As Turkey Goes to the Polls, Erdogan’s Future May Hang in the Balance

And democracy’s too, considering the prime minister's predilection for fighting Twitter and other forms of expression.

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Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan votes in Turkey's local elections, Istanbul, March 30, 2014. Credit: Reuters

The question underlying Turkey’s local elections Sunday is whether the people or audio recordings will control the country, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared at a recent rally. The recordings refer to the bombshells that Erdogan opponent and Turkey’s most influential preacher, Fethullah Gulen, has disseminated in recent weeks. They reflect what Erdogan calls “the parallel state” — Gulen's supporters.

Turkey’s local elections have never been as critical as Sunday’s poll in 81 districts, in which would-be mayors, council members and mukhtars from 26 parties are taking part. The future of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party may hang in the balance.

Will Turkey’s 51 million voters choose Erdogan as president in the August election, will his party rise up against him if he loses, and will other political forces control parliament after next year’s general election? And is Turkey’s economic success more important than the damage Erdogan has inflicted on democracy over the past two years?

Opinion polls project success for the Justice and Development Party, but a marginal victory won’t suffice. Last year, party spokespeople set 42 percent as a goal, a number they’ve since revised down to 38.8 percent — the party’s showing in the 2009 local elections.

Lower than that would be a defeat, far from the 50 percent the party received in 2011. It would signal that Turks may not give Erdogan the 50 percent he needs to win in the first round of the presidential election. But national success isn’t the only thing that will influence the rest of Erdogan’s third term, which must be his last as prime minister, based on a party decision.

Turkey’s two main cities, Istanbul and Ankara, are witnessing a tight race between the Justice and Development Party and the opposition Republican People’s Party, which is projected to capture 27 percent of the vote. If Erdogan loses Ankara or Istanbul, the city where he served as mayor before becoming prime minister, the bitter defeat will boost his opponents.

Erdogan’s errors

If Erdogan carried his party in 2002 before he became prime minister, a dozen years later it’s the party that’s carrying him. And he’s quite the burden.

Since June, when huge demonstrations erupted against Erdogan’s plan to level Gezi Park near Istanbul’s Taksim Square, Turkey has been split into two uneven camps. The demonstrations, in which many secular Turks, intellectuals, leftists and white-collar workers took part, turned from an environmental protest into a battle against Erdogan’s anti-democratic ways.

The brutal suppression of the demonstrations, the mass arrests and the disrespect for the protesters made many Erdogan supporters, among them President Abdullah Gul, speak out against government policy. One analyst in Insight Turkey wrote that Gezi Park had created a feeling of disrespect that pushed people to the margins.

The culture clash on Taksim Square forged a deep crack if not a break between Westernizers and traditionalists, between European, liberal and young Turkey on one side and Ottoman Turkey on the other, according to the Insight Turkey commentator. This opposition did not spawn a political movement threatening the ruling party, but Erdogan’s prediction that the episode would pass in a matter of weeks didn’t happen, either.

The protests dissipated when a court banned destruction of the park, but the episode remains a symbol for the struggle against the absolute authority Erdogan aspires to, for which he needs broad public support. Erdogan not only took on elites whom he said served foreign interests, his war against his former ally Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, put him on a collision course with millions of people in Gulen’s Hizmet social movement.

Erdogan has uprooted Gulen’s supporters from all areas of the government and security services. The struggle reached a peak when newspapers associated with Gulen’s movement revealed details of the investigation against government officials suspected of taking bribes. Later came recordings of telephone conversations; Erdogan is allegedly heard urging his son Bilal to dispose of huge sums of money from safes in the prime minister’s residence.

In response, Erdogan cashiered hundreds of policemen and prosecutors, fired judges or appointed them to minor positions. And he blocked Twitter, where the recordings casting suspicion on him were being posted. It was an extreme step even for a prime minister who has seen the press as an enemy to be muffled.

His efforts to keep Twitter blocked failed, but they drew ire beyond Turkey’s borders. The United States and European Union condemned Erdogan, and even President Abdullah Gul called the move unacceptable. But the international criticism and caricatures on Turkish websites comparing Erdogan to the presidents of North Korea and Syria didn’t stick. The  prime minister was like another Vladimir Putin.

Lots of good stuff on YouTube

Still, his opponents are mobilizing. A clip uploaded to YouTube last week shows Erdogan watching a 2010 video allegedly showing former opposition head Deniz Baykal getting intimate with a fellow party member. Erdogan’s voice is allegedly heard ordering that the video be put on the Internet. The head of the Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is demanding that Erdogan explain why he watched the clip and ordered its dissemination, which led to Baykal’s resignation.

On Thursday, a day after a court rejected the Twitter ban, YouTube dropped another bomb on Erdogan: a recording of a secret meeting in which the option of invading Syria is discussed. The goal would be to protect the grave of Suleiman Shah, the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire.

The 1921 Treaty of Ankara recognizes the tomb as Turkish territory within Syria and is guarded by two dozen soldiers. The radical Iraqi State in Iraq and Syria recently told Turkey it would destroy the tomb if Ankara did not withdraw the soldiers. This leak shook up the country’s military and political leaders, who called the recording a declaration of war. Fingers were pointed at the Gulen faithful.

Erdogan immediately ordered the blocking of YouTube, which, like the Twitter affair, set off an international storm. Not that his opponents are too thrilled, either.

“The very exposure of a series of wiretaps that clearly targeted Erdogan and his inner circle has exposed this veiled power and its staggering capabilities,” wrote Mustafa Akyol in an opinion piece in Hurriyet Daily News on Saturday. But according to Akyol, “while a victory for Erdogan might be a scary scenario for many, a mere defeat of Erdogan is not either likely to save Turkey from the current quagmire.”

Still, the media storm shaking Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir doesn’t necessarily move rural voters. They still see Erdogan as an economic messiah, even if his star has waned in this respect.

The World Bank expects economic Turkish growth to tumble, wiping out hopes of creating new jobs. Erdogan’s relative apathy about joining the EU worries Turkish manufacturers and businessmen, as do rising prices and the drop in economic growth. But as long as a viable political alternative doesn’t arise, it seems the fear of economic repercussions following a departure by Erdogan runs deeper than the threat of eroding democracy.