The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An Erdogan defeat would mark a victory for liberal democracy worldwide

6 min

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be the most defining leader of the early part of the 21st century. His two-decade rule has transformed the face of his country and cemented a political style that prefigured the rise of numerous nationalist demagogues elsewhere. In 2003, the year Erdogan came to power, the Freedom House think tank wrote confidently of “liberty’s expansion” around the world and hailed glimmers of change in notoriously sclerotic, statist Turkey under Erdogan’s religiously minded Justice and Development Party, or AKP. This year, its annual report placed Turkey at the heart of a more than decade-long global “democratic recession.”

Erdogan’s own evolution over the past 20 years also tells a story about the trajectory of global politics in that time. He was a liberalizing reformer who powered an economic boom as prime minister in the first decade of the century. As Turkish dreams of accession into the European Union faded and financial crises convulsed the West, he turned southward and eastward and settled into the role of a religious nationalist bent on rolling back the draconian legacy of decades of Kemalist secularism. In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, he used his soft-Islamist clout to push a Turkish model of democracy for the region.

Amid a wave of Arab counterrevolutions, Erdogan’s “neo-Ottoman” posturing barely stood a chance. And the longer he remained in office, the clearer it became that the president’s sole mission was to consolidate and hold onto power. By the 2020s, the Turkish model under Erdogan represented something altogether different: A blueprint for indefinite electoral autocracy built on majoritarian grandstanding, divisive culture wars, anti-Western grievance and paranoia about domestic and foreign plots — not to mention the capture of key state institutions, the intimidation and arrest of dissenters and civil society members, and the steady erosion of the country’s free press.

A report this year from the V-Dem Institute in Sweden charted a decade-long process of “autocratization” around the world, with the ranks of the world’s electoral autocracies swelling to 56 countries in 2023. Erdogan’s Turkey is a prominent, pioneering member of the pack — forging an illiberal path followed by right-wing governments in countries like Hungary and India, and marshaling populist anger for a political mandate well before the Trumps and Bolsonaros of the world did the same.

This weekend, Turkey’s story could dramatically change. Voters go to the ballot box for the first round in presidential and parliamentary elections with Erdogan and the AKP facing the toughest challenge yet to their rule. Opinion polls show Erdogan trailing Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the soft-spoken, 74-year-old presidential candidate backed by a united bloc of opposition parties. A stalwart of the secularist Republican People’s Party, or CHP, Kilicdaroglu has framed his bid as that of a one-term public servant intent on restoring Turkish democracy and unraveling the strongman presidential system that Erdogan ushered in via a 2017 referendum.

The odds are still stacked against them, given Erdogan’s domineering hold of the levers of power and influence over the media. But the appeal of the opposition has never been stronger in Erdogan’s years in office. That’s been underscored tragically by the acrimony over lax Erdogan-era oversight that followed February’s devastating earthquake, which led to more than 50,000 deaths in southern Turkey and the collapse of countless structures that experts believe authorities failed to adequately inspect for earthquake proofing.

From his kitchen table, Erdogan’s challenger gets his message out

A new cohort of Turkish voters, many of whom have only known life under Erdogan, appear to be mobilizing for change. “Some analysts have cast Kilicdaroglu as a figure similar to President Biden, who campaigned on ending the rancor and division of the Trump era, and as a bridge to a new political generation,” my colleagues noted.

A victory for the Turkish opposition and the defenestration of Erdogan’s regime may have significant consequences. It could see a major shift in domestic economic policy; in a previous era, Erdogan could campaign on his economic record, but years of unorthodox measures to juice the Turkish economy have contributed to a spiraling cost-of-living crisis that may cost him votes. On the world stage, his defeat could lead to a healthier relationship between Turkey and the West, unfreeze Turkey’s block on Sweden’s accession into NATO, and shift Turkey’s equivocating stance on the war between Russia and Ukraine closer to the NATO consensus.

Turkey elections: Are voters ready to move on from Erdogan?

But all of that may pale in comparison to the symbolic message Erdogan’s loss would strike. “It will say something about the future of democracy across the world because we’re talking about an entrenched autocrat who has been there for 20 years,” Gonul Tol, author of “Erdogan’s War: A Strongman’s Struggle at Home and in Syria,” told me during a briefing hosted by the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington. “If he loses power via elections, that will give a lot of people hope that the autocratic surge can be reversed.”

Key to the moment is the apparent unity of Turkey’s notoriously fractious opposition, who after successive, divisive failures at ousting Erdogan may finally break through. The complex wrangling that led to this moment could be a guide to beleaguered opposition forces elsewhere.

“Democratic opposition parties need to recognize the danger and unite before it is too late,” argued the Economist, before gesturing the world’s largest democracy. “In India a fragmented opposition has allowed Narendra Modi, a strongman prime minister, to become dominant with 37 percent of the vote. Now the main opposition leader faces jail.”

Erdogan’s government has thrown (or attempted to throw) a number of key political opponents into jail on what critics say are trumped-up, spurious charges. But there is still enough of a democratic system in place to give the opposition hope of finally unwinding his power.

But the euphoria of victory may be short-lived. “Though Turkey’s famously fractious opposition parties have managed to paper over their differences in the run-up to this election, a win by Kilicdaroglu would force him to contend with competing interests inside his umbrella alliance, which includes nationalists, Islamists, secularists and liberals,” explained my colleague Sarah Dadouch.

An ungainly coalition may not hold, or may prove dysfunctional. And then there will always be the possibility of Erdogan’s return, via elections, as prime minister.