Ankara (GPA) – Turkish President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party had a bad weekend but it won’t necessarily slow them down.
If you were closely following the Turkish municipal elections at all you’ve probably seen a lot about how the foundations of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule is finally starting to show some crack. With Ankara and Istanbul out of Justice and Development’s (AKP) hands for the first time since the parties creation, this is somewhat true, [giant] but the effort to knock down what Erdogan has built is just starting.
The good news
Let’s start with the good news we can take from the outcomes of last weekend’s election.
In the positive column, we have the fact that it is pretty obvious now that the AKP has lost Turkey’s urban centers. Ankara and Istanbul, in particular, have been under AKP rule for over a decade in a period when voters in cities in Istanbul were wooed with giant infrastructure projects as well as the fact that their first AKP mayor seemed more liberal than he was. If you didn’t guess it, this mayor was Erdogan himself who started his career in Istanbul as a much different person, even beginning his career promising reconciliation with minorities in Turkey including Armenians and Kurds.
This has changed over the years and Erdogan and the AKP have grown more unpopular within the major cities. Yet, for years, the opposition struggled to make any gains for a multitude of reasons that they seem to actually be fixing now and some that are out of their control.
Obviously, the Turkish opposition has no real power to do things like stop the purges of the police and the judiciary, mass arrests of those opposing the AKP, constant harassment of opposition events by cops and street thugs alike, or even the general oversight of elections to make sure they’re fair. However, there were plenty of mistakes being made by the opposition in general and the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which they seem to finally be resolving.
Erdogan and the AKP have always consistently carried right around 50% of the vote and usually do things like stuff ballot boxes and call elections early to help them get over any hump and clinch victory, typically by around one percent margin. One reason that this has been holding the Turkish opposition back for so long seems to finally have been put to rest this election under the new coalition between the CHP, the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and the newer Iyi party (a breakaway from Erdogan’s coalition allies in the Nationalist Movement Party, the MHP).
Under the coalition agreement, parties opted not to run competing candidates in certain races and all parties would urge their voters to rally around the strongest opposition party candidate in their district. This cooperation is likely what’s behind some of the opposition’s success in a lot of areas, specifically in Ankara and Istanbul where traditionally Kurdish and Leftist voters turned out for the CHP. While the CHP doesn’t have much of a platform due to their decades in power before the rise of the Islamists it seems like their pitch of “not the AKP” worked for now.
There were also a lot of offices ‘taken back’ by the HDP in primarily Kurdish regions. The elections in these areas were never really a question as to who would win as most of the offices had previously been filled by Kurdish politicians but were illegally replaced with Erdogan lackeys with ‘emergency powers’.
The AKP, for their part also made some moves that were probably bad ideas during the campaign as well. Erdogan spent plenty of time accusing the opposition of being terrorists, spies, and whatever else he could think of but this may have backfired a bit considering that this put the local elections on a national stage. Since Turkey’s economy is basically in the toilet as a result of years of bad AKP fiscal and foreign policy, making the election a referendum on how popular Erdogan is at the same time the lira is basically worthless was a bad idea.
Erdogan probably expected some kind of a boost in popularity when he recently got Donald Trump to agree to withdraw US troops from Syria, but that also didn’t pan out leaving him without a lot of recent foreign policy achievements to point to. Unfortunately for Erdogan, he’s also managed to fuck yo relations with the US to a point where the deep state won’t have Trump giving him anything. We can see Trump has no problem trying to tip the scales in elections in places like Israel and he probably could’ve been asked to do the same in Turkey if Ankara hadn’t backed Washington into a corner over the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense systems.
So both the opposition and Erdogan himself played a large role in opposition victories, and while it is safe to say election may have knocked Erdogan and the AKP down a peg, there is still a problem: Erdogan holds the real power.
The Election and AKP Tantrum
So, this is the first time the AKP has lost like this in years. In the lead up to this election Erdogan has used his offices, first as mayor, then prime minister, and now as president to consolidate power through changes in the laws and massive political patronage networks.
After the 2016 coup, Erdogan declared the state of emergency that allowed him to take out judges, executives within major industries, members of the media, and anyone else who could challenge AKP rule either in the court of public opinion or a literal courtroom. Erdogan also protected himself by changing Turkey’s constitution in a 2017 referendum – again, approved by a one percent margin – that put more power over the state under the control of Erdogan and extended the amount of time he can possibly be president until 2024.
With the state and private sector this centralized under one man, it’s easy enough to see why it’s hard for the opposition to win elections in Turkey but now that they’ve won, the real challenge has apparently started.
Like I said earlier, Erdogan made some changes to election laws and procedure in the last few years. It was kind of unclear how important they’d really be in the abstract but now we’re seeing what total AKP control really looks like.
Right off the bat, after losing in Istanbul, Erdogan demanded a recount of the ballots. While the AKP has never been gracious enough to allow any opponents to have a recount, Erdogan’s request was, predictably, immediately approved. While it was good news that Erdogan and the AKP managed to turn (or cheat) the election in their favor, many fear that the recount could be the ruling party’s chance to do just that (although, in a positive turn of events, at the time of this writing the CHP is still winning the recount with about half the ballots counted).
Part of Erdogan’s strategy in the days following the elections has also just been to pretend they didn’t happen. This is most prominent in Istanbul where, the AKP apparently not wanting to waste signs they had already printed, decide to decorate the city with banners declaring Istanbul had still voted AKP. This could also be seen as a bad omen for the recount, seeing as Erdogan apparently felt entitled to the city government before the polls even opened.
Beyond just counting or recounting the ballots and delusion, the national government also has control over the regulatory board that certifies election results. While it may be hard for Erdogan to straight up negate the results of a loss to a major party like the CHP, this tool has recently been deployed against Turkey’s first communist mayor.
Despite a strong lead from the moment results started coming in and a clear victory, the AKP is apparently very against allowing mayor-elect Fatih Mehmet Maçoğlu taking his elected office. The reason that they managed to find to stop this was to say Maçoğlu is a “security threat” and for that reason, the Supreme Election Board (YSK) will not allow him to take office.
These municipal elections are a good sign that at least some of Turkey is rejecting the AKP (although Erdogan’s base in the rural districts is still made up of strong supporters) and that the opposition is finally presenting a united front against Erdogan. That said, Erdogan still controls the national government and even though this election was bad the stakes will be higher next time national offices are up.
Usually, during campaigns, Erdogan does things like speak out against Israel – or invade part of Syria and Iraq – in order to whip up his nationalist base. There was definitely some of the usual blusterings against Israel and also against the US and NATO (which are distrusted by a majority of Turks across the political spectrum) but at least this time there was no new operation into Kurdish regions outside of Turkey. There was, however, an increase in bombing by Turkish jets on alleged Kurdistan Workers Party positions in Iraq. There are still more conflicts for Erdogan to get into with the Kurds though, and we should expect to see at least one during the next election season.
Erdogan did manage to shamelessly use the recent massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand this election though. For the AKP the tragedy was seen as a way to demonstrate how “everyone hates Turks” because the shooter was a lunatic who hated the idea of them occupying “Byzantium” or whatever. This plays perfectly into Erdogan’s narrative that Turkey, as the heir to the Ottoman Empire, is constantly shamed by the world after being unfairly taken from the height of world power. Erdogan even went as far as playing the shooters livestream video of the massacre at campaign rallies to try and incite the religious mobs to vote for him.
It’s also likely Erdogan will continue the ongoing crackdowns against political opponents as he did during this election with mass arrests of voters (and politicians). While many people know about the initial giant purges following the 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan, some fail to realize there are still mass arrests and purged going on to this day. On semi-regular occasions, there are still several hundred arrest warrants released in one giant dump. It is also common to see journalists or politicians inside and outside of Turkey be charged with crimes for “insulting Erdogan.” All of this will probably get worse as the AKP feels threatened. The opposition sort of got their shit together for this election but there’s a lot more building to be done if they’re going to challenge the sultanate constructed by Erdogan. National elections are next, and the AKP will not go quietly.
James Carey is an organizer based in Detroit, Michigan, founder of Geopolitics Alert, and an experienced analyst on Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Turkey. He also covers topics ranging from Latin America and Asia to Europe. You can also hear James in his weekly podcast; The Left is Dead which he co-hosts with investigative journalist Jake Anderson.