Opinion

Erdogan Wobbled. But Can He Really Be Toppled?

Two opposition parties - one mercilessly suppressed, the other subject to underhand attacks - broke 17 years of ‘invincible’ Erdogan in local elections. But the Turkish president’s still got plenty of support – and power

Erdogan supporters kiss a banner with his image on it outside the ruling AKP party headquarters in Istanbul a day after local elections. April 1, 2019
AFP

The polls should have been a sleepy affair. They were local elections for mayoral and municipal offices. And last weekend was the seventh time in five years that Turkey had held elections. 

However, far from being dreary, the elections proved to be a rather lively affair as Turkey’s firebrand president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been at the helm of Turkish politics for 17 years, did not get his way. And that’s just putting it mildly.

Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost four of the country’s five largest cities to the opposition, including the capital Ankara and the commercial hub and largest city, Istanbul, albeit by the narrowest of margins. 

What to make of these results? Do they mark the beginning of the end for Erdogan’s apparent invincibility? How significant a victory is this for the country’s beleaguered opposition, led by the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP)? 

Supporters of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) wave flags and light up torches to celebrate the local election in Istanbul, Turkey. 1 April 2019
asin AKGUL / AFP

The CHP deserves some credit. Together with the Iyi Parti (Good Party) with whom it formed an alliance, the CHP campaigned hard and under very difficult circumstances, managing to not only win major cities and municipalities but also garner 30 per cent of the popular vote, a significant improvement on recent years.  

The CHP’s successes in Istanbul and Ankara were also due to the strategic decision by the liberal and Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) not to field candidates in these cities. Reportedly, HDP leaders urged its supporters to vote for the CHP instead. Thus, the HDP got in some retribution against Erdogan, whose government has mercilessly suppressed the party, even arresting and detaining its leadership under trumped up terrorism charges and removing elected mayors in the Southeast.

Unlike the AKP, which also benefitted from the use of government and state resources, the CHP had to fend off underhanded attacks by Erdogan and his followers who accused it of perfidy and siding with terrorists.

Mansur Yavas, the CHP Ankara mayoral candidate, was accused of forging a signature over a decade ago in a spurious attempt to delegitimize him. Erdogan even broadcast footage from the gruesome Christchurch massacre to boost his party’s chances. 

Meanwhile, Turkey’s subdued media offered the government obsequious coverage. For example, Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT gave 135 hours of positive coverage to Erdogan and his allies but just 20 hours, most of it negative, to the opposition. It was therefore quite a feat that the CHP managed to attract additional votes. 

Cheering supporters try to touch Ekrem Imamoglu, the main Turkish opposition's candidate for Istanbul, after he visited Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's mausoleum in Ankara, Turkey. April 2, 2019
AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici

Still, one should not write off Erdogan so easily. Far from being the beginning of the end, Erdogan and the AKP remain popular. 

Despite voter fatigue, international isolation and an economic downturn that has seen inflation spiral and the lira tumble, prompting the government to sell its own subsidized fruit and vegetables, the AKP still managed to win over 44 per cent of the popular vote. This is about two percent more than last year’s parliamentary elections and a gain of 1.5 per cent compared to the last local elections of 2014.

In other words, the CHP has only managed to make a small dent in the AKP’s support base. 

Meanwhile, Erdogan still enjoys the backing of his political allies, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Together they won over 51 per cent of the vote. Erdogan also controls all the state’s levers of power from the security forces to the judiciary and is not afraid to use them. This is especially ominous, as there are no more elections scheduled for the next four and a half years. A period of unaccountability looms. 

If the opposition wishes to make further gains it needs to maintain the tacit CHP-HDP understanding which thwarted Erdogan’s plans in this election. This means the CHP will have to swallow its Turkish national pride and convince its followers that it is prudent to come to a tacit understanding with the Kurdish-oriented HDP. 

Supporters of Turkey's main pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) party cheer as they celebrate the Kurdish New Year during a campaign rally in Istanbul on March 24, 2019 ahead of the local elections
Yasin AKGUL / AFP

And that’s just the easy bit. Despite all the talk of the economy and international affairs during the campaign, this was a local election.

If the opposition is serious about making this a turning point, it needs to knuckle down and dedicate itself to improving municipal services in order to prove to the electorate that it can be trusted with the country’s economy and positively steer Turkey’s political future. That is, of course, assuming that the AKP's attempt to stifle the loss of Istanbul by demanding recounts proves fruitless. 

Either way, the opposition will no doubt face a relentless campaign of delegitimization and intimidation by Erdogan and the AKP, who don’t kindly to strong opposition. Pro-government media are already pushing the narrative that the results in Istanbul are an attempted "coup." Still, it’s an opportunity. The opposition best make the most of it.  

Dr Simon A. Waldman is a visiting research fellow at King's College London. He is the co-author of The New Turkey and Its Discontents (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1