urkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan scored a victory in the March 30 municipal elections, as his party managed to hold on to Istanbul, the most important mayoralty, and received more than 45 percent of all the votes cast. (The city of Ankara was still being contested at the time of writing.) This is despite a massive corruption scandal that cost four ministers their jobs and a series of leaked conversations that revealed the Prime Minister firing and hiring journalists and interfering in news coverage. To prevent further damage, Erdogan also had Twitter and YouTube banned in Turkey.
There are four main conclusions that can be drawn from these elections. First, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, AKP, succeeded in defining the election as a referendum on the Prime Minister. The opposition, buoyed by the allegations, fell into this trap. Hence municipal elections, which were supposed to be about local elections, were transformed into a national plebiscite where the opposition was at a distinct disadvantage. In the answer to the proverbial question, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”, the Turkish public resoundingly said yes. This strategy also allowed the main opposition party to dispense with concrete proposals and focus on Erdogan, who campaigned in every corner of the country as if his life was on the line. The Turkish opposition parties had proved wanting before and did not disappoint this time.
Second, the AKP also succeeded in making the political opposition seem subservient to the religious leader Fethullah Gülen, who currently resides in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Gülen and his numerous followers, who had been allied with the AKP until recently, had decided to take on Erdogan. The reasons are complex, but fundamentally they take issue with his growing dominance at the expense of all other societal and political forces, and also with the overt and unabashed corruption in his government. Erdogan and his supporters denounced the movement, which they blame for the damaging leaks, as an alien organization that had infiltrated the country, a parallel state that was usurping their legitimate authority. The government rebranded itself as victim when all the while it was engaged in a bitter, scorched earth counterattack.
Third, this election undermined the one assurance that had hitherto prevailed in Turkey: that elections (with the exception of the Kurdish areas where the army constantly manipulated the votes in the past) were always fair and clean. Hours after the votes began to be counted, government opponents questioned results in many localities. There were power outages in many districts during the count (one minister, absurdly, blamed a cat), misreporting of results, attacks on pro-Gülen and other opposition media outlets, and countless other reports of irregularities. Many volunteers were mobilized to challenge the results, especially in Ankara and selected districts in Istanbul. Unlike the 2000 Florida recount debacle, where in the end the results were accepted even if begrudgingly, this bodes poorly for the future and the legitimacy of Turkish elections. Unless the AKP allows the Supreme Electoral Council to respond in a constitutionally legitimate manner to the voting irregularities, the damage to the system will be enduring. Turkey lacks the wherewithal to deal with such massive challenges.
Finally and most importantly, these elections have polarized the country in an unprecedented manner. Whereas people who disliked Erdogan and his party had accepted his leadership precisely because he had emerged from fair elections, he is increasingly regarded as illegitimate. His authoritarian behavior has alienated many, but especially the urban and tech-savvy professionals. Erdogan and his supporters likewise dismiss their opponents as illegitimate; they are traitors, tools of foreign powers, and deserve prosecution. Turkey resembles Venezuela today. Erdogan’s victory speech was anything but magnanimous—in contrast to previous such occasions. He repeated his promise to root out members of the “parallel state” from politics and institutions. The problem, of course, is that membership in the “parallel state” is in the eye of the beholder; anyone who has criticized him or otherwise attacked him is eligible. Erdogan went so far as to predict that many of his opponents would leave the country—an echo of his opponents’ earlier claims to the effect that he would have seek refuge abroad. A professor friend of mine who had observed the vote tallies at various precincts told me that after the AKP victory she would not be surprised if she were fired from her job. Such is the climate of fear.
The next battle in this war will begin quite soon. Erdogan has to decide whether or not to run for the presidency in August. For the first time in Turkish history the President will be directly elected by the people, and the victor must cross the 50 percent threshold. The AKP’s haul of 45 percent of the vote is perfectly respectable, but it still comes up short of the 48–49 percent he was coveting.
Ideally, Erdogan would like to assume the presidency and install a subservient person at the helm of the AKP and government. He has an important obstacle here: his long-time colleague, co-founder of the AKP and current President, Abdullah Gül. Gül would either like to stay President or become Prime Minister. With the opposition unable to check Erdogan’s power, Gül has emerged as the de facto balancer to Erdogan. Is Erdogan willing to compromise? We will know soon enough.
Erdogan may have vanquished his opponents at home for the time being, but he has not recovered from the self-inflicted damage he has incurred abroad. The Erdogan brand is severely damaged and diminished. His outlandish accusations against his allies for fomenting coups against him, his open interference in the media, and his ban on social media outlets have made Europe and the United States question his reliability as a partner. He may try to assuage their concerns by opening dialogues with Cyprus and Israel, but it is unlikely that he would be taken seriously as a player. He will be treated merely as the current leader of an important ally.
Will the opposition in Turkey learn from its defeat? Don’t bet on it. One thing Erdogan got right in his victory speech was that, no matter what the latest election results are in Turkey, losers never seem to resign and give way to new blood and fresh ideas. The Nationalist Action Party leader has led his party for almost 17 years despite the fact that his party vote has never passed 15 percent. Similarly, the main opposition party leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Republican People’s Party, has indicated that he not only has no intention of making any changes but also that he stands ready to contest any surprise national election the government may call. Go figure.
Related to the upcoming presidential elections is the Kurdish peace process. In order to pass the 50 percent threshold, Erdogan needs Kurdish votes. The municipal elections made it abundantly clear that the pro-Kurdish party, the People’s Democracy Party, now completely controls the Kurdish regions in an almost contiguous manner. The Kurds will expect significant compromises from Erdogan before agreeing to cast their votes for him.
Increased polarization, with each side vilifying the other, is likely to intensify Erdogan’s already pronounced authoritarian tendencies. It remains to be seen how wide and deep his post-election revenge will be. He may further punish businesses, as he has already done in selective cases, for supporting the opposition, whether in the March elections or in the earlier anti-government demonstrations of May and June 2013.
Turkey is in for a rough ride as both sides mobilize for a “war to the end.” Suspicion, fear, and retribution are likely to be the dominant themes of the coming months. The stability of one-party rule under the “master,” as Erdogan’s followers call him, will prove to be illusory.