Turkey’s municipal elections on March 31 are in fact not local but a national referendum on the continued rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mr. Erdogan has made it so to further consolidate his control over the country, and he has pulled out all the stops to that end. He has taken to new heights charges against opposition figures and promoted xenophobic fears. More than ever before, he has relied on stirring the nationalistic sentiments of Turks to secure a solid win. He wishes to transform Turkey’s domestic political scene to ensure greater personal loyalty and dependence upon him for aspiring ruling party leaders. Under the current constitution, maintaining a majority in Turkey’s parliament ensures dominant presidential power. As a result, the need for loyalty to the person of the president becomes more important than loyalty to the political party.
The last six years have been bumpy for President Erdogan domestically, even as he has weathered and overcome each crisis. Serious domestic reaction to his rule began in May 2013 with demonstrations in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, protests which for a short time spread nationwide. Just months later, in December 2013, a major corruption scandal came to light that reached into Mr. Erdogan’s inner circle. That affair brought about a final break with his closest political ally for a decade, Fethullah Gulen. The government had all charges connected with the scandal dismissed. Next, in June 2015, for the first time, Mr. Erdogan’s party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), lost its majority in the Turkish parliament, due to the popularity of a new party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which ironically ran on many of the broad, liberal themes the AKP had used in 2002 when it first came to power. Ultimately, the AKP had the HDP leadership arrested and imprisoned.
The severest shock came with a failed coup in July 2016. Mr. Erdogan thereafter ruled by emergency decree until July 2018, purging thousands of Turkish civil servants, military officers, academics, police officials, journalists, and others from civil life in Turkey. Many have received lengthy prison sentences. Continuing his string of political victories, Mr. Erdogan narrowly won a referendum in April 2017 to usher in a new Turkish constitution that would give him unprecedented powers under an executive presidency, and then successfully ran to become Turkey’s president in June 2018. Under the new constitution, the president can serve two five-year terms. If during a president’s second term, the parliament were to call early elections, the sitting president could be a candidate to run again. Potentially, this means that Mr. Erdogan could remain the president of Turkey into the early 2030s.
To make that possible, Mr. Erdogan has taken a number of steps. As head of party as well as head of government and state, he has been able to control without restraint the selection and announcement of mayoral candidates in all of Turkey’s 81 provinces. He has worked to focus loyalty on himself rather than build support for a broad-based party program in which other members of the AKP would retain some influence. Nearly two-thirds of the Turkish population is under 40, and most of those 20 and older have grown up under AKP governments. His campaign has emphasized the importance the party attaches to youth and uses social media extensively to reach this age group.
Ankara has taken other questionable measures in recent months as well. A January 11 memo from Turkey’s interior minister ordered paramilitary units nationwide to be on duty on March 31 to prevent election “manipulation.” This increases the risk of ballot tampering, a charge frequently made in Kurdish areas in last June’s presidential election. In light of Mr. Erdogan’s linking the HDP and its Kurdish supporters to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), it is easy to imagine an attempt to intimidate Kurds and others opposing the AKP from voting. Over the last year, President Erdogan has sued the main opposition party leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, several times and regularly sought criminal prosecutions against him. In May 2018, government pressure forced the sale of Turkey’s last major independent newspaper, Hurriyet, to a pro-AKP group.
More recently, Mr. Erdogan has promised to remove mayors who win on March 31 and whom he suspects of loyalty to the PKK and replace them with his supporters. He has used the terrorist attacks at the two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand to polarize the electorate, showing YouTube videos of the attack at campaign rallies to accuse the West of embracing such terrorism. He threatened Meral Aksener, leader of the opposition Good Party, with imprisonment. The government routinely accuses opposition parties and their leadership of supporting terrorism, including of Turkish domestic terrorist groups whose histories go back decades. When former leaders of the AKP were rumored to be forming a new party for the March 2019 elections, President Erdogan called them traitors as well.
The core of the AKP’s concerns, however, is the economy and a loss of popular confidence in the government’s ability to restore prosperity. Turkey’s consumer confidence index is decidedly pessimistic — the index fell from 72.3 percent to 58.2 percent over the course of 2018. The Turkish economy slipped into recession at the end of 2018, and GDP growth was slower in 2018 than at any time since 2009. Private consumption last year barely grew, and investment fell. The inflation rate in early March was 19 percent. Overall unemployment was at 13.5 percent in December, and among youth is at nearly 25 percent. The government has accused grocers of being “food terrorists” and is compelling farms to sell produce at government prices. Foreign direct investment (FDI), a key barometer of confidence in Turkey’s economic future, remains low as a percentage of global FDI. Mr. Erdogan has shouted down calls at his campaign rallies for more jobs, rejecting any responsibility for those who are suffering. Economies run by their own rules, however, and the limits of manipulation are well-known and understood by the world financial community. With economies, there is always a day of reckoning.
President Erdogan has proven himself a master of domestic politics. Against seemingly long odds on a number of occasions he has prevailed. With his complete domination of every aspect of Turkey’s politics and media, as well as military, judicial, and educational institutions, it would be foolish to underestimate his ability to emerge a winner on March 31. The illusion that comes with needing more power, however, is the idea that something good is always to be gained. Sometimes, more power actually means more responsibility for what has gone wrong.
The rumblings of unhappiness and discontent among Turkey’s citizens and even within the AKP are louder now than at any time since the party’s first national victory in 2002. Each time President Erdogan contests an election, he is compelled to be more certain and more polarizing than the last time. He has abandoned former allies, co-leaders, and shared institutional powers one by one to focus power and the aura of certainty onto himself personally. To paraphrase the wisdom of the American longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer, when only one person has all the power to say what will be, then everyone else has to live in a most uncertain world. As always, the fate of their country lies in the hands of the Turkish people. What they decide on March 31 will have critical consequences, whatever the outcome.
Ambassador (ret.) W. Robert Pearson is a non-resident scholar at MEI and a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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