Online Exclusive

7 Lessons from Turkey’s Effort to Beat a Populist Autocrat

What the opposition did and how Erdoğan managed to escape outright defeat.

By Murat Somer and Jennifer McCoy

May 2023 

Turkey’s hotly contested May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections saw a record turnout of 88.9 percent. Heading into the election, polls had given opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who was supported by two alliances of opposition parties, a slight edge over President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan, who has been in power for two decades, was seeking yet another term despite Turkey’s declining economy and the government’s poor response to a catastrophic earthquake earlier this year. He seemed more vulnerable going into the election than ever before.

By the end of the night, however, Erdoğan (with 49.5 percent) had just missed the 50 percent threshold to win outright and will head into the May 28 runoff nearly 5 points ahead of Kılıçdaroğlu (who won 44.9 percent). A third candidate, ultranationalist Sinan Oğan, won 5.2 percent of the vote, and his endorsement could tip the balance in either direction. The president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its allies have for now retained their majority in parliament. However, allegations of election irregularities could lead to some seats being reallocated to the opposition.

These outcomes came as a surprise and disappointment to many. So we must ask: How did Erdoğan escape defeat? And how did the opposition come so close in the first place?

Three factors explain Erdoğan’s stronger-than-expected first-round performance. First, intense polarization and negative partisanship kept voters from switching from pro-Erdoğan to anti-Erdoğan blocs, even when they were unhappy with the government’s performance. Erdoğan’s use of political rhetoric demonizing the opposition, identity politics, and fear-mongering disinformation helped him to keep most of his base despite the distresses of high inflation (estimated to be at 80 percent) and the February earthquake. Meanwhile, Kılıçdaroğlu had the backing of opposition parties that had fielded separate presidential candidates in 2018, yet he failed to improve on their combined total from five years ago.

Second, it is exceedingly difficult to defeat elected autocrats. One need only look at Vladimir Putin in Russia, Hugo Chávez and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, and, more recently, Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia — both of whom won landslide elections last year, dashing hopes for change. Still, Erdoğan was facing his biggest challenge ever, given his mismanagement of the economy, his government’s inadequate response to the earthquake, and years of corruption. To compensate, he not only secured major loans from Saudi Arabia and Russia so that he could entice votes with handouts such as free gas for a year, but he also engaged in more electoral manipulation and discrimination.

Third, Erdoğan put to full use the “Frankenstate” he has constructed over the years to promote himself and stifle his opponents. He has politicized state television and, through his oligarchs, taken over most private mass media, allowing him to deny or control coverage of the opposition (for example, producing uneven, discrediting, and at times demonizing portrayals of opponents) for up to 80 percent of voters. Erdoğan also may have received Russian help with a deep-fake video that aired at his closing campaign rally and depicted terrorist PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) members singing the opposition’s campaign song. He jailed leftist pro-Kurdish leaders and potential candidates, and convicted popular opposition figure Ekrem Imamoğlu, now mayor of Istanbul, of “insulting” the election commission following shenanigans in Imamoğlu’s 2019 mayoral race, threatening to disqualify him from running for president.

Crucially, Erdoğan’s compliant parliament changed the rules this year for seat allocations in that body, requiring parties in an alliance to agree on a single list of candidates if they wanted to receive the full benefit of forming an electoral alliance. This task was guaranteed to be a challenge for an alliance of six opposition parties. In the end, the opposition did better in large cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, but the ruling People’s Alliance won in rural areas where gaining a seat requires fewer votes. Thus the governing alliance won 53.5 percent of seats with just 48.4 percent of the vote, while the two opposition alliances together won 46 percent of seats with 45.5 percent of the vote.

The Opposition’s Innovations

Democratic oppositions often are ideologically fractured and helpless against autocrats’ democracy-eroding tactics, which over time tilt the playing field so dramatically that beating them becomes nearly impossible. Perhaps just as damaging, many opposition groups lack a vision for addressing fears and grievances that bring autocrats to power in the first place. They are not offering the people realistic, democratic alternative solutions to their problems. Turkey’s opposition, in contrast, has made significant and innovative advances on both fronts — electoral competition and governing strategies — in recent years. This, in large part, is why the opposition alliance was narrowly favored going into the election. And it did hold its own against great odds, ultimately keeping Erdogan’s presidential vote under 50 percent for the first time in his three presidential contests. Whether or not the opposition prevails on May 28, it has acted creatively and made strides in organization and mobilization that will serve it in the future. Its strategies and tactics could provide valuable lessons for oppositions worldwide. Here are seven of them:

1) Unite: Turkish opposition parties understood that they could not win on their own against an autocrat viciously using its powers to divide, discredit, and disempower the opposition. So they joined together, forming two major coalitions: the Nation Alliance (also known as Table of Six) and the Labor and Freedom Alliance. These coalitions jointly endorsed Kılıçdaroğlu as president. Oğan, the third presidential candidate, is now trying to play kingmaker.

Although the Nation alliance strategically coordinated electoral lists for some parliamentary districts, it should have created more united lists. It also failed to coordinate at all with the leftist Freedom and Labor Alliance for parliamentary seats, which helped Erdoğan’s alliance in the parliamentary vote. Turkey’s electoral system has a high threshold for party entry (7 percent) and uses the D’Hondt formula to distribute seats (benefiting larger parties). That, combined with the government’s ability to gerrymander the 87 electoral districts, at least to some degree means that Turkey’s is not a pure proportional-representation system, making it more imperative for opposition parties to join together.

2) Depolarizing messages: Erdoğan has long used polarizing politics to demean and vilify his opponents and to keep his voters loyal, whether they like the government or not. The more voters dislike or fear the opposition, the more hesitant they’ll be to punish the regime at the ballot box. To disarm or at least neutralize that strategy, the Turkish opposition formed left-right alliances that cannot be pinned to any single identity, ideology, or legacy. This was so effective that Erdoğan had to resort to unprecedented levels of disinformation and hate speech to demonize the opposition.

The opposition so far has mostly avoided the temptation to respond in kind and risk further polarizing Turks. Instead, it has proposed a new Turkey — one of tolerance and diversity that respects religious freedoms. Most surprising perhaps, is the viral “Alevi” video, in which Kiliçaroğlu put his own minority Alevi Muslim religious identity front and center and called on young people to embrace diverse identities. Although such positive tactics can be, and have been, effective, we must still recognize that it is hard to defeat negative sentiments of fear, anger, and hate.

3) Consensus-seeking and program-based politics: Rather than simply presenting an anti-incumbent message or offering an alternative strongman (a common approach), Turkey’s opposition alliances have focused on their programs and policies. They have stressed that Kılıçdaroğlu is seeking votes for his alliance and its program, not for himself, and they have signed detailed documents laying out their agreed-upon reforms. The agreements detailed in the Nation Alliance’s 244-page memorandum of understanding have injected an unprecedented programmatic depth into Turkish politics and lend credence to the opposition’s claim that it has a bigger agenda than simply ousting Erdoğan.

4) Conflict resolution: Turkey’s opposition alliances have developed an agree-to-disagree culture to back up their promise to rebuild the country’s democracy with a broad-based consensus. Nonetheless, they have not been immune from disagreements and infighting. In the most serious instance, Good Party leader Meral Akşener left the Nation Alliance only to return two days later. For the most part, however, the constituent parties have shown a commitment to keep talking until they reach some kind of agreement.

5) Extraordinary tactics disarming the autocrat: The opposition has used creativity and humor to counter the government’s heavy-handed tactics. The opposition’s clever use of social media has helped it to overcome the incumbent’s extensive informational advantages. Kılıçdaroğlu’s nightly videos from his humble kitchen, which contrasts sharply with Erdoğan’s flamboyant presidential palace, are a good example. Creativity comes in handy, especially for frustrating the government’s strategic repression. Erdoğan has weaponized a politicized judiciary to selectively cripple his most promising political rivals — for example, by bringing charges against İmamoğlu when he rose in the polls as a potential presidential candidate. Kılıçdaroğlu has declared İmamoğlu as his running mate, together with Mansur Yavaş, Ankara’s equally popular mayor, and the five other party leaders who make up his alliance. This creates not only a supremely representative leadership team, but also a clear obstacle to Erdoğan sidelining individual rivals.

6) Looking to the future with concrete proposals: Autocrats promise to navigate their countries through troubled times and address pressing problems such as climate change, immigration, and inequality with a strong hand. In reality, they hollow out democratic institutions, talk tough, and implement policies that exploit but do not solve these global problems. A week before Turkey’s pivotal twin elections, Erdoğan was not campaigning on promises of social equality, price stability, or food security. Instead, he was boasting about his assertive foreign policy and the country’s flourishing arms industry, huge parts of which are owned by members of his own family. This may swell national pride and bump up Turkey’s ranking in the global military pecking order, but it will not make Turkey or any of its neighbors more secure.

Many democratic oppositions fail to propose realistic solutions to the problems plaguing society beyond returning to the past that voters rejected in the first place. The Turkish opposition has been trying to change that. It is far from reaching consensus on many issues that divide parties of the right and left. But it is offering a program for the future while trying hard not to alienate supporters of its constituent parties, a problem that has stymied oppositions in Hungary, Serbia, and Venezuela. The opposition’s platform includes economic proposals, such as restoring the independence of the Central Bank, as well as far-reaching reforms, such as signing the Paris Climate Convention, promoting a green economy, and addressing poverty and high youth unemployment with a universal basic income for lower-class families and 18-to-25-year-olds. Perhaps most important, the opposition wants to replace Erdoğan’s oppressive hyperpresidential system with a democratic and consensus-based “reformed” parliamentary system more amenable to discussing issues freely and inclusively.

7) Collective leadership: In Turkey’s hyperpresidential system, the opposition has taken the extraordinary step of proposing a collective leadership team, with two popular mayors and the leaders of the other five parties joining Kılıçdaroğlu as proposed vice-presidents. Although vice-presidents are not elected in Turkey, this promise of a leadership team representative of all the parties in the Nation Alliance demonstrates its commitment to remaining united in a new government and implementing its agreed-upon program.

No Effort Is Wasted

None of these innovations guarantees success for the opposition. The limits to its ability to overcome the hurdles of an entrenched, energetic, and charismatic strongman were on full display on election night. But the opposition still has a chance to win. The runoff will be a battle for turnout, and the opposition must motivate demoralized voters to go to the polls. Kılıçdaroğlu will have to explain that he will be able to govern stably with a legislature dominated by the AKP and its allies. He will also need to find a way to secure Oğan’s endorsement, perhaps by finding common ground on policies of immigration and secularism. These are major challenges.

Whether the Turkish opposition wins this time around or not, its strategies and proposals will be highly informative. It may not yet be able to unseat Turkey’s autocrat, but it has managed to keep opposition support more alive than ever and forced Erdoğan to keep radicalizing his policies and alliances in order to survive. These same strategies can benefit other oppositions challenging autocrats and would-be autocrats. Beyond that, political parties and civil society groups in democracies worldwide can use these strategies as they try to confront urgent challenges in contexts of deep inequality, divided societies, and democratic backsliding.

Murat Somer is professor of political science at Koç University, Istanbul.  He is coeditor, with Jennifer McCoy, of “Polarization and Democracy: A Janus-faced Relationship with Pernicious Consequences,” a special volume of American Behavioral Scientist (2018) and author of Return to Point Zero: The Turkish-Kurdish Question and How Politics and Ideas (Re)Make Empires, Nations and States (2022). Jennifer McCoy is Regent’s Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University, nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and visiting researcher at Koç University in Istanbul. She is coeditor, with Murat Somer, of “Polarizing Polities: A Global Threat to Democracy,” a special volume of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (2019).


Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: TUR Presidency/Murat Cetinmuhurdar / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images




How Erdoğan Rules Through Crisis

Senem Aydın-Düzgit,Mustafa Kutlay, and E. Fuat Keyman

Turkey’s economic and political crises have only worsened, but the autocratic president remains in power. His secret? He uses the levers of the state to shield his supporters from harm, while punishing the rest.


Is Erdoğan on His Way Out?

Philip Balboni

The Turkish president came to power as an antiestablishment everyman. Twenty years later he is an authoritarian leader clinging to power. Will the forces that catapulted him to power be his demise?


How Erdoğan’s Populism Won Again

Berk Esen and Sebnem Gumuscu

The opposition thought they had Turkey’s autocratic president on the ropes. But Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s brand of authoritarian populism triumphed. A more divisive and repressive chapter will almost surely follow.