The loss is not just Istanbul


Why Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s grip on Turkey is weakening

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has often said, “Whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey.” This must have come to haunt him last Sunday when Ekrem Imamoglu, the Opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party) nominee, defeated Binali Yildirim, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) candidate, decisively in Istanbul’s mayoral election. What must have added insult to injury was the fact that Mr. Imamoglu garnered close to 55% of the votes, thus increasing his vote share by seven percentage points compared to the March 31 result when he had barely managed to defeat Mr. Yildirim. Under pressure from Mr. Erdogan and his party, the High Election Board annulled the March 31 election result on flimsy technical grounds. It is clear that many AKP supporters switched to supporting Mr. Imamoglu this time, punishing Mr. Erdogan and his party for their high-handedness.

The beginning of the end?

Does this mean the beginning of the end of Mr. Erdogan’s semi-authoritarian rule in Turkey? If one accepts the fact that the Istanbul verdict is a bellwether for what could happen in the rest of the country when the national election is held, then it is good news for the Opposition. The verdict is very important because one-fifth of the Turkish population lives in Istanbul and the city contributes over 30% of the national wealth to the country’s GDP. Moreover, Istanbul is not alone in sending the signal that large segments of the population are disenchanted with Mr. Erdogan and the AKP. The second and third largest cities in the country, Ankara and Izmir, also elected Opposition candidates in the March 31 election, as did several other urban concentrations. It is the Anatolian heartland with its conservative and religious orientation that has so far stood by the AKP. But even there Mr. Erdogan’s popularity seems to be waning.

One of the main reasons for this is the very visible downturn in the economy and the precipitate fall of the Turkish currency over the past year. Some of this is the result of Mr. Erdogan’s continuing feud with the U.S. More important, the AKP government has grossly mismanaged the economy by spending unwisely on giant and prestigious projects like a new airport in Istanbul, which is slated to be the world’s largest, and constructing bridges and gigantic mosques that have depleted resources and driven the government into debts of huge proportions. With the building boom turning into bust and inflation rising, the average voter has been hit hard. This has also begun to alienate the religiously observant bourgeoisie in the towns and cities of interior Anatolia who had formed the financial backbone of the AKP and the engine of growth during Mr. Erdogan’s long tenure first as Prime Minister and then as President.

Simultaneously, Mr. Erdogan has alienated a section of his Islamist base by constantly quarrelling with Fethullah Gulen, the leader of the Gulen movement. Following the abortive military coup of July 2016, thousands of Gulen supporters, the most educated and skilled among the religiously observant population, are in jail and thousands of others have been sacked from their jobs. Several universities and schools run by the Gulen movement have been closed and this has affected the quality of education in the country.

Alienating the Kurds

Mr. Erdogan’s popularity has also diminished because his recently cultivated ultranationalism seems to have boomeranged. This ultranationalism was intended to placate his allies in the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which provides the AKP government crucial support in Parliament, but it seems to have driven many moderates to side with the Opposition instead. This is particularly true of the Kurdish population — and Istanbul with about three million Kurds is the largest Kurdish city in the world — that has been alienated by Mr. Erdogan’s stridently anti-Kurdish rhetoric and the resurgence of conflict between the state and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Mr. Erdogan’s military campaign against the Syrian Kurdish enclave has added to Kurdish disenchantment with him.

Ankara’s ill-conceived involvement in the Syrian civil war has cost Turkey hugely. A massive inflow of refugees and an expanding defence budget have added to its economic woes. At the same time, the Turkish government has been engaged in a running feud with its principal NATO ally, the U.S., over trade issues, differences regarding the Syrian Kurds, and the Turkish decision to buy the S-400 anti-missile systems from Russia. The U.S. has threatened economic sanctions if Ankara acquires the S-400 systems. Turkey has been defiant on this issue, and the first S-400 deliveries are scheduled for July. Experts believe that these sanctions will kick in automatically under the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), a 2017 Congressional law penalising any country that has purchased military equipment from an American foe. The continuing spat with the U.S. threatens to negatively affect the Turkish economy further, with the lira plummeting to new lows following the U.S.’s threats of sanctions.

Some good news

While all these factors point to a gradual but certain weakening of Mr. Erdogan’s hold on power, it is too early to say that it will lead to him being unseating in the next election. Parliamentary and presidential elections are more than four years away and much can happen in between to reverse the Istanbul verdict, especially given the way Mr. Erdogan has concentrated power in his hands and misused it to muzzle the media and harass opponents of all hues. Nonetheless, the Istanbul election does indicate that the President’s semi-authoritarian rule has not been successful in quashing the democratic spirit among Turkey’s voters. This is good news.


Mohammed Ayoob is Senior Fellow, Center for Global Policy, Washington, DC, and University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University

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Printable version | Jul 22, 2019 5:04:17 PM |

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