Is Erdoğan playing defense on the campaign trail?

President Erdoğan's election campaign focuses on new rational reforms ranging from economic growth to multidimensional foreign policy, draining momentum away from his opponents

Ahead of the June 24 elections in Turkey, all eyes are set on opinion polls and the power rankings between presidential candidates.

The overwhelming majority believes that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will win a comfortable victory in the first round. To my surprise, however, some commentators are eager to portray the activity of opposition movements as detrimental to the ruling party. Their claim that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is “tired, unenthusiastic and on defense” for example, isn’t backed by concrete evidence. Instead, those talking heads simply want to express their support for the opposition. To say the least, the idea that President Erdoğan was playing defense because he talked about the transfer of 15 parliamentarians from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) to the Good Party (İP), the formation of the Nation Alliance and his past decisions at campaign events is complete non-sense. Quite the contrary, the opposition parties are trailing the AK Party and trying to modify their campaigns to compete with the ruling party.

At this point, let us recall that the AK Party and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) formed the People’s Alliance before they decided to hold early elections and thereby scored many points against the opposition. They reaped additional benefits by announcing that the elections would take place on June 24 to give the opposition limited time to look for a joint candidate before they decided to field their own presidential candidates. Likewise, the Nation Alliance was a marriage of necessity for opposition leaders. Although the CHP really wanted to work with the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), it could not reverse the negative public perception of the movement in due time. Right now, calls by Muharrem Ince and Temel Karamollaoğlu for the release of the HDP’s presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, amounts to little more than lip service.

Those who mistake Mr. Erdoğan’s emphasis on “more welfare, more democracy and more freedom and justice” in his election manifesto for “defense” are dead wrong. After all, the AK Party has skillfully taken populism out of national politics and made reasonable promises to the electorate since its establishment in 2001. To be clear, a political party cannot simply provide a list of its past actions and future plans to voters after 16 years in power. One way or another, it must explain why it hasn’t been able to perform better during that period. At the same time, taking stock is a big part of Mr. Erdoğan’s political style and it explains why the electorate supported him eleven times.

It is possible to account for Mr. Erdoğan’s success with reference to four points of superiority:

First, the Turkish president is constantly looking for new things and reform opportunities. Although Mr. Erdoğan has been in power longer than any leader in modern Turkish history, it was him who proposed a new system of government to address the country’s pressing problems. Time and again, he transformed how political parties functioned. He raised the bar repeatedly without refraining from working harder himself. In the end, he introduced a new system, under which a simple majority was needed to win, and he hasn’t stopped campaigning since the April 2017 constitutional referendum.

Secondly, the Turkish president defends his political views and conclusions at all costs. Since 2013, Mr. Erdoğan repeatedly made the point that Turkey was under attack from the outside. He explained that a national-native resistance was the only way to fight back against global and regional turbulence. In the wake of the July 15 coup attempt, the idea that the country was “under attack” became part and parcel of national politics in Turkey.

Thirdly, Mr. Erdoğan always opted for courageous policies and syntheses. In his most recent election manifesto, the Turkish president notably presented a synthesis of security, welfare and liberty. As such, he seeks to consolidate Turkish democracy and protect the country’s vital interests simultaneously. To be clear, Mr. Erdoğan’s emphasis on Turkey’s future in recent years was more than some emotion-driven perception. Instead, he has been talking about the very real threats fueled by Washington’s misguided policies in Turkey’s crisis-ridden neighborhood.

Finally, the Turkish president engages in politics on the basis of reality even when he appeals to the electorate’s emotions. Despite his oratory skills, Mr. Erdoğan has always focused on spurring economic growth and ensuring Turkey’s safety. Likewise, his multidimensional foreign policy vision reflected national interests.

Until Turkey’s opposition leaders learn to beat the Turkish president in those four games, Mr. Erdoğan will continue to shape the conversation.

[Daily Sabah, 14 May 2018]

In this article