BERLIN — Following stinging losses in municipal elections, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan must repair Turkey’s economy to fight off an emboldened opposition and to prevent fissures in his own party to widen.
Although Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) remained the biggest political group in Turkey, with more than 44% of the overall vote in the elections March 31, the AKP lost Istanbul, Ankara and several other cities to the opposition.
Parties campaigning against the AKP gathered support from voters disgruntled about the economy, which has dropped into recession, burdened by high unemployment and inflation and a falling value of the Turkish lira.
The opposition prevailed in Istanbul and elsewhere even though it had to campaign on a very uneven playing field because the AKP controls much of the media and has full use of the state apparatus.
The results marked a serious setback for Erdogan, who has won many campaigns since the AKP moved into power more than 16 years ago. “His invincibility has been shattered,” Gonul Tol, director of the Turkish Studies Programme at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said by telephone.
The AKP’s narrow defeat in Istanbul, where Erdogan started his political career 25 years ago, was a heavy psychological and political blow to the president, who had turned the local elections into a referendum about Turkey’s “survival.”
Huseyin Cicek, a Turkey analyst at the Centre for Islam and Law in Europe at the University of Erlangen in Germany, said Erdogan made the election, as he did in previous campaigns, about himself. “Political adversaries were demonised and presented as stooges of the ‘West’,” Cicek said. “It worked only up to a point this time.”
The elections confirmed that the AKP had lost support in metropolitan areas but was holding steady in rural regions, a result observed in earlier polls and suggesting a trend. In Turkey, power over big cities offers governing parties opportunities for patronage and economic leverage. Istanbul, a city of 15 million people that is home to 40% of the country’s economy, is the biggest prize of all.
“Whether it’s land for building projects, contracts for infrastructure projects or money for art, culture and science — whoever controls Istanbul’s finances oversees huge resources,” Gunter Seufert, a Turkey expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, wrote in an analysis.
The state of the economy was not the only reason for the AKP’s poor showing. Voters appeared to reject Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric during the campaign, when he threatened to remove opposition politicians from office and throw them into jail.
“He’s destroying friendships and even families with his polarisation,” said a woman in Istanbul the day after the vote.
The victorious opposition candidate in Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), is a soft-spoken, ever-smiling 49-year-old, whose style is radically different from the attack mode adopted by Erdogan.
Imamoglu beat the AKP’s Istanbul candidate, Binali Yildirim, by a razor-thin margin of less than 20,000 votes in a city with 10 million registered voters. Imamoglu’s campaign received a push after the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) decided not to field a candidate in Istanbul but instead support the CHP.
In a televised announcement after the vote, Erdogan appeared to accept the setback and said the country should look ahead and tackle economic reforms.
However, Turkey’s ruling party challenged Imamoglu’s narrow victory and a recount was ordered in 18 of the city’s 39 districts. Imamoglu said that, as of April 5, he was winning by approximately 18,000 votes.
In the predominantly Kurdish district of Diyarbakir, prosecutors reportedly began an investigation into the newly elected mayor regarding allegations that he incited “terror propaganda” by participating in a ceremony for outlawed Kurdish militants.
Diyarbakir Mayor Adnan Selcuk Mizrakl was one of hundreds of opposition leaders accused by the government of terror links. Since 2016, 95 elected mayors have been removed from office over such charges.
The Turkish Industry and Business Association (Tusiad), a powerful business group, called on the government to start a “new reform period” with “tighter monetary and fiscal policies” and “rapid implementation of structural reforms, beginning with the investment climate, education, digital transformation and labour market.”
Tol said the election results had made improving the economy Erdogan’s top priority. “Erdogan has to address economic problems, otherwise there could be a split in the AKP,” she said.
There were rumours before the election that former AKP grandees who fell out with Erdogan could create a new conservative group. The opposition Cumhuriyet quoted an unnamed AKP official as saying there was unease inside the party because of the handling of the economy. “If they don’t find a way out for the economy, even more difficult days could be ahead,” the official said.
The development could have far-reaching consequences, Tol said. “This could well be the start of the AKP’s descent if Erdogan cannot tackle the economic problems,” she said.
Despite the looming challenge of the economy, the AKP spent the day after the vote filing complaints alleging voting irregularities. In Istanbul, the party put up thank-you posters that gave the impression that the AKP had won the race. Pro-government media outlets called Imamoglu’s victory a “coup.”
Some opposition officials expressed concern that the AKP might try to manipulate the result but Tol said she expected the AKP to concede the election. To not do so would undermine the government’s legitimacy at home and abroad, she said.
Other observers are not so sure. Lisel Hintz, a Turkey expert at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said the last few years had seen “creeping indications of irregularities” by the AKP. She added the threat to unseat opposition mayors had “laid the rhetorical groundwork to justify its opponents’ removal” after the election.
“It was both heartening and frustrating to see the enthusiasm surrounding reports shared on social media claiming that CHP or HDP candidates were ‘leading’ in particular elections,” Hintz said via e-mail.
“Heartening because irrespective of the constraints Erdogan’s regime has placed on the opposition, its spirit of resistance prevails. Frustrating because Erdogan and his party took so many steps to consolidate political and economic power that they are likely unwilling to accept any signs of its erosion.”
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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