The Election Shock Which Will Reverberate Around the World

The presidential election on Sunday suggests that Turkey is tiring of its strongman.

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Well, who saw that election bouncer coming? A long-established leader who seemed invincible has been shown to be vulnerable. An opposition which gave the impression of never quite being up to the job has achieved a notable success. Politics in a part of the world which seemed set in a groove has suddenly become unpredictable.

No, I’m not talking about Bengaluru but Istanbul, and the election setback endured by Turkey’s authoritarian leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But there’s a link between the two polls beyond the simple coincidence of timing. The tide may just be turning on the right-wing populism which has been such a powerful force in many of the world’s leading democracies.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics – first as prime minister and more recently as executive-style president – for 20 years. He has moulded the determinedly secular constitutional dispensation established by Kemal Ataturk a century ago to give more prominence to Islamic values. He has given Turkey – a key member of the NATO military alliance – a greater international profile and initially presided over economic modernisation and growth.

But the presidential election on Sunday suggests that Turkey is tiring of its strongman. The inept government response to the two devastating earthquakes which hit Turkey early this year and killed more than 50,000 people has angered many voters. And stubbornly high inflation (currently an eye-watering 45%), linked to the slump in value of the Turkish lira, has left many voters feeling worse off.

Erdogan emerged on top in Sunday’s vote, but only just. And the latest tallies indicate that he has narrowly failed to get 50% of the vote which would have allowed him to be re-elected on the first ballot. So he faces the humiliation of a run-off second ballot in two weeks’ time. His challenger is an unlikely iconoclast. Kemal Kilicdaroglu is a mild-mannered former civil servant who at 74 is five years older than the incumbent president.

Kilicdaroglu’s success in taking the presidential election to a second round is partly because he has promised to undo the centralisation of power under Erdogan and move away from an executive presidency back to a parliamentary system. As important, he has fashioned an alliance of opposition parties, including a moderate party representing Turkey’s large Kurdish minority. And as a new face, he offers a fresh start in the quest for economic stability.

Also read: Erdogan Vs Kilicdaroglu: Here’s Why All Eyes Are on May 28

In the run-off ballot on May 28, Erdogan may well succeed in being returned to another term in office. But the aura of electoral invincibility that has surrounded the Turkish ruler for so long has been punctured. The right-wing populism which Erdogan epitomised – indeed he could be seen as the initial standard-bearer of this global political trend – is no longer a sure-fire vote winner.

In other major democracies, right-wing populist leaders have been eclipsed. In Brazil, Jair Bolosnaro was voted out of office last year after four years in power. In the United States, Donald Trump was similarly a single-term president – though he stands a real chance of a return to the White House. In Britain, Boris Johnson didn’t manage a full-term as prime minister, being forced out by his own party last year because too many of his lies and evasions had been found out.

This is not a universal political trend. Viktor Orban has been in power in Hungary for 13 years and counting. Italy, which is so often politically out of step, lurched sharply right last year in electing Giorgia Meloni, once a member of a neo-fascist party, as prime minister. And some major democracies – most notably Germany – have proved largely immune to nationalist populism, in part because of the dark shadow of 20th century totalitarianism. But it is at least arguable that the political whirlwind sparked by the shock and dislocation of the global financial crisis of 2007-8, and the resulting collapse of confidence in social democracy, is now spent.

Also read: What Turkey’s Pivotal Elections Mean for India

And Karnataka? The Congress victory there – after a dismal run of state election results – simply suggests that the rot may have stopped in India’s main opposition party. It doesn’t mean that Congress can aspire to be a serious challenger in next year’s national elections. But it makes electoral politics in India a lot more interesting. And in global terms, the wind is blowing in a direction that helps social democratic parties more than right-wing populists.

Andrew Whitehead is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham in the UK and a former BBC India Correspondent.