Pollsters failed to capture the nationalist deep wave that has swept over Turkey. Erdoğan is trying to outgrow the Turkish Republic from within, bit by bit. A conversation with Selim Koru on the first round of 2023 Turkish presidential elections

Last update: 2023-05-25 16:09:48

Contrary to what polls had predicted, Erdoğan is ahead of his rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in the Turkish presidential race. We asked the scholar of political ideas and analyst of Turkish affairs Selim Koru to comment on these results.


Interview conducted by Claudio Fontana


Most of the polls projected that Kılıçdaroğlu would obtain around 49% of the votes in the first round of the presidential election. Since that percentage resulted from interviews conducted at the beginning of May, one could even expect Kılıçdaroğlu to be well beyond the 50% threshold. Things went in a different direction. With hindsight, it is always easy to criticize pollsters, and this is not our aim. Nevertheless, in your opinion what are the aspects that polls failed to grasp?


Yes, the polling around this election has been very unusual. Most polls, including the most reputable ones, projected a Kılıçdaroğlu win, many of them in the first round. Very few pollsters put Erdoğan within reach of a first-round victory, and the ones that did were dismissed as being pro-government companies, and thus designed to give Erdoğan a popularity bump. Of course Kılıçdaroğlu did 5 points worse than most pollsters expected, and Erdoğan did 5 points better. How to explain this 10-point gap?


I’m not a pollster, and it has been a long time since I took part in any quantitative studies. I can’t speak to the methodological failings in question. People are also researching unfair practices the government might have employed, including shifts in the voter base. Still, I doubt it’ll be enough to explain that 10-point gap.


I suspect, however, that pollsters failed to capture what pro-government commentators called a “nationalist deep wave.” I think of this as the promise of Turkish exceptionalism. Erdoğan promised the continuation of the imperial project he has embarked upon. He used his power over the media to strongly equate the opposition with the “enemies of the nation,” be they Western powers, Kurdish separatism, or simply irreverent metropolitan elites. The opposition ignored this for the most part. They bet that people had grown numb to Erdoğan’s warnings of existential threats and fifth columns. They thought that the economic crisis made people too miserable to care. They campaigned on strong, orthodox economic governance, anti-authoritarianism and inclusiveness.


There was this clash in the messages. Neither side wanted to compromise and react to what the other side was doing. Both stuck to their message. Perhaps, in the middle ground, there was a substantial group of voters who listened to both sides, thought about voting for Kılıçdaroğlu, even told pollsters they’d vote for him, but in the privacy of the voting booth, changed their minds. They did so mostly due to the negative campaigning on Erdoğan’s side, hammered home by the practically unlimited resources of the state. That, at least, is how I picture the “deep wave” of nationalism.


That raises the following question: how did one (smaller) group of pollsters see this “deep wave” while the vast majority didn’t? Were they methodologically superior in some way? Or did they get the same numbers as the opposition pollsters, bump up Erdoğan to account for the deep wave they were hoping for? I don’t know.


In the West, economy usually plays a huge role in defining voters’ preferences. This could have suggested that Erdoğan’s race was doomed. On the contrary, he proved resilient, and has gained the upper hand ahead of the run-off. You mentioned nationalism as a key factor in Turkish politics. But what’s the relationship between Islamic identity and nationalism in Turkey?


There’s a few aspects to your question. On the economy, yes, Erdoğan voters proved resilient to economic shocks. Inflation erodes incomes and creates a huge amount of stress. People are priced out of their homes, they can’t feed their kids on the paychecks that once afforded them comfortable lives. On the other hand, unemployment has been going down steadily in recent years, and being included in AK Party support networks did help people in covering basic necessities. Still, there has been a precipitous drop in the standard of living of the working and middle classes. Voters were told that this is part of a transition process to a “national economy,” and that it was part of the country’s epic struggle for independence and superpower status. I doubt that European voters would have been as forgiving, but you never know. Perhaps Turkey is a precursor to a political dynamic that is emerging in Europe as well.


On Islamism, one has to ask: which Islamism? Turkey is becoming more worldly by the day. Islamism used to be an effort to extract political system from religious orthodoxy. Now it is a cluster of mystic symbols, often being mixed in with other nationalistic themes or the conventions of cult-like “cemaat” networks. At the heart of Islamism is the promise of exceptionalism and geopolitical significance. That’s why the government didn’t campaign specifically on topics on the Islamist agenda, like the age of marriage, religious education, or the penal code. They campaigned on a strong defense sector and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, things that you could easily transpose to many European far-right parties (today or in modern history). The issue wasn’t whether Islamist principles would be applied in governance, it was whether the class assuming Islamist symbolism would maintain their supremacy. The opposition seemed to think that educated middle class Islamists (especially women) might. Perhaps some did, but many, it seems, didn’t.


Erdoğan’s prayer at Hagia Sophia on the night before elections was practically a campaign rally. Previous generations of Islamists would have been profoundly disturbed by that kind of a display, but things are different now. The various gradients of political Islam can sync around core symbols like that.


In explaining the results, most Western media highlighted the cleavage between big cities and rural areas. However, if we look at the results in Istanbul and Ankara, we see that Kılıçdaroğlu has gained only a slight majority (around 1.3% in Ankara district, less than 2% in Istanbul district). In the coastal districts Kılıçdaroğlu obtained wider support, instead: more than 57% in Mersin, 53% in Antalya, 63% in Izmir and so on. Could you help us understand the differences between coastal and inner Turkey?


Yes, I often see comparisons to the United States, where coastal strips vote Democrat and the “heartland” votes Republican. Coastal areas and the three metropoles are more progressive than the rest of the country.


As you point out, however, Ankara and Istanbul held out in this election. I think this has to do with the rapid pace of urbanization in Turkey. In the 1960s, 70% of the country’s population lived in rural areas. Today, it’s down to 25%. Starting in the 1960s, rings of shantytowns formed around the big cities, and in the following decades, the socialist and Islamist movements clashed for the support of these parts. Erdoğan emerged from the Istanbul district of Kagithane and built the early AK Party’s grassroots structure from the cities out into the countryside. So this is an urban movement at its core. The local elections in 2019 have shown that his movement’s grip on the big cities is slipping, but only very gradually.


Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is supported by a vast and diverse array of parties. Nationalists, Islamists, Leftists, and indirectly even Kurds, are part of his alliance. Is this heterogeneous composition an aspect that discouraged voters from casting their ballots in favor of the Nation Alliance? Or, perhaps, the reasons of his bad electoral performance should be found in his “dovish” campaign, which he now seems to have abandoned in favor of an “hawkish” narrative?


The challenge for both sides was fundamentally different. On Erdoğan’s side, the challenge is to unite as many right-wing traditions as possible. On Kılıçdaroğlu’s side, the challenge is to contain right-left polarization under the banner of Republicanism. Kılıçdaroğlu received 45% of the vote, which is significantly better than previous attempts. It’s certainly far above the CHP’s 25%. It fell short of the goal of achieving a majority of course, but it’s still a significant feat.


We live in the age of nationalism. Something about the political moment we live in across the world – be it the state of technology, economic current, or the geopolitical climate, seems to be conducive to far-right nationalism. In that sense, Erdoğan’s task was always easier than Kılıçdaroğlu’s. Erdoğan’s campaign was lackluster in comparison to previous ones, while Kılıçdaroğlu definitely ran the best campaign of his life, but he succumbed to strong headwinds.


Considering a likely Erdoğan win in the run-off, what are your expectations for the future of Turkish politics? On the one hand, he seems to have already achieved most of his political goals: he transformed Turkey into a presidential system, reconverted Hagia Sophia into a mosque and boosted his religious agenda, built an economic empire, silenced part of his opponents... What’s left on his wish list?


As you point out, Erdoğan has accomplished many of his goals, but I think you underestimate his ambition. If you read the Islamist literature of Erdoğan’s youth and the people who influenced him, you understand that this political tradition sees the Republic as a catastrophe. What makes Erdoğan special is that he doesn’t compromise on that vision, but he is also prepared to be patient in its attainment. The solution he has come up with is not to upend it in an Iran-style revolution, but to outgrow it from within, bit by bit. The presidential system, Hagia Sophia or capture of economic resources are tools to build a stable, right-wing supermajority of the kind enjoyed by Vladimir Putin in Russia. The Kulturkampf is both the dynamo and the ultimate contest in this vision of “great politics.” Ultimately, it is about re-establishing a position from which Turkey can once again compete with the West across all spheres of life.


Erdoğan has hinted that he probably won’t see his vision come into fruition, and that’s OK, that he can end his career knowing that he was the precursor to leaders who can make it happen. I’m not sure he can be successful though. His system is great at suffocating dissent and uniting people around mythical narratives, but it isn’t very good at aspects of governance that require more sophisticated cooperation. Things like the arts, scientific achievement, diplomatic finesse, will likely continue to elude this regime. It is also unclear whether Erdoğan can resolve the problem of his successor. Whenever he isn’t on the ballot, such as the June 2015 election, or the 2019 regional elections, his candidate has lost. He needs to pass on the mantle of the “reis” (meaning “leader”) as his followers call him, but it’s not clear whether that’s possible.




The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation