To many, especially in the West, yet another victory for Mr. Erdogan seems hard to understand. The economy has been gloomy. The Turkish lira is in free fall against other currencies. Democracy is in precipitous decline, too. Moreover, the usually fractured opposition seemed to get its act together this time, forming a coalition and putting forth Muharrem Ince, a charismatic candidate. All this led to a widespread expectation that Mr. Erdogan could lose this time, or at least would face a major setback.
But Turkey’s strongman proved as strong as ever. The reason for this is not ballot rigging. It is not even just the way that Mr. Erdogan holds a grip on power with his command of the news media. The truth is, most people who voted for Mr. Erdogan will vote for him no matter what. They didn’t see this election as a competition between politicians promising better governance. They viewed it as an act of defiance against a century‐old existential enemy.
The story goes back to modern Turkey’s 1923 founding by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, whose top‐down secularist reforms created a Westernized urban population that viewed him as a savior. But the same “Kemalist Revolution” left behind a traumatized conservative class, which felt itself as “a stranger in your own home, a pariah in your own land,” as the Islamist poet Necip Fazil put it in 1949.
When multiparty elections were introduced in 1950, the conservatives began to enter the system. But they were repeatedly punished by “the regime’s guardians,” as the secular elite proudly called itself. Only with Mr. Erdogan’s election and solidification of power in the early 2000s was this secular hegemony fully broken.
This is what Turkey’s religious conservatives are thinking about when they vote for Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, not his flaws, which they may silently admit he has. They aren’t thinking about newspapers that have been taken over or professors who have been put in jail, but about how the Arabic call to prayer was outlawed in the 1930s and the head scarf was banned in the 1990s. Against this “Old Turkey” that the religious conservatives despise, Mr. Erdogan proved to be their savior. The more sensible among them may sense that their “New Turkey” is hardly any better than the old — but still it is their Turkey.