First of all, from the earthquake region, it looks like there isn't much of a change in his vote share.
DAN RICHARDS: So how is that possible? At least based on the news I've read in the headlines I've seen, there has been so much criticism towards Erdogan for how he's handled this relief. And this is the most devastating earthquake in Turkey in a very long time. How is this not reflecting poorly on him at the polls?
MERT MORAL: There is a recent study written by two economists that actually examined these devastating events such as earthquakes. So there are two sorts of responses that you might see. One actually sides with the incumbent with the expectation that, OK, these guys are more experienced and they can actually resolve it, right? Some people became, for instance, more conservative. So that might actually lead to more Turkish nationalist or more conservative or more anti-immigrant voting, which might have helped President Erdogan.
On the other hand, a lot of people who were affected by the earthquake, I mean, they actually observed the government not helping them to the level that they expect the government to be. Then they may simply shift to the opposition. We actually saw a very similar thing during Katrina or Alexandra in the US. I mean, I remember that very vividly, I was actually there as a grad student back then and some people actually turned to Democrats and some people said, no, I mean, I'm going to vote for the Republican.
So that actually depends on a lot of other factors, most prominently on political polarization because people's partisan attitudes in Turkey are super solidified, and they tend to actually reject altogether that sort of information. It is not the government's fault if I'm a government supporter. It is somebody else's, it is an act of God. On the other hand, for the opposition, it is always the government's fault.
DAN RICHARDS: Aside from the fact that the earthquake maybe didn't cause a political backlash like some people expected, how else has Erdogan managed to hold on to his support during this incredibly challenging time in Turkey?
MERT MORAL: So why Erdogan got as much as he got. First of all, from the earthquake region, it looks like there isn't much of a change in his vote share. Second of all, they basically made a lot of populist moves by increasing the minimal wage by basically retiring a lot of people, about like 2 and 1/2 million people according to many as a populist move because I mean, they were given the right to retire and that actually led to a huge burden on the Social Security system in Turkey. So there are a lot of these, I'll say, little political tricks on part of the incumbent that may have led him to actually not lose as much support.
DAN RICHARDS: And I want to take a little step back for maybe some of our listeners who aren't that familiar with the political landscape. Who makes up the core of President Erdogan's support? He, of course, has been in power for quite a long time, his party has been in power for decades. How would you summarize the two main sides of this election? Who makes up the base, the core of Erdogan's party, and who makes up the core of support for his challenger in the election, Kilicdaroglu?
MERT MORAL: So Erdogan party, Justice and Development Party AKP, has been in power since November Two-Thousand Two. They were initially a splinter party from a pro-Islam party. When they were coming to power after they were founded shortly before the November Two-Thousand Two elections, their party platform was, I would say center right.
Since Two-Thousand Two, we actually have observed a quite stable shift of the party from the center right to the far right. So when Erdogan came to power, for instance, his platform was pro EU membership. Now he's not even considering the EU membership at all, and basically in his foreign policy, he somehow became isolated. Today, I mean, he is actually close to Russia, but not anymore to Turkey's traditional partners such as the US, NATO, European countries. And the opposition candidate on the other hand is not the candidate of only the CHP. There is this what we call table of six. It is basically an opposition bloc against the autocratization, democratic backsliding in Turkey under Erdogan's leadership in the last 20 years, but especially after Twenty Ten.
DAN RICHARDS: And this group, the table of six that Kilicdaroglu is representing in the election-- this is a pretty diverse coalition of voters. It's not just highly educated urban people, it's not primarily from one geographic region or another. And what's uniting them more than any one particular background or ideology is a concern about democratic backsliding. Do I have that right?
MERT MORAL: Yeah, the first group that you described is the core of CHP voters. This is similar to the Democrats in the US, the Social Democratic Party. On the other hand, I mean, the group right now, the group of voters that are actually voting for Kilicdaroglu is much more [INAUDIBLE]. So the party's vote share is roughly 25%, but Kilicdaroglu got 45%. So the remaining 20% are coming from other parties.
So I counted eight up to this point. Eight parties from all over the ideological spectrum. From a Communist Party, to a Kurdish nationalists, to a Turkish nationalist, to a center left, to a far right, and to two other splinters from the incumbent party. So this bloc is super heterogeneous and you cannot simply say, OK, this group of voters actually vote for Kilicdaroglu. What unites these people is their opposition, is their opposition against the democratic backsliding in Turkey, is their opposition against what they see as the main actor, whoever is responsible for this backslide. And that is President Erdogan in their eyes.
DAN RICHARDS: So looking ahead then at the moment, we see sort of two possible paths I think for the runoff election. And I wanted to just briefly get your sense of these two paths. First off, what would a third Erdogan term as president mean for Turkey?
MERT MORAL: So, of course, I mean, I would hope the best for my country as a Turkish citizen. On the other hand, I mean, what we have been witnessing since Twenty Eighteen, especially during his last term, isn't anywhere near being good enough. I mean, I'm talking about a financial crisis.
A lot of economists for instance would tell you, as an answer to your question, everybody has been hearing the footsteps of an approaching financial crisis. And I'm not talking about a minor crisis. I'm talking about a big devastating crisis. So that's probably one of the most important issues for most of the voters in Turkey.
In addition to that, of course, the earthquake relief, right? The early predictions simply predict like one third of Turkey's annual GDP should actually go to the quake relief efforts and reconstruction of the quake ridden cities in the region. And then there are, of course, other issues. I mean, civil liberties and freedom-- the media freedom is practically nonexistent in Turkey right now.
The freedom of speech, the censorship of media-- those are the issues based on my prior experience. I've been living under Erdogan's leadership for the last 21 years or so. To be perfectly honest, I don't expect to see any sort of an improvement in these major policy domains.
DAN RICHARDS: What do you think a Kilicdaroglu presidency would mean for Turkey's immediate future in terms of some of these most pressing issues?
MERT MORAL: It would mean a 180 degree turn, just a reversal because if you actually read the table of six's election manifesto and their program which was declared well before the elections, it is roughly 300 pages and super detailed. There are like election pledges in addition to policy programs. So I would actually expect Turkey to get back to where it was in the beginning of early two-thousands and late nineties.
So that would be accession to the EU, having more acceptable foreign policies, getting the economy back on track. And instead of backsliding, huge improvement in terms of the democracy. The main idea-- French people would call it raison d'etre. Raison d'etre of this main opposition block is this democratic backsliding in Turkey.
DAN RICHARDS: Mert Moral, thank you so much for coming on to talk with us on Trending Globally.
MERT MORAL: Thank you very much it was my pleasure. Thank you for the kind invitation.
DAN RICHARDS: Talking with Mert made clear that one of the biggest events in Turkey's recent past, the earthquakes in February of this year, they didn't affect the election in quite the way an outsider might expect them to. The same is true for another event, or rather development in Turkey's recent history-- the mass migration of refugees from Syria and other countries over the last decade into Turkey. And that is where I'll hand it off to Fulya.
FULYA PINAR: Yes, hello. I'm back.
DAN RICHARDS: Hello. So what made you want to especially dive into looking at this topic of refugees and migration in the context of the election?
FULYA PINAR: Yeah, so about 4 million displaced people reside in Turkey right now according to the UN refugee agency. And when we add undocumented migrants and unregistered refugees to this, the number is estimated to be about 7 million. And right wing nationalist politicians have been using these migrants as the scapegoats of the worsening economic conditions of the working class and middle class people in Turkey.
These right wing and nationalist politicians are now dominating both the people's alliance, Erdogan's coalition, as well as the nation alliance, also known as the Table of Six. In other words, anti-refugee sentiment and anti-refugee violence has become a norm of politics.
DAN RICHARDS: So it's almost like no matter who wins this election, anti-immigration and nativist politics are going to be a force in Turkey for the foreseeable future.
FULYA PINAR: Yes. To understand this better, I spoke with Deniz Sert from Ozyegin University in Istanbul and Ali Fisunoglu from St. Louis University in the United States. They are political scientists and experts on migration in Turkey, and they have studies on how perspectives towards migrants impact election results. Here is what they have to say. Hello, Deniz and Ali. Thank you for being here.
ALI FISUNOGLU: Hi, good morning.
DENIZ SERT: Thank you for the invitation.
FULYA PINAR: So to start, for listeners who might not be familiar, why is the refugee population in Turkey so large?
ALI FISUNOGLU: The refugee population in Turkey is large due to several factors. The first main reason is the geography and proximity to the conflict zones. Balkan Wars and Iraq War in Nineteen Ninety and early Two-Thousand caused flow of migrants. Recently, the Syrian Civil War and instability in the region, particularly in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Russia and Ukraine caused a flow of refugees.
But the main issue I presume we are talking about here is the Syrian Civil War in Twenty Twelve. About 3.5 million refugees which constitutes approximately 4 to 4.5% of the total population of Turkey flow to Turkey. To put things in perspective, this would mean almost 15 million refugees arriving to the United States in a period of two to three years.
DENIZ SERT: May I open a parenthesis here? It might be important because we keep on referring to these people as refugees. But I mean, the American audience should understand that the connotation of refugee in Turkey is quite different than what they would understand.
I mean, the way we are using refugee here is a sociological category for people who run away from war, but it doesn't really have a legal connotation in the country. That makes things very complicated and it is very important for the audience to understand why the policies can range so much. What happened with Syrians-- we didn't provide them as permanent status but a temporary one. So because the politics created an expectation on the side of the electorate that these people will be leaving soon, and that soon turned out to be more than a decade now, I would say this was the first time where migration had a great impact on politics in Turkey because, I mean, before Twenty Nineteen, I would say migration was a non-issue in Turkish politics.
ALI FISUNOGLU: What Deniz said is completely correct. Until Twenty Eighteen to Twenty Nineteen, pretty much no one really discussed refugees. People focused slightly on humanitarian issues, but no already talked about migration or refugees as a salient issue.
FULYA PINAR: So how has the refugee presence and their treatment impacted politics in Turkey? Here, maybe we can talk about the rise of right wing parties in relation to refugee governance, the rise of the politician, [INAUDIBLE] for example, and in general, just the rise of this anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey.
ALI FISUNOGLU: I would argue that-- and I'm speculating here that as the economic performance declined especially after Twenty Sixteen to Twenty Seventeen and the job market became slightly tighter, refugees became an easier target for the populists and some people in the population to blame for difficulties they're experiencing. And at this point, moment came [INAUDIBLE] who is a right wing politician but also a professor of Political Science. He was previously a member of the nationalist party, the nationalist movement party. He resigned and established potentially arguably the first far right specifically anti-immigrant party in Turkey, the victory party, [INAUDIBLE].
His politics are similar to Lapan in France in nineteen-eighties. So he's a single issue politician. His main policy stance is anti-immigration, and he does not have any other significant policy proposals in most issues. His narrative gained support especially among younger voters and especially among younger male voters.
And since, between the Twenty Eighteen and Twenty Twenty-Three elections, more than 5 million voters became the first time voters, and this constituency was an important constituency who appears to be anti-immigration. Because of the fact that no other party took this as a salient issue in the past, he was able to successfully set the agenda for immigration politics in Turkey. So most other parties reacted to his immigration policy. So any party from most sides, almost all parties in Turkey are anti-immigration currently partially as a result of this.
DENIZ SERT: I mean, he was the person who actually rose the topic onto the agenda, which made even the centralist parties to move more anti-migrant in time with the exception of the left wing like the Kurdish party and I would say the Labor Party. Almost all parties right now in the Turkish spectrum are becoming more anti-migrant than they were 5, 10 years ago.
FULYA PINAR: So how did we see these political shifts regarding migrants in Turkey play out in the last elections on 14th of May?
ALI FISUNOGLU: Let me talk about a paper we published in Twenty Nineteen. to kind of set the ground for this. So our idea was that there is a sudden influx of refugees. Refugees are very prominent in some provinces and not as prominent in other provinces. So how can we use the variation of refugees or variation of the number of refugees or migrants in the cities?
So we use the Twenty Fifteen elections and try to see if whether refugee populations have a significant impact on election outcomes or not. And kind of to our surprise, we have seen that provinces with a higher proportion of refugees do not vote significantly differently than similar provinces with lower proportion of refugees. So although there are no province to province differences, refugees might have had a national level trophic effect on the rise of nationalism.
But here, I want to do a short sideline about Turkish politics and borders. Many studies have been indicating that Turkey is becoming increasingly conservative in the last 15 years. And one can speculate that the existence of refugees along with the economic slowdown in Turkey is associated with the rise of anti-immigrant sentiments. And this tracks with the youth unemployment which rose from 18% in Twenty Eighteen to 26% in Twenty Nineteen.
DENIZ SERT: I should also underline maybe the fact that refugees has really nothing to do with the problem of youth unemployment. Youth unemployment is highest among University graduates in Turkey. But in fact, the refugees are mostly doing the 3D jobs that we call in the literature, the most dangerous degrading and dirty low skilled jobs. I mean, and also, research also shows that unemployment in refugees has not much to do with each other. But of course, we are living in a different age where wrong information actually gets accepted very widely through social media.
FULYA PINAR: Can we talk about the earthquake region in Turkey too? Deniz, you recently visited some of the impacted towns. So how do we see the earthquakes which impacted refugee populated towns in Eastern and South-eastern Turkey too? So how do we see the earthquakes impacting this process with the elections?
DENIZ SERT: Well, I have been to the earthquake region twice. I would say in between the two times that I have visited, one thing remained the same. One of them is there is a lot of insecurity to the system. And at the same time, there is a lot of, I would say, uncertainty because nobody knows what's going to happen in the region.
I mean, the disaster has been so devastating. I mean, they are still empty in the rubbles out of the towns. But there is still too much to do in the entire region. It is specifically important for the Syrians because of the 3.7 million Syrians who are living in the cities with us, half of them were actually residing in this region. So half of them were uprooted again, we could say. And they are internally displaced in the country right now like the local Turks. I mean, this is nothing specifically specific to the Syrians of course.
But I mean, the earthquake region-- I mean, it was of course surprising in this election because despite everything, the government party has actually kept its vote share which was very surprising to me. But at the same time, it also made one of my suspicions quite actually visible in a sense that when the earthquake happened, most of us hold on to our own constituencies. I mean, for example, if the Labor Party was more active in one province, they kept on being more active in that particular province. So partisanship really actually increased a lot after the earthquake as well because each political party was helping its own constituency.
FULYA PINAR: What would an Erdogan re-election mean for Turkey's refugee population?
DENIZ SERT: I think nothing.
ALI FISUNOGLU: Yeah, I would assume more of the same.
DENIZ SERT: There might be a few spectacles of deportations because that's what the government did after the Twenty Nineteen local elections when they lost the major cities of Ankara and Istanbul to the opposition. I'm calling these spectacles because, I mean, you can always find a few buses of people and showing them to be leaving the country voluntarily. But in fact, looking at the numbers, of this 3.7 million people, almost 1 million are kids.
I mean, almost 650,000 of them were born in Turkey. They have never been to Syria. So returning them back to Syria any time soon will be quite impossible. So I mean, if Erdogan wins the second round, and I think he has a large chance now, nothing will change much in terms of the refugee policy of Turkey.
FULYA PINAR: Yeah, and that connects me to my last question. So many from the refugee population in Turkey has actually been more afraid of Kilicdaroglu presidency because Erdogan was the one who opened the doors to them. What would a Kilicdaroglu presidency mean for refugees?
DENIZ SERT: I actually checked the Table of Six's January statement. And when you look at their January declaration, it is a lot about not treating Turkey to be a buffer country, a lot about fortifying borders at least in the short run because this is what they have promised their constituencies.
ALI FISUNOGLU: Yeah, I agree. They were talking about establishing more resettlement centers so that they can be sent back more safely. But this probably in the short run also cause the banning of property sales to foreigners. But these are all short term policies. And in the long run, this doesn't change the fact that Turkey has to come up with more sustainable and structural policies to integrate refugees and provide them with education, health care, and access to employment.
FULYA PINAR: Deniz, Ali, thank you so much for your time. Thank you so much for being here today.
DENIZ SERT: Thank you for the invitation, Fulya.
ALI FISUNOGLU: Yeah, thanks for having us.
DAN RICHARDS: Well, I guess we will find out very soon which road Turkey may go down for the foreseeable future.
FULYA PINAR: Yes, it's nerve-wracking but also very exciting.
DAN RICHARDS: Well, regardless of the results of these runoffs, hearing from these experts and then also just from talking with you over the last few months has kind of left me with another feeling aside from the nerve-wracking, which is just a feeling of admiration and feeling sort of inspired by how involved so many people in Turkey are in their politics. Even in the face of a bitter and, at times, disheartening election and what feels like a fight for democracy itself, citizens seem to be like so engaged in a way that I think many of us could learn from.
FULYA PINAR: Yes, that's also what gives hope to many people, I think. Local people can indeed organize and mobilize themselves very well in Turkey, and they can bring their resources together quite quickly and effectively not only while overseeing the ballots, but also beyond the elections at the everyday level.
DAN RICHARDS: Well, hopefully, that spirit will continue whatever the results of this election show us. Fulya Pinar, thank you so much for co-hosting this episode of Trending Globally with me.
FULYA PINAR: It was my pleasure, Dan. Thank you.
DAN RICHARDS: OK. And we'll have to check back in again soon.
FULYA PINAR: Sounds good. Bye.
DAN RICHARDS: Bye. This episode of Trending Globally was produced by me, Dan Richards. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. Thanks again to Fulya Pinar for co-hosting this episode with me.
If you want to learn more about her research or about the experts we spoke to on this episode, we'll have links in the show notes. If you like Trending Globally, please subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts and give us a rating and review. It really helps other people to find us. And better yet, tell a friend about the show.
If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for guests or topics for us, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, that's all one word, email@example.com. We're going to take a brief break and be releasing episodes a little less frequently over the summer. But we'll be back in June with a new episode of Trending Globally. Thanks for listening.