On the day he was reelected president for a third five-year term, Turkey’s resilient autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hopped on the roof of a campaign bus outside his Istanbul mansion and grinned with relief. Addressing a crowd of around 55,000, he began listing names of opposition parties they had defeated. “Is the CHP pro-LGBT? Is the HDP and the IYIP pro-LGBT? The little ones who act in cahoots with them, are they pro-LGBT?” His fans booed in response but cheered when Erdoğan pledged that their party, the AKP, would never let “the LGBT infiltrate our ranks.” He threatened to “wring the neck” of anyone targeting “the Turkish family, which is sacred to us.”
Four hours later, Erdoğan stood outside his monumental Presidential Palace in the capital Ankara, as a much larger crowd invited him to “Execute Selo!” That was a reference to Selahattin Demirtaş, the former leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP party, who had been imprisoned since 2016. Savoring the roar, Erdoğan went on to offer some friendly advice to opposition supporters, asking them to get rid of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of his rival CHP.
“Bye-bye, Mr. Kemal,” he said with a smile and tasked his voters with taking Istanbul back from the CHP in the March 2024 mayoral elections. For Erdoğan, this was not just a time to relish his victory. A new race had just begun, and he wants the opposition not only defeated but diminished entirely over the next 10 months.
Turkey’s rainbow opposition coalition—13 different parties with secularist, communist, environmentalist, pro-LGBTQI, and Kurdish agendas—are unlikely to emerge from the rubble of Erdoğan’s triumph anytime soon. That the incumbent devoted the bulk of his victory speeches to branding them as a bunch of LGBT-aligned-terrorist-sympathizers spoke volumes about why they lost. Erdoğan successfully channeled the base fears of Turkish society—anxieties about the nation’s sexual, territorial, and spiritual “health” and “integrity”—against his secularist competitors.
Walking Istanbul’s streets after hours on the election day, I was surrounded by cars where government supporters honked horns, hung from windows and car roofs to chant, “Bye-bye Mr. Kemal!” while making grey-wolf silhouettes (symbols of Turkish ultra-nationalism) with their hands. Erdoğan’s words that night had consequences. Fans knifed an opposition supporter to death in Ordu and shot a 15-year-old in the head in Mersin and a 14-year-old in Urfa. The cathartic celebrations seemed more concerned with twisting the knife in the losing side than applauding the incumbent.
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In the month since that evening, things have changed in Turkey—slowly at first and then very rapidly. On May 30, HaberTurk, the sole remaining news network claiming to produce objective journalism, canceled its op-ed sections and asked its contributors to write about “lifestyle topics” instead. On May 31, Demirtaş, the imprisoned Kurdish leader, announced his exit from politics. “We won’t make you president,” the influential mantra he came up with after running against Erdoğan in 2014’s presidential elections, now seems like a sad reminder of the optimism Demirtaş generated and Kılıçdaroğlu tried to emulate. By June 1, there were calls for the CHP’s leader himself to resign. As the dam of reality broke and his party imploded, with Kılıçdaroğlu’s religious background (he is an Alevi, a heterodox Islamic sect) turning into a debating point, there was little attempt on his side to take stock of what happened since May 28. Such passivity may prove politically fatal for Kılıçdaroğlu and his yes-men who run the CHP.
Watching the disillusionment of progressives over the past month has been heartbreaking. Leftist presenters of a flurry of weekly politics programs on television and radio began canceling their shows one after the other. A climate of solitude and despair has taken hold of the opposition. (Imagine the cancellation of Democracy Now!, the Nation Podcast, and various political programs on NPR the week after the beginning of a second Trump term.) Such signs of withdrawal from the public arena by multiple elements within the progressive camp—journalists, scholars, and opposition activists—may be understandable, as people want to protect the safety and livelihood of their families. But it’s also deeply worrying. The prospect of a Turkey that keeps its mouth shut for the next five years is chilling.
During his campaign, Erdoğan’s allies pledged to ban LGBTQI organizations in Turkey, remove requirements for divorced men to pay alimony to their wives, and end mixed education. For Turkey’s feminists and non-gender-conforming communities, this is terrifying. Pride 2023 offered a preview of the new atmosphere. Shortly after the University Feminist Collective announced a film screening on Istanbul’s European side on June 6, authorities banned the event, claiming that “the documentary may threaten national peace.” The municipality went on to restrict all indoor and outdoor activities in the vicinity. On June 7, police raided the Science Aesthetics Culture Art Research Foundation (BEKSAV) film collective on Istanbul’s Asian side and stopped the screening of the British movie Pride, about the anti-Thatcher solidarity between striking miners and LGBTQI activists, in 1984. Cops detained scores of Turkish audience members. Pride marches in city squares—in the past a regular occurrence—are now inconceivable.
Erdoğan’s government now has the whole field to itself and can use its mandate to crush various shades of dissident cultures in their entirety. Opposition leaders who defied autocracy have become sitting ducks overnight. Prosecutors have a free hand to go after all members of the Table of Six, the architects of Kılıçdaroğlu’s rainbow coalition who lost their legal immunity the week after the elections. Because they gave up their position as MPs to appear on the presidential ticket as vice-presidential candidates, none of them will be in the parliament for the next half-decade. On June 3, when Erdoğan read his presidential oath in parliament, Kılıçdaroğlu was relegated to a seat assigned to members of the general public in the parliament. He refused to stand up to protest an election process he called “the most unjust of recent times.” Such gestures may receive likes on social media, yet count for little in the brutal realpolitik that now has my country in its grip. The winner has taken all, reducing Kılıçdaroğlu and his allies to mere spectators.
What this all means for Turkish democracy and Europe remains to be determined. Nathalie Tocci, director of Italy’s Institute of International Affairs, has noted in Politico how Erdoğan’s win was a kind of relief for European Union bureaucrats in Brussels. Had the democratic opposition won, they’d have to revise a number of agreements, including one that keeps more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees inside Turkey’s borders, with financial support from the West. “The European Union will be able to talk the talk of values, slamming Turkey’s authoritarianism—over which it has no influence—while cynically walking the walk of a purely transactional relationship with an unabashedly transactional leader,” Tocci wrote.
The autocrat’s resilience, so soothing for Europe’s bureaucrats, also delighted authoritarian leaders. Donald Trump congratulated Erdoğan for his “big and well-deserved victory” on Truth Social. “I know him well, he is a friend, and have learned firsthand how much he loves his Country and the great people of Turkey, which he has lifted to a new level of prominence and respect!” Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, was more blunt: “Thank God Erdoğan won,” he said on June 2: “I prayed a lot for his victory.” After all, the election was between Erdoğan and George Soros, according to Orbán: “If the leader of the unified opposition, I mean the candidate of Soros, won the elections, millions of refugees would leave Turkey for Europe.” For Nicolás Maduro, words were superfluous: During Erdoğan’s swearing-in ceremony in the Presidential Palace in Ankara, where he was a guest of honor, the Venezuelan president was spotted with his hands opened, palms directed to heavens, praying to God for Erdoğan’s victory in a perfect imitation of Islamic prayer.
All that spectacle will soon turn into faded pages of historical archives. Erdoğan announced a return to financial orthodoxy—his new finance minister proclaimed that Turkey has no choice but to return to rational ground. Alongside a newly appointed Central Bank director (a former co-CEO of the bankrupted First Republic Bank), a new economic team will force the country to swallow the bitter medicine needed to save Turkey. The Lira lost 7 percent of its value against the dollar in one day in May, and fell a further 8 percent during three days during the third week of June. Unemployment, bankruptcies, homelessness will likely follow, until the economy finds its floor and Turkey regains its status as a venue for tourism, UEFA Champions League finals, fashion shows, and conferences, with streets cleansed of activists and ready for business. Meanwhile, Turkish politics may fall from the headlines, with distressing dispatches about extreme poverty from an economic meltdown taking their place.
With Turkish hopes for political change crushed for the next five years, progressives worldwide should pay attention to the repressed and locked-up voices hidden beneath the growing silence here: economic stability may yet arrive—but at what a cost for the country’s soul?