Turkey’s election on Sunday was neither triumphant nor terrible for the country’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He didn’t win the majority he needed to remain president for at least another five years, but he was still the top vote getter and will participate in a May 28 runoff vote against his chief opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Runoff votes aren’t really an authoritarian leader’s stock-in-trade. They usually prefer repression of unfavorable election results, or maybe finding votes to make up the difference.
So, maybe Erdogan isn’t the authoritarian so many of us living on Pundit Street thought?
There are as many flavors of authoritarianism as there are authoritarians. You have genocidal tyrants like Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler. Then you have more benevolent dictators: Cincinnatus, who saved Rome from a barbarian hoard and went home to his farm; Josip Broz Tito, who kept Yugoslavia together and made it a vacation spot; Lee Kwan Yew who transformed Singapore into a rich megacity; Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who built the Turkish republic out of Ottoman ashes.
There are arguments to move these historical figures from column to the other—Tito had secret police modeled on the KGB; Tamerlane may have been nice to his mother—but that’s the gist.
Erdogan is neither a benevolent dictator, nor is he a tyrant. He’s an authoritarian of his own stripe—and that stripe is popular. In the 20 years he’s been in power, he’s mostly been the guy the people want. Before Sunday’s vote, the 69-year-old Erdogan had won many elections, and by wide margins. He was an immensely popular reformist mayor of Istanbul. He did so well there that he and his Islamist Justice and Development Party, AKP, moved up to play on the national stage.
He was popular enough win a referendum that in 2018 transformed a parliamentary democracy into a presidentially led one—unsurprisingly with himself as the head. That move, which dumped even the title of prime minister, consolidated enormous power into a single pair of hands.
And those hands have, time and time again, acted in an authoritarian way. If you’re looking to get your news without a daily dose of Erdogan propaganda, don’t look to your local Ankara newspaper, or flip on local Turkish TV. In fact, being a journalist at all is a good way to get yourself arrested as a terrorist. Political prisoners number in the thousands, many of whom are rotting in prison without charge.
Authoritarian is as authoritarian does.
And after a failed 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan purged the civil service—including teachers—and the military of anyone who was suspected of ties to or sympathies for Muhammed Fethullah Gülen. Gulen had once been an ally of Erdogan, but now is considered a bitter enemy of the Turkish leader. Tens of thousands of people lost their jobs, and many spent at least some time in prison.
But what about this election? Why did Erdogan lay down the mantle of absolute power to let the people decide whether can he wear it again?
Because he just needed a little self-confidence. After all, he’s not the first authoritarian to do it. Russian President Vladimir Putin won largely free somewhat fair elections, once upon a time, and even now, long after he revealed himself as a tyrant, he’s still incredibly popular in Russia.
Erdogan allowed the vote to go ahead because he felt he could afford it, that victory was within easy reach. While some elections are all about leveling the playing field, preparations for the Turkish election were all about flattening the opposition.
The fact that Erdogan didn’t win an outright victory in the first round of voting is somewhat surprising. He had all the advantages the state could provide, even if his economic policies are a joke and he failed the earthquake test. He even asked Elon Musk‘s twitchy Twitter to censor what’s left of itself in the country. The company and its boss complied and then tried to defend its nonexistent free speech cred. My guess is that Erdogan will win in the second round, though whether through popularity or fiat remains to be seen. When he does it will be both a celebration of democracy and a blow to freedom.
If President Donald Trump had won the 2020 election, many people in the United States questioned whether there would be a 2024 vote. It’s the same with Erdogan. If he wins this time, will average Turks ever have a say again? Nobody ever said you can’t be a popular authoritarian, just that you might tip the scales to stay that way.
Jason Fields is a deputy opinion editor at Newsweek.
The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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