How Far Will Erdogan and the AKP Go to Hold Onto Power in Turkey?

World Politics Review, 15.05.2019
David O’Byrne, periodista y analista basado en Estambul 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he arrives to deliver a speech to members of his ruling Justice and Development Party, Ankara, April 27, 2019 (Presidential Press Service/AP)

After 17 years in power, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his governing Justice and Development Party, the AKP, face perhaps their toughest test yet. Voters in Istanbul will head to the polls again on June 23 to elect a mayor for the second time in three months, after Turkey’s Supreme Election Council controversially canceled the results of the March vote, which the opposition narrowly won. The Supreme Election Council cited irregularities, backing a complaint brought by Erdogan and his party. All 11 of the board’s members were appointed under Erdogan’s government.

Just as the opposition’s surprising win in Istanbul had raised new questions about how popular Erdogan and his party really are, the move to annul that victory and run the election again is the latest sign of democracy’s decline under Erdogan’s watch. The entire episode also casts a shadow over Turkey’s relations with both the European Union and the United States, while threatening to further destabilize an already dangerously rocky economy.

When Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, won the Istanbul mayor’s race in late March by a margin of only 13,729 votes out of more than 8 million cast, it was the first time a non-Islamist candidate had won the post since Erdogan himself was elected mayor of the city in 1994. The AKP soon filed allegations of “serious irregularities,” charges that seemed absurd given the level of control the AKP enjoys over Turkey’s election infrastructure and the level of scrutiny over the ballots.

A mild-mannered businessman turned politician, Imamoglu was almost unknown before the CHP named him as its candidate for mayor of Turkey’s largest city and commercial hub. His campaign had prevailed despite being ignored by the largely AKP-controlled media. He was stripped of his post of mayor after only 19 days.

The cancellation of the election results, unprecedented in the 96-year history of the Turkish republic, immediately drew criticism from Brussels and Washington. Imamoglu himself called the decision “shameful” and accused the Supreme Election Council of acting “under political pressure.” The CHP described the decision as “a coup”—a loaded term in a country with a history of successful and attempted coups—that has “eroded the basis of democracy” in Turkey.

With spontaneous protests breaking out in Istanbul, Imamoglu also called for calm, promising that “everything will be fine.” Both parties have announced they will field the same candidate in the rerun, with Imamoglu standing against the AKP’s Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister, and a number of minor candidates.

While the CHP remains upbeat despite having its victory taken from it, the decision to cancel the vote begs the question: Just how far will Erdogan and the AKP go to hang on to power? The AKP enjoys a stranglehold on all of Turkey’s mainstream media, and Turkish elections have hardly been conducted on a level playing field under the AKP. Yet the results have always been honored, making this cancellation all the more worrying.

Nationally, at least, the AKP’s position would appear to be unassailable. It won 44 percent of the overall vote in the March elections, doing particularly well in its conservative rural heartlands. In Turkey’s industrialized and more liberal cities, it was a different story. The CHP won five out of Turkey’s six biggest cities, including Istanbul and the capital, Ankara.

It was a huge blow for the AKP, whose 17 years in power have brought rapid economic growth and soaring living standards, and for Erdogan himself, whose political career began in Istanbul. Only two years ago, he warned his party's deputies, “If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey.” It’s a statement that may come back to haunt him.

The March polls were the first nationwide vote in Turkey since last year’s general election and the passage of constitutional changes that saw Erdogan switch from being a titular head of state to an executive president with full direct control over the running of the country. In effect, the local elections were a referendum on his performance over the past nine months, which have not been short of controversy.

The Turkish economy was already suffering from several years of overheating, before a pointless confrontation last summer with Washington over the jailed U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson sent markets into turmoil. The subsequent appointment of Erdogan’s son-in-law in the joint role of both finance and economy minister, and his continuation of policies to exert undue pressure on the Central Bank, thoroughly failed to reassure investors. Over the past year, the Turkish lira has dropped 34 percent against the U.S. dollar, interest rates have soared to 24 percent, and annual inflation hit 19.5 percent, the highest since 2003.

For cash-strapped voters, it was all an uncomfortable reminder of the two decades of fractious coalition governments and triple-digit inflation that saw the AKP sweep to power in 2002. Another election campaign, though, will do little to improve matters for Erdogan and his party.

“This means another 60 days of uncertainty for the markets, and a further delay in policy ‘normalization’,” says Timothy Ash, a longtime Turkey analyst at BlueBay Asset Management in London. He pointed to the long-term weakness of the Turkish economy and limited scope for the Central Bank to support the lira.

And there could be worse ahead, with reports suggesting that the AKP’s efforts to gin up support has left many Turkish municipalities and cities in huge debt. Istanbul alone is reported to be $3.7 billion in debt, allegedly the result of dubious practices like non-competitive tendering for contracts, details of which could cause further embarrassment for the AKP in the event of the CHP holding the city.

With 84 percent voter turnout in March, and the narrow margin of victory, few doubt that the rerun will any less close. Both the AKP and the CHP are reportedly trying to reach out to Istanbul’s large ethnic Kurdish population.

For Erdogan, it’s a risky strategy that could alienate the right-wing and nationalist part of his base, to say nothing of the difficultly of selling the AKP to Kurdish voters, given the four-year military crackdown in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast and Erdogan’s recent rhetoric about the Kurds. On April 27, Erdogan called on all Turks who “have not given hearts and minds to external powers and terrorist organizations to meet on common ground.”

Erdogan was facing opposition from within his own party even before the recent local elections, and such divisive tactics could only add to rifts in the party. A trio of former AKP heavyweights all sidelined by Erdogan—former President and Prime Minister Abdullah Gul, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and former Foreign Minister and Economy Minister Ali Babacan—may be preparing to re-enter politics by starting a new party.

Such a move could prompt a wave of defections from the AKP. That, after all, is how the AKP came into being, established by Erdogan, Gul and a group of other defectors from a previous Islamist party, whose autocratic leader, Necmettin Erbakan, was himself accused of being out of touch with his own supporters.

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