‘Erdoğan Is a Personality Cult.’ Why Turkey’s Longtime Leader Is an Electoral Powerhouse

Supporters of Turkish President and People’s Alliance’s presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan dance as they give handouts to commuters in Istanbul
Supporters of Turkish President and People’s Alliance’s presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan dance as they give handouts to commuters in Istanbul

Supporters of Turkish President and People’s Alliance’s presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan dance as they give handouts to commuters in Istanbul, Turkey, on May 23, 2023. Credit - Francisco Seco—AP

When international election observers issued their preliminary findings following the May 14 elections in Turkey, they concluded that while the contest was “competitive and largely free,” it was fought on an unlevel playing field in which the incumbent and the ruling parties, by virtue of biased media coverage and restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, had an “unjustified advantage.” The election saw President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan secure 49.51% of the vote—just shy of the 50% needed to avoid a May 28 runoff—to opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s 44.88%.

For Nevşin Mengü, one of Turkey’s leading journalists, the verdict hardly came as a surprise. Mengü has seen firsthand the hold that Erdoğan’s government has on the country’s media landscape. Her critical reporting of the Turkish President ultimately cost her her job at CNN Türk in 2017, after she reported on his meeting with then U.S. President Donald Trump in a less than favorable light. (She had a previous run-in with Erdoğan over comments he made about the role of women in Turkish society.) Mengü has since gone on to present her own popular show on YouTube.

Erdoğan’s control over the Turkish media landscape was particularly palpable in the run up to the first-round of voting. In April, Erdoğan reportedly benefited from 32 hours of airtime on state television compared to just 32 minutes for Kılıçdaroğlu.

Read More: Why Erdoğan Is Now the Clear Favorite in Turkey’s Election

TIME caught up with Mengü on the sidelines of the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy earlier this month, where she spoke about the state of media freedom in Turkey and what to expect from the presidential runoff on May 28.

TIME: You were an evening news anchor at CNN Türk before leaving the network in 2017. Can you talk about what prompted the decision?

Nevşin Mengü: I had been anchoring the 6 o’clock news for a while. How it works right now in Turkey is … there are pro-government trolls. They attack people. They finger-point people. The same thing was happening to me. Pro-government trolls hated me, they were always finger-pointing me and I had to go to court to testify because of that a couple of times, because of really silly accusations.

There was a Trump-Erdoğan meeting [in May 2017], the first meeting after Trump was elected. I was talking about that because that was happening on live TV, and I said basically that the meeting only lasted 23 minutes. And this pissed [off] Mr. Erdoğan because he wanted to present the meeting like they were best buddies and that it was a long meeting. He was pissed and through people he contacted my boss and he said they don’t want me anymore. My boss negotiated … and then I left.

Compared to other people, it’s not such a sad story. I was just fired. That’s fine, it happens.

It’s true that many journalists have fared worse in Turkey, which is one of the biggest jailers of journalists in the world. But regardless of whether a journalist is jailed or fired, the outcome is more or less the same, right? You were prevented from doing your job.

Actually, we’re kind of lucky compared to former generations of journalists because now there’s digital media and you can do your job wherever. I know in America, for example, podcasts are big. You can do podcasts, you can find sponsors, and whatnot. In Turkey, YouTube is really big. So because of all this, now, conventional media is very divided. A big chunk is pro-government, pro-state, pro-Erdoğan media. They have the money and they have the means. Then there’s the smaller, pro-opposition media. There is nothing in between.

People, especially younger people, turn to digital media more and more. People either follow on Twitter, they turn to YouTube. I have a viewer base on YouTube, thank God, and they donate. So I have a small team now. This has been a learning experience for me. I became an entrepreneur journalist, in a sense. It’s like a small business, but we are trying to do idealistically what we can do. We’re doing videos, we’re following the elections. When the Ukraine war started, I went there to cover the war. Of course, I cannot be like CNN. But at least I can do free reporting and people value that now in Turkey.

You covered the first round of the Turkish election. What did you make of the outcome? Has there been a sense of deflation among the opposition?

I’m really sorry for the opposition voters because they’re yearning for some hope, for something, someone to take the responsibility. The opposition is in shock right now. Because the thing is, they believed that they would take this election in the first round. I mean, actually, [the result] was not that bad—Erdoğan lost in the first round. He does not have a simple majority. That is something very important. You have the majority of the country skeptical, at least, about Erdoğan. But now, the opposition seems to be in panic. That’s what’s saddening.

Plenty of observers seemed to share the opposition’s expectation that victory was possible—even probable. When you saw the final results come in, were you surprised?

The thing is, for the last 20 years, we always had this hope that the opposition might win. This is the first time they were this close to winning.

It’s really hard to poll for polling companies. In the metropolitan cities, Erdoğan is losing. He keeps losing. Actually, in 51 cities, he lost votes. In the bigger cities, they do not want Erdoğan, basically. In smaller cities and rural areas, he has strong support. But it’s the same pattern everywhere. I think it’s harder for pollsters to go to little tiny villages when they’re making a sample. They’re usually in the bigger cities. Of course, they go to smaller cities also, but maybe not the villages. I think that’s why.

The presidential runoff is fast approaching. Do you think the opposition has the capacity to come back from this?

They have to motivate their voters. One thing we saw in this election is rising nationalism, especially among younger voters. I think what the opposition is trying to do right now is to try and cling on to this more nationalist narrative. I think that’s a big gamble, because when they cling on to this more nationalist narrative, then they’re going to lose [the ethnic minority] Kurdish vote.

Can the opposition compete with Erdoğan on nationalism?

In Turkey, now, we have two fronts: Erdoğan and the opposition. They are both coalitions. In Erdoğan’s coalition, there are Kurds, there are Islamists, and there are nationalists who are pro-Erdoğan. On the other side, you have the same: You have Kurds, you have nationalists, but they are against Erdoğan.

Erdoğan is a personality cult. He could be a nationalist today, he could be an Islamist tomorrow. In three days, he could be a Communist, let me tell you. That’s what they are trying to fight against. I think that’s why it’s hard.

Has the opposition leader, Kılıçdaroğlu, been able to compete with Erdoğan’s cult of personality?

That’s what some people criticize. We have this mayor of Istanbul, [Ekrem Imamoğlu]. He is a famous figure, he is younger, very active, energetic. Some people are saying that he should run for President rather than Kılıçdaroğlu. But then others say that Kılıçdaroğlu is a balancing figure, calmer. So now some people are saying if the mayor of Istanbul ran, he would have more chances to win.

I think that could be the case because, if I was the opposition, if the mayor of Istanbul ran, I could have used the narrative that Mr. Erdoğan was fine, he built the bridges, roads, whatever. But now he’s older. Let’s go for a younger alternative, a new start. Why not? They could have used that. But Kılıçdaroğlu is around the same age as Erdoğan.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said in its preliminary findings following the first round of voting that although the election was largely free and devoid of media irregularities, it was marred by an unlevel playing field in which Erdoğan and his allies had “unjustified advantage.”

Of course. They use all the state [resources]. What Erdoğan did was he started handing out money, because he can—raising bureaucrats’ salaries, giving more pensions. This always works.

If Erdoğan wins, where do you think the Turkish opposition goes from here?

One of Turkey’s advantages is that we have a very organized opposition. The oldest party of Turkey, the CHP [Republican People’s Party], is the founder of Turkey and main opposition party. It is organized. So they’re going to renew themselves. Probably the leadership is going to change. This will have political consequences, of course, for the ones who lost. But they’ll renew themselves and they will continue. It is what it is. That’s how democracy works. It’s not like a three-day thing. It’s a long-term thing.

And if Erdoğan loses, would he bow out gracefully?

Well, he has to. What is he going to do? He has to. But of course, the mission of the opposition is going to be really hard because the economy is in ruins and then they’re going to have to basically deal with that. Even if you start today, it’s not going to be okay for the next two years. That’s what analysts project. It’s going to be really hard remaking the institutions, because as you know, in all autocratic countries, institutions are deeply damaged. It will not be an easy task for the opposition either.

Has this election changed anything in terms of how Turkish people think of their democracy?

Younger people tend not to vote for Erdoğan. There is that change, obviously. Turkey is urbanizing really fast, so younger people want more democracy, they want something else basically. So there is that change. It’s going to come.

But let’s see. Maybe with this economy, if [Erdoğan] does not change his ways, I don’t know how else he’s going to stay. I think he’s going to have to change his economic policy. In nine months, we have local elections.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.