Upcoming elections highlight parallels between political management and football leadership

The election upset that dethroned Aziz Yıldırım, who has dominated Turkey’s Fenerbahçe Sports Club as its president for 20 years, has created political and social waves across Turkey in the lead-up to the June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections.

A football team traditionally known for its wealth and close ties to the state, Fenerbahçe is a member-based association that holds presidential elections every three years. In its 111-year-long history, no president has rivaled Yıldırım’s two-decade tenure. But in a June 3 election, prominent Turkish businessman Ali Koç won over 75% of the vote to become Fenerbahçe’s 33rd president.

Both candidates fielded a list of board members along with their bid for the presidency. Aziz Yıldırım’s leadership cadres, made up of people that share his background in contracting construction jobs for the government, suffered a heavy defeat against the economic sectors that Ali Koç’s board members represent, including dynamic sectors such as banking, energy, and information technology.

The parallels in the June 3 Fenerbahçe elections and the June 24 government elections are striking. Analogies between Fenerbahçe club members and Turkish voters, presidential candidates and opposing parties, and candidate debates and campaign rallies, reveal the extent to which the Fenerbahçe election is a case study with important social, political, and economic implications for Turkey as a whole.

Going into the elections, Fenerbahçe owed millions of dollars in debt, depended on continuous borrowing to stay afloat, and was beholden to financial sponsors that held considerable influence over club decisions. The Turkish economy, mired in foreign debt and bound to conditions set forth by interest and exchange rate lobbies, is in a remarkably similar situation.

In the Yıldırım-Koç debates, Aziz Yıldırım put forth development and construction projects such as a new stadium and an indoor gymnasium. He vowed to resolve the economic strain and heavy debt that that Fenerbahçe was in, as if his actions over the past 20 years were not responsible for those very economic troubles.

In much the same way, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, having spent his 16 years in power establishing control over the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government and doing as he pleased, asserts that he is the only leader that can save Turkey from its current woes and ignores his own role in dragging Turkey down this path in the first place.

At his campaign rallies, President Erdoğan lists his successes in construction projects spanning infrastructure, housing, roads, tunnels, bridges, and airports. The projects he boasts of are investments that have prompted the government to borrow over $350 million in foreign debt, and issue billions of dollars of securities. His future promises are built yet again on construction-based projects.

It does not take a great deal of imagination to see the personal similarities between Yıldırım, who is known for hitting football players, insulting coaches, and launching half-time threats in the locker room, and Erdoğan, who belittles political opponents with insults as severe as “terrorist” and “traitor.”

The two leaders also share a penchant for playing the underdog. President Erdoğan spent four months in jail in 1999 for reading a poem judged as incendiary by the secular government at the time. A decade later, Yıldırım was the target of a 2011 cheating scandal brought to light by the Gülen Movement, which has since been discredited with allegations of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt against President Erdoğan’s government. The results of the June 3 election show that Fenerbahçe members are fed up with Yıldırım’s underdog tactics, but Erdoğan continues to use his imprisonment 20 years ago in a strategy to boost his votes.

Ali Koç, in contrast to Aziz Yıldırım’s construction-heavy board, brought with him a group of diverse leaders that have proven their merit in wide ranging fields such as banking, law, information technology, and product design, and won with a well-rounded platform of board members.

In the June 24 elections, President Erdoğan, with a 16-year track record of rentier politics that created and promoted a generation of government contractors, will face off against candidates like Muharrem İnce, who is a physicist that spends his campaign rallies promising to raise a generation of robotics engineers, to cultivate a society that will design innovative brands, pursue new knowledge, mobilize critical thinking skills, and embody self-confidence.

The composition and internal dynamics of the leadership cadres put forth in the June 3 Fenerbahçe elections, when compared to the leadership shown by Erdoğan and İnce in the lead up to the June 24 elections, reveals the stark difference between the two visions put forth for the country. On one side is a concrete heavy leadership structure that funnels some government resources into the club, and relies on a cycle of debt to carry the organization forwards. On the other is a leadership structure that rids the club of debt, secures financial independence, sets goals and sparks energy, unites differences, and privileges experience, merit, and expertise.

On June 3, in a formidable wave from below, Fenerbahçe members upended a twenty-year-long authority that played the underdog and ran on a platform of “one more term.” Fenerbahçe managed to stand firmly and embark on a new path with confidence.

On June 24, citizens will vote on a sixteen-year-long authority that is built on contracts, concrete, and rent; that exploits suffering; that fears merit and expertise; that chooses single-man rule over shared wisdom. The Turkish Republic will have a chance to put an end to this style of leadership, just as the Fenerbahçe Sports Club chose to do.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.