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A Win For Democracy, A Loss for Turkish President Erdogan

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he meets with Russian President Putin in 2015. (Photo by Kremlin.Ru)
President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he meets with Russian President Putin in 2015. (Photo by Kremlin.Ru)

Unless the incumbent Turkish political party AKP overturns the recent election results, the opposition is now in command of cities that make up 65% of Turkey’s GDP.

Turkey’s local elections on March 31, 2019, resulted in a major rebuke to President Recep Erdogan’s ruling alliance. The President’s AKP party lost Istanbul, the country’s largest city, and Ankara, Turkey’s capital, to an opposition coalition. Erdogan’s party has held majority control over Turkey’s political system since 2003. His party has filed appeals to contest the results.

The election came at a time when the Turkish economy is in recession and relations with the U.S. have grown increasingly tense. Voters are expressing discontent with economic distress and Erdogan’s authoritarian leadership.

Erdogan: From Hope to Increasing Authoritarianism

Turkey has never had a perfect democracy (between its institution in 1946 and Erdogan’s rise to power in 2003, the country endured four military interventions), but in Erdogan’s early years of leadership, the international community viewed him as a hopeful example of Islamist democracy. Their hopes would prove to be in vain, as Erdogan slowly eroded his country’s checks and balances system, imposing fines on the independent media and sham trials on political opposition.

Since a bloody coup attempt in 2016, Erdogan has accelerated his consolidation of power. Under the pretext of national emergency, a crackdown of 80,000 arrests, over 100,000 public sector workers fired (many of which were replaced by Erdogan loyalists), and the closure of 3,000 schools and universities.

In an interview with DemocracyNow!, Koray Çaliskan, a Turkish academic who has been imprisoned by Erdogan’s party for criticizing the government, used an analogy to describe the institutional disadvantages the opposition party had to overcome to defeat Erdogan’s party:

“It was an unlevel playing field. All right? Imagine the Super Bowl, and one team doesn’t have helmets and paddings. And then they’re trying to stop the other team. The team without the helmets and the paddings were social democrats. And they stopped AK Party’s Islamist team, with huge helmets, and referees were helping them, and they had paddings.”

Istanbul Goes to Underdog Opposition Party

Although Erdogan won more overall votes than the opposition coalition, the loss of several major cities is an unprecedented check to his increasingly authoritarian rule. The loss of Istanbul is particularly symbolic, as Erdogan began his political career as the city’s mayor and once said, “Whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey.”

Ekrem Imamoglu of the CHP opposition party won Istanbul’s mayorship by 25,000 votes, according to preliminary results. But while Imamoglu is giving press conferences as the city’s new mayor, Erdogan’s AKP party has put up posters across Turkey claiming victory, disputing the election’s results as “the biggest stain in Turkish democratic history.”

The European Commission’s first vice president, Frans Timmermans, has called on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to respect the results of the local elections:

“Turkey has been moving away from European values ​​at great speed in recent years. We hope that this will not be made worse by the fact that the [ruling Justice and Development party] AKP doesn’t respect the election results.”

Critics of the AKP’s decision to dispute the election results call Erdogan a hypocrite, as he refused the opposition a recount in the local elections of 2014 and allowed unstamped ballots to be accepted in a 2017 referendum that increased his power. According to Istanbul’s tentative new mayor:

“Up until yesterday, the government and the ruling party were claiming that Turkey had the most credible voting system and they were giving it the highest praise. One million people were on duty at polling stations that night. If there was any suspicious activity, they would record it and make a written report – that’s the official procedure here.”

Unless the AKP overturns the results, the opposition is now in command of cities that make up 65% of the nation’s GDP.

Turkish Economy Struggles, Erdogan Blames US

According to top economists Dani Rodrik and Timur Kuran, Turkey’s economy has been distressed by President Erdogan’s political decisions. The ongoing diplomatic crisis with the United States has attributed to the devaluation of the Turkish Lira, and erratic unilateral moves by Erdogan have spooked foreign investors.

Most recently, Erdogan put restrictions on foreign banks from selling the Lira to prevent further inflation before the upcoming local elections. The move temporarily worked, but Erdogan still suffered defeats in the election and economists predict it will do long term damage to the struggling economy by deterring foreign investors.

Erdogan blames his country’s economic struggles on foreign actors like the U.S., flaming anti-Western sentiment to incite his base and deflect blame for internal failures. Tensions between the U.S. and Turkey have reached a new boiling point over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system. Turkey had simultaneously ordered 100 F-35s from Lockheed Martin, which Washington has refused from being shipped unless Erdogan abandons his deal with Russia. The S-400 was built to shoot down jets like the F-35, and Washington fears Russia could discover the jet fighter’s secrets through its powerful radar system if both systems are lodged on Turkish soil.

CNBC reports the arms deal is important enough to have weapons manufacturers Lockheed Martin and Raytheon pending major production changes depending on the result of the dispute.

Çaliskan described Erdogan’s decision to buy Russian weaponry against NATO wishes as motivated by uncertainty regarding the strategic rationale of U.S. President Donald Trump. Çaliskan also pointed to U.S. based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, a former ally of Erdogan who is believed to be behind the 2016 coup attempt, as a source of strain on the country’s bilateral relations. The U.S. has refused to extradite Gülen to stand trial in Turkey. U.S. support for Kurdish rebels in Syria (whom Erdogan believes are terrorists) and Erdogan’s growing ties with Moscow have further fueled the tension.

Asli Aydintasbas, an Istanbul-based senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, described the U.S. and Turkish partnership as “a very rocky relationship.”

Speaking at a gathering in Washington to mark Nato’s 70th anniversary, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence stated:

“Turkey must choose. Does it want to remain a critical partner in the most successful military alliance in history, or does it want to risk the security of that partnership by making such reckless decisions that undermine our alliance?”

In response, Turkey’s Vice President tweeted, saying, “The United States must choose. Does it want to remain Turkey’s ally or risk our friendship by joining forces with terrorists to undermine its NATO ally’s defense against its enemies?”

Turkey has long been known as a bridge between east and west, and its role in NATO grants it unique geo-strategic importance. It is unknown what the next episode of Turkey’s tumultuous story will entail, but if Erdogan’s prediction that “whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey,” holds true, a new era of Turkish leadership could emerge.

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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