Erdogan’s Worst Enemy Is His Only Ally

The real winner of Turkey’s local elections is the ultranationalist MHP party.

Supporters of the Republican People's Party  cheer and wave Turkish national flags in front of the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Ankara, on April 8. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of the Republican People's Party cheer and wave Turkish national flags in front of the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Ankara, on April 8. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkey’s local elections on March 31 ended with a plot twist: The secular opposition scored a surprise upset against the country’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The opposition’s victory is historic, particularly considering that Erdogan, who has not lost a single election since he was elected Istanbul’s mayor in 1994, saw his party lose key races that he had turned into a referendum on himself.

For the first time in a quarter-century, it appears that Turkey’s economic powerhouse, Istanbul, and its capital city, Ankara, will be governed by secularists, not Islamists. Out of Turkey’s seven largest metropolitan areas, only two remain in Erdogan’s party’s hands. Indeed, with the current results, more than half of the country’s population will be living in cities with opposition mayors. These areas are also Turkey’s economic engines. Istanbul alone accounts for about one-third of the country’s GDP. Together with Ankara and Izmir, it adds up to more than half of the economy. Other major cities such as Adana, Antalya, and Mersin are now also under opposition control.

There are many dramatic storylines emerging from the March 31 elections. But make no mistake: This is only a modest success for the opposition. Erdogan’s defeat is more about what he did wrong than what his opponents got right. Had his Justice and Development Party (AKP) pulled from its deep bench of locally successful mayors, the story would have probably been yet another defeat for the opposition. Indeed, incumbents from smaller districts such as Lokman Cagirici and Turgut Altinok, whose names were initially circulated as likely candidates to run in Turkey’s largest city and its capital, were passed over and ran instead in less prominent municipalities. Nevertheless, they outperformed their party by over 10 percent and got re-elected in Istanbul’s and Ankara’s largest suburbs. Instead of choosing these strong candidates, Erdogan nominated his closest loyalists such as the parliament speaker Binali Yildirim and Minister of the Economy Nihat Zeybekci, and he turned the local races into a referendum on himself, holding 102 rallies in 50 days.

As the polls showed his party trailing, Erdogan turned to his usual playbook: demonizing his opponents, dominating the airwaves, blaming it all on foreigners, and playing the religion card. This was an election about who paves the roads, sweeps the streets, and tends to the parks, but the AKP tried to make it about Raqqa, Mecca, and Gaza. It’s no wonder that didn’t fly with voters.

Whether Erdogan’s AKP will allow the results to stand remains to be seen. The party has not yet conceded in Istanbul, and there are reasons to worry that it will not. In an ominous sign, Erdogan has started to play up the idea of rerunning the election in Istanbul after the AKP’s request for a recount of all invalid votes failed to erase the opposition candidate’s margin of victory.

Local governments are the lifeblood of AKP’s power. In 2018, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s budget was 42.6 billion liras ($8.85 billion), more than 6 percent of the national budget. Other metropolises are also remarkably affluent: Ankara Metropolitan Municipality, for example, has a budget of 14 billion liras (about $2.5 billion), more than seven of the cabinet ministries.

Losing control of cities such as Istanbul and Ankara could be potentially devastating for Erdogan, because they are crucially important for his political machine. A central pillar of Erdogan’s power is charities such as the Social Solidarity Association, Youth and Education Service Foundation (TURGEV), Turkey Youth Foundation, Society for Islamic Knowledge, Archers’ Foundation, Women and Democracy Association, and Turkey Technology Team, which Turkey’s opposition has long alleged operate as a parallel welfare state for Erdogan’s benefit, bribing voters with food aid, cash payments, college scholarships, and job training.

The Erdogan family is directly involved in these charities. The Social Solidarity Association’s chairperson is Erdogan’s sister-in-law Saadet Gulbaran. His younger son, Bilal, sits on the boards of the Turkey Youth Foundation, Society for Islamic Knowledge, and Archers’ Foundation. The president’s elder daughter, Esra, who is married to the finance minister, Berat Albayrak, is on the board of TURGEV, while his younger daughter, Sumeyye, is believed to be one of her father’s most trusted advisors and is the Women and Democracy Association’s vice chair—her husband, the defense industrialist Selcuk Bayraktar, chairs the Turkey Technology Team’s board of trustees.

The boards of these foundations read like a Rolodex of the AKP’s senior bureaucrats, city mayors, and crony billionaires, whose contributions help fund their activities. A focus of the corruption scandals in 2013, which Erdogan alleged to be a conspiracy of his ally-turned-enemy Fethullah Gulen and quickly shut down, was the wiretapped conversations between his son Bilal and politically connected businessmen about quid pro quo donations to TURGEV. Similarly, Reza Zarrab, the Turkish Iranian financier-turned-informant whose sanctions-busting ring became the subject of a controversial lawsuit in the Southern District of New York, testified that he was a generous benefactor to the Social Solidarity Association, to which he allegedly donated over $4 million.

The AKP-led government never denied this symbiosis. Indeed, when the opposition raised the allegations about the donations to TURGEV in parliament, the government disclosed that the organization actually received donations in excess of $100 million and countered that such donations are not illegal. In a recent exposé, one of Turkey’s leading investigative journalists, Sozcu’s Cigdem Toker, revealed that the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality alone contributed 850 million liras to these charities in 2018, not to mention the funds from other AKP-controlled cities and boroughs.

In one of his first speeches after the election, the opposition candidate and presumed new mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu took a jab at the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s cozy relationship with these charities, declaring that “the era of [the municipality] serving a certain man, his associates, his foundations is over.”

With the country’s economic troubles worsening, these charities will become more important than ever for Erdogan to keep the loyalty of his voting base, but, without the city governments under his control, funding them will prove much more difficult.

The real winner from Erdogan’s loss, however, will not be his opponents. It will be the junior partner of his ruling coalition, Devlet Bahceli’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), for that is where the Anatolian heartland’s culturally conservative, lower-income voters have defected as they feel the burn from Turkey’s economic crisis, for which Erdogan and his party are largely to blame.

As Sinan Ulgen rightly observed in Foreign Policy after last summer’s presidential elections, Bahceli was already emerging as Ankara’s kingmaker. Interestingly, Bahceli, who is now Erdogan’s one and only ally, was one of his fiercest rivals until recently. In June 2015, the opposition came to the brink of ending Erdogan’s rule after more than a decade, but Bahceli refused to partner with Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s secular Republican People’s Party and Selahattin Demirtas’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party to form a coalition government. His obstinacy resulted in snap elections that Erdogan’s AKP won handily, but it also divided Bahceli’s party, spawning a group of renegades led by his party vice chairwoman, former Interior Minister Meral Aksener. Her leadership challenge against Bahceli was stifled in court after a series of controversial rulings, leading Aksener and her team to jump ship and form their own party, Iyi Party, which is now Turkey’s nationalist opposition.

As Bahceli fended off the mutiny inside his party, he drew ever closer to Erdogan—or pulled Erdogan toward him, depending on how one looks at it. Through his alliance with Erdogan, Bahceli turned his party’s platform into Ankara’s official policy. The government’s crackdown on rights and liberties, its heavy-handed approach to the Kurds, and its turn away from the West reflect the MHP’s security-centric agenda, its ultranationalist identity, and its bellicose rhetoric. Bahceli is not in power, but his ideas are.

Only a few years ago, Erdogan’s two most reliable bases of support were the followers of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen and Kurdish voters. At that time, together with the Gulenists, Erdogan was hunting down secularists and nationalists, the dominant factions in the security bureaucracy, while simultaneously negotiating a peace deal with the Kurds.

Today, the nationalists are back with a vengeance. Since the failed 2016 coup plot, for which Erdogan blames Gulen, the Gulenists have become Turkey’s public enemy No. 1, with their posts in the military, police, and the bureaucracy taken over by the MHP’s cadres. The Kurdish political movement, the MHP’s archenemy, is also effectively criminalized; its leaders are behind bars, and its infrastructure is substantially damaged.

The MHP, which has its fingerprints all over AKP’s policies, now also has its name all over the electoral map, mostly in the Anatolian heartland, which was Erdogan’s stronghold for decades. Although the secular opposition’s victories are significant, their success is more modest than generally understood. Compared to 2014 totals, this year the AKP suffered a net loss of 42 district legislatures while the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party lost 19. Yet, the secular Republican People’s Party and the nationalist Iyi Party had a combined net gain of 30 legislatures (17 and 13, respectively). Sunday’s biggest winner was not the opposition—it was Bahceli. He not only held his ground against Aksener but also enjoyed a net gain of 40 district legislatures, more than the entire opposition combined.

Bahceli’s victory is what matters the most, because he has now placed Erdogan in a bind. The president can no longer return to his former allies, the Gulenists and the Kurds, and, even if he did, they are of little use to him, as they have nowhere near the degree of power they used to. The secularists would never ally with him. The nationalist opposition also deeply disdains Erdogan, for reasons both political and personal. Erdogan helped Bahceli stave off the challenge from Aksener and her mutineers, and they have since been the subject of regular harassment by Erdogan, who, only a few weeks ago, called Aksener a “terrorist” and threatened to have her arrested.

With nowhere else to turn, Erdogan is trapped with Bahceli. The numbers show that although Erdogan’s own position as president is secure until 2023, his party’s power in parliament depends on its alliance with the MHP. Bahceli was Erdogan’s rival before he was his ally—and there is no reason why he could not become an enemy once again.

So long as Bahceli holds all the cards, he will keep pulling Erdogan to the right, which will cost the AKP on two fronts simultaneously. As he drifts to the right, Erdogan loses centrist voters, but he cannot win on the right either, because Bahceli uses their alliance to ensure that his party’s candidates run unopposed or the two parties campaign independently and undercut each other. Such three-way races hurt the AKP more than anyone else, because both the MHP and the secular opposition’s voters are more ideologically committed and have more consistent turnout. Indeed, it is worth noting that MHP won nine of its 11 municipalities in races against the AKP, not the opposition, and two of them with razor-thin margins. With friends like these, Erdogan has no need for enemies.

That’s why Bahceli is currently the most powerful person in Ankara. If Erdogan accepts the March 31 results, holding his coalition together and keeping the wheels turning will be much more difficult. If he contests them, the country will become even more fragile, and its economic troubles will worsen. Either way, the critical variable is what Bahceli chooses to do. He is the constant, no matter the political equation.

On April 5, Erdogan downplayed the opposition’s still-contested victory. Even if the opposition were to win, he said, their mayors would be “lame ducks,” because his party controls the legislatures at the local and national level. But if Bahceli were to ever abandon him, Erdogan would end up being the lamest duck of all.

Selim Sazak is a doctoral student in political science at Brown University. Twitter: @scsazak