Societal Factors Propelled Erdoğan to Victory

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

M. Hakan Yavuz

Dr. Yavuz is a professor of political science at the University of Utah and author of Nostalgia for the Empire: The Politics of Neo-Ottomanism (Oxford University Press, 2020) and  Erdoğan: The Making of an Autocrat (Edinburgh University Press, 2022). 

The strongman’s tenure has sparked moral bankruptcy in Turkey. Change will require addressing the issues underlying his rule. 


During the two-decade tenure of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, just re-elected to another five-year term as president, Turkey has witnessed a concerning decline in moral standards, leading to a sense of bankruptcy.1 One of the distressing aspects contributing to this decline is the perception of corruption within religious institutions, including leaders like imams and the Directorate of Religious Affairs.2 Regrettably, these institutions that are traditionally expected to uphold ethical principles have faced criticism for their alleged involvement in unethical practices. While Erdoğan is responsible for the societal rot, the underlying condition of society must be addressed if Turkey is to break the cycle of strongman rule.  

In the midst of a moral, economic, and political crisis, Erdoğan emerged triumphant in the presidential runoff and secured a significant number of seats in the concurrent parliamentary voting. The president secured 27,513,587 votes, accounting for 52.18 percent of the total, while his opponent, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, received 25,260,109 votes, representing 47.82 percent. Addressing his supporters at the AKP headquarters in Ankara past midnight on May 28, Erdoğan asserted that the “people’s will” had shown its desire for his reign. He used divisive language and indicated he will continue to rule the country by force and criminalize opponents.3 Opposition parties vehemently criticized the elections, emphasizing that they were neither free nor fair and denouncing Erdoğan as a “master of political lies and manipulation.” 

It is crucial to delve into the reasons behind Erdoğan’s victory, as they shed light on the dynamics at play. The results are symptomatic of a deeply divided society; the primary factor that united the opposition was shared aversion to Erdoğan and his policies. The president’s success can be attributed to his adeptness at redirecting the election discourse from pressing concerns, such as the economy, the faltering justice system, and corruption. Instead, he skillfully shifted the public’s focus toward the survival of the Turkish state and the issue of Kurdish terrorism. By capitalizing on fears that he himself had a hand in cultivating, Erdoğan managed to frame Kılıçdaroğlu as supported by the Kurds and, far more concerning to the public, aligned with the militant Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).  

Below, I lay out the societal issues that Erdoğan has created and then used to bolster his strongman rule, as well as how his victory will affect relations with the West.  


Erdoğan’s Impact on Society: Deception, Emotion, Nationalism 

The modern Turkish Republic rose out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 with the founding philosophy of creating a secular European nation-state, which is also known as Kemalism—named after the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The 2023 election marked a pivotal moment as the nation enters its second century, representing the demise of the Kemalist republic. However, Erdoğan has been unable to establish a new, unified vision for the country. Rather than aspiring to restore a functioning and cohesive nation, the president appears content to work with fragmented parts and pieces.  

Through deliberate actions and rhetoric, Erdoğan has fostered the perception that external forces are posing threats to the nation’s sovereignty and interests. As part of this, he has cultivated a sense of the Turkish state as besieged by the United States and major European powers. In addition, Erdoğan has been implicated in the fabrication of a video purporting to show the leadership of the PKK expressing support for Kılıçdaroğlu. This deceptive act aimed to discredit the candidate and undermine the credibility of the opposition, thereby consolidating Erdoğan’s own position of power. In order to fend off these accusations, Kılıçdaroğlu responded with his version of nationalism, including a vow to return refugees as soon as possible. 

To fully understand the implications of Erdoğan’s victory, a comprehensive examination of the societal factors that have led to this consolidation of power is necessary. By addressing these underlying issues, it may be possible to foster a more inclusive and democratic environment, ultimately leading to a more balanced and harmonious society. 

  1. The role of emotions in Turkish politics requires thorough examination in light of the 2023 elections. The connection between Erdoğan and the conservative sector goes beyond logical reasoning and is rooted in a strong emotional attachment.  

  2. The cult of the strongman dominates Turkish political culture. Erdoğan, after Atatürk, is the most powerful and charismatic leader in modern history. Throughout his tenure, Erdoğan harnessed state resources to finance and promote a series of historical television dramas, which played a crucial role in shaping a political culture that glorified strongman leadership, fostered authoritarian tendencies and bred intolerance while harboring suspicion toward external influences. The political culture that has emerged under Erdoğan’s leadership has permeated society, characterized by a strong sense of nationalism, a yearning for authoritative rule, a rejection of pluralism, and a pervasive fear of being divided or manipulated by powerful external forces. This deeply ingrained mindset instills a belief in the necessity of a strong leader who can safeguard national unity and protect against perceived threats. However, this political culture also engenders an environment that is less receptive to diversity of opinions, resistant to democratic norms, and resistant to constructive engagement with the international community. 

  3. Erdoğan used religion and nationalism throughout the elections and never hesitated to use mosques as political platforms to attack the opposition.5 He also labeled the opposition as terrorists and agents of foreign powers to divide the country. His anti-Kurdish campaign and successful campaign to show the opposition as the front of the PKK had a major effect. Since he owns and controls the media, he has managed to fabricate his own “truths,” and in this post-truth age, he has been effective at manipulating the public. Erdoğan’s courageous decisions on Karabakh, Libya, and Syria, challenging the United States and the European Union on several issues enhanced this image. In the elections, the idea that “again, only Erdoğan could solve the problems” was very effective.  

  4. Erdoğan pursued a populist policy and distributed state resources to keep himself in power. His early-retirement policies increased the salaries of public employees, and his promise to recruit teachers, police, and healthcare workers also played a critical role. For instance, in the first quarter of 2023, the public deficit increased to $23.6 billion. Moreover, the Central Bank regularly intervened in the market to keep the currency down by spending $50 billion. Finally, certain segments of society based their voting decisions on factors such as the assistance they receive, such as EYT (Early Retirement Right), minimum-wage hikes, as well as considerations related to issues like the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque and religious discourse. Erdoğan systematically cultivated political networks by leveraging financial resources and the distribution of state assets. 

  5. Erdoğan’s systematic oppression of political parties and civil society destroyed the possibility of fair and free elections. He jailed Selahattin Demirtas, the popular Kurdish politician, and Osman Kavala, a leading civil society organizer, to send a message. These two examples had a chilling effect on would-be political and social actors to keep quiet and not challenge Turkey’s authoritarian leader. Brazenly, he utilized the judiciary to suppress his opponents, resulting in the erosion of fundamental pillars of governance and putting a significant dent in the state’s legitimacy.  

  6. The limited impact of the opposition—especially some members of the Table of Six, the six-party coalition—played a role in Erdoğan’s victory. The Future Party (Gelecek Partisi) and DEVA parties received relatively few votes, and the voters of Good Party (IYI Parti) redirected their support toward Sinan Ogan, a nationalist secular politician, rather than Kılıçdaroğlu.  

  7. Russia exerted direct influence on the election by delaying gas and oil payments for a year so that Erdoğan could use the funds for election purposes. Notably, it was Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, who initiated a phone call to Ogan, requesting his support for Erdoğan. Ogan, enticed by various promises, ultimately agreed to back the incumbent, thereby opposing Kılıçdaroğlu.  


Turkey’s Continued Coolness with the United States and Europe 

Overall, the United States and Turkey will continue to experience strained relations as they clash on key issues, hindering any substantial improvement in their bilateral ties. Turkey’s further drift away from democratic norms will sour its relationship with the European Union, while its deepening alliance with Russia will be reinforced by Erdogan’s personal connections.  

These dynamics will contribute to the frosty US-Turkey relations, especially due to their fundamental disagreements on significant issues. These areas of contention include the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Kurdish question, and the longstanding Cyprus issue. Despite this, Turkey is more inclined to support Sweden’s bid for NATO membership during the alliance’s upcoming summit.  

Still, Erdoğan will continue to pose challenges and complications as an ally within the Western camp. As Turkey continues to distance itself from the principles of the rule of law and basic democratic norms, its association with the European Union will deteriorate further. The erosion of democratic values and the diminishing adherence to the rule of law will strain Turkey’s ties with Europe, making the prospects for improved relations appear bleak. 

Nevertheless, due to Erdoğan’s close personal and emotional ties with President Vladimir Putin, Turkey will intensify its relationship with Russia in various regional contexts. This deepening partnership will be particularly notable in Syria, Libya, and the South Caucasus. Russia has demonstrated greater sensitivity to Turkey’s security concerns compared to the United States, fostering an environment conducive to collaboration. This will further perpetuate negative sentiments toward the United States within Turkey. 


The Takeaway: Social Change Is Necessary 

The victory of Erdoğan in the 2023 elections can be attributed to the influence of fear-driven nationalism, the emotional bond with the conservative sector, the societal changes that have occurred under his long-standing rule, rhetoric emphasizing national security concerns, and the appeal of his governance approach, which includes addressing socioeconomic needs and cultural considerations. Understanding these dynamics is crucial for comprehending the electoral landscape in Turkey and its implications for the future.  

The legacy of Erdoğan’s rule, with its networks of patronage and the molding of a political culture centered around a strongman figure, presents significant challenges for Turkey’s future political landscape. Addressing these issues will require efforts to foster inclusivity, restore democratic principles, encourage pluralism, and nurture a more open-minded approach to engaging with the wider world. Under the current sociological makeup of Turkey, these are not possible.  




1 There are currently five books available on Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and they have been typically published by prominent presses. These include Soner Cagaptay, Erdoğan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris, 2019); Cagaptay, The New Sultan: Erdoğan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey (London: I.B. Tauris, 2019); M. Hakan Yavuz, Erdoğan: The Making of an Autocrat (Edinburgh University Press, 2022), Gonul Toy, Erdoğan’s War: A Strongman’s Struggle at Home and in Syria (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021); and Dimitar Bechev, Turkey Under Erdoğan: How a Country Turned from Democracy and the West (Yale University Press, 2022). 

2 Erdi Ahmet Ozturk, Religion, Identity and Power: Turkey and the Balkans in the Twenty-First Century (Edinburg: Edinburg University Press, 2022).  

3 “Erdoğan’s victory speech,”  

4 Kılıçdaroğlu’s speech,ğan-2023-05-29/  

5 Isaac Chotiner, “Why Erdoğan Prevailed in a Battle of Competing Nationalisms,” The New Yorker, May 18, 2023ğan-prevailed-in-a-battle-of-competing-turkish-nationalisms

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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