When Reccep Tayyep Erdogan’s party the AKP won a landslide victory in Turkey’s 2002 general elections he became a very different kind of Turkish leader from his predecessors, who were avowedly secular.
For a time, Erdogan presided over a booming economy and was hailed for being a modernizing Muslim leader in a troubled region. His relations with Europe and the United States were strong, and he sought to play a stabilizing role in the Middle East.
But all the while, Erdogan was consolidating his power. It started slowly at first and in recent years the degradation of Turkey’s independent institutions has accelerated. This includes clampdowns on media, the corruption of the courts, and a massive political purge following what Erdogan alleged was an attempted coup in 2016.
Erdogan was become the quintessential example of a new kind of leader around the world–the illiberal authoritarian democrat; someone who is democratically elected, but then systematically uses the power of the state to entrench himself in power.
On March 31, an opposition leader named Ekrem Immoglu won election as Mayor of Istanbul, a position incidentally that Ergoan held before he became Prime Minister. Election authorities, clearly at Erdogan’s request, invalidated those results and called for a re-run of the election and weeks later, Immoglu won again–this time by a wider margin.
So what does this election tell us about Ergodan’s hold on power and the trajectory of Turkish politics? On the line with me to explain the global significance of municipal elections in Turkey is Howard Eisentstat. He is an associate professor of middle eastern history atSt Lawrence University and senior non-resident fellow a the Project on Middle East Democracy.
If you have 20 minutes and want to learn the why city elections in Turkey matter to the world, have a listen.
On March 31st there were municipal elections throughout Turkey. These elections are important in the sense that local governance is important. But this is in fact a highly centralized government and the central government has a large say over most issues. While it was an important setback, at some level, it should not have been that big of a deal.
Who won the Istanbul elections and why was it contested?
The opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, won. He is a member of the Republican People’s Party, a more secularist party. He won barely, by a 13,000 vote lead in an election of 9 million votes. Voting is mandatory but there are no repercussions for not voting. This is a great irony of Turkey. Turkey, in many ways, has had a limited democracy before the AKP and since 2008. Accelerating after 2011, we have seen a decline in democratic institutions. But the buy in of Turkish elections is high.
How did the AKP and Erdogan step in to control those results?
There has been some debate within the AKP and it is not clear when President Ergodan decided to force a re-run. The government pressured the election board to do this, but only for the overarching election, not the district election where the AKP did better. Former luminaries of the AKP publicly criticized them. Further, this has totally backfired, which is the most interesting part of the story. President Erdogan had no real plan to gain a victory, so he just undermined his own standing and gave additional energy to the opposition.
Erdogan has been great at making the AKP stronger, so this is an unexpected blunder.
It is time to re-think this Erdogan genius narrative. He is clearly a brilliant tactician, but he has gotten his victories at a cost. His popularity overall has decreased. Turkey, in foreign and economy policy lurches from disaster to disaster. He is surrounded by family and “yes men”. His team has grossly mismanaged the economy. Politically, this is evidence of how much his popularity has slipped.
What does this tell you about the role of elections in Turkey?
I have argued that elections do not matter in Turkey. There primary role is to give legitimacy to the government. The municipal election here is counter evidence to that statement. The municipal elections, especially in large municipalities, are harder to manage for the AKP. Repression of opposition parties is more difficult. However, municipal elections are extraordinary and create new challenges for electoral management that the AKP undertakes. It is fair to remember that the second largest opposition party leader is currently in jail. The municipal election is important, but that may not translate to electoral vulnerability on the national level, unless the loss of AKP voters that we saw in Istanbul occurs nationwide.
When is the next opportunity to test that theory?
The next scheduled election is 2023. Either the president or parliament can force new elections, and there is chatter about that happening. However, for parliament to do that, 3/5 would have to vote for it and that would only really happen if Erdogan lost effectively 1/3 of his own supporters. So, that is unlikely. Members of parliament who voted for early elections would be voting to turn themselves out of office. So practically, 2023 will be the next opportunity.
How do you interpret these elections, Erdogan’s failed ability to steer the outcome, and the resulting consequence of having a secularist leader in charge of Istanbul? What does that tell you about the trajectory of creeping authoritarianism in Turkey?
There is the question of – does the central government lose the rent and patronage money of these cities? A lot of the AKP machine is about using state funds to support friendly businesses and civil society organizations that are extensions of Erdogan’s network. So, the loss of Istanbul, threatens that patronage money. The central government seems to be taking over distribution of those resources to ensure patronage stays intact. Longer term, it speaks to the way Erdogan has lost his game. Economic mismanagement has cut deeply into his popular support. There are really two directions that he can go in response. He can either attempt to swing towards moderation, bring in more technocrats, and bring the economy back under control, which would threaten the patronage system. The other option is to double down on authoritarianism and continue to repress the opposition.
Yes, if Turkey liberalizes, he is a natural leader. He is a logical spokesperson for the opposition and a logical target for the government.
Are there any key inflection points to be looking towards?
There is a series of foreign policy and economic crises that exacerbate everything we spoke about. The Russian missile system, the S-400 issue, is not going away. Congress has promised to sanction Turkey if that goes through. The messaging from Trump is different but the law gives him little leeway. Further, there is a looming crisis over Cyprus. The instability of Erdogan’s rule is taking real costs in a country that should be doing well. Turkey has lots of resources, human capital, and is well positioned geographically. There is no reason for it to be in crisis outside of the mismanagement and corruption of its leadership.