Argument

Erdogan Just Committed Political Suicide

By overturning an election in Istanbul, he may have triggered a Turkish Spring.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits the Mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, during a ceremony marking the 96th anniversary of Victory Day, commemorating a decisive battle in the Turkish War of Independence, in Ankara, on Aug. 30, 2018.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits the Mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, during a ceremony marking the 96th anniversary of Victory Day, commemorating a decisive battle in the Turkish War of Independence, in Ankara, on Aug. 30, 2018. ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

On May 6, Turkey’s Supreme Election Council annulled the Istanbul municipal elections one week earlier in which the opposition had defeated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The decision was not a surprise. For more than a month, AKP stalwarts as well as the Turkish press, which is almost completely dominated by Erdogan, had been laying the groundwork for this reversal by claiming irregularities and alleging all kinds of mischief by ballot handlers. And this is not the first time that the AKP has resorted to chicanery to get the electoral results it wanted. In the 2017 constitutional referendum, which replaced a parliamentary system with the current presidential one, Erdogan managed to reverse a defeat at the polls through last-minute ballot stuffing and other means of cheating.

But there is something different about this intervention. Unlike in 2017, it took more than one month of intense public pressure from Erdogan for the election council to overturn a perfectly legitimate election—it was a process for all to see, AKP supporters and opponents alike.

Another difference is the legitimate winner in Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu. The candidate of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Imamoglu is a relative newcomer who ran a nearly perfect race. He focused on local issues and did not engage in public dueling matches with Erdogan and his acolytes, who claimed that these elections were actually about national issues, foreign plots, terrorism, Syria, and a litany of issues that had little to do with such local concerns as water, transportation, and poor services. In fact, in the few weeks after the election that he was allowed to assume the mayoral position, Imamoglu opened up Istanbul municipal legislature discussions to the public and attempted to tackle these very topics.

By canceling the results, Erdogan is compounding the strategic error of inserting himself into the local elections in the first place. He essentially transformed the election into a vote of confidence in his own leadership. The country was inundated with pictures of Erdogan, and nearly all of his speeches—in which he indulged in deliberately polarizing rhetoric pitting “us” against traitors—were aired live on television, even as the opposition was mostly ignored by the national media. The results thus became a personal disaster for Erdogan, as his party lost some of the country’s most important municipalities, including Ankara, Adana, Mersin, and Izmir.

He is now doubling down on that first mistake. Erdogan risks a tremendous backlash from an electorate that will deem the action as unfair and may deliver him another humiliating defeat despite the fact that he and his party will mobilize to cheat and effectively try to guarantee success à la 2017. Even if he wins, it will be a Pyrrhic victory; it will be viewed by a very large segment of the population as an illegitimate and tarnished result. He will also have created a formidable and popular new opponent in Imamoglu, who had already captured the imagination of large numbers of citizens. Imamoglu will likely parlay his victim status to the national leadership of his party.

So why then take such a risk? There are three distinct explanations. First, Istanbul is not only the largest city but is also the country’s economic and cultural capital. As such, it has literally served as the AKP’s cash cow; the municipal budget was reportedly used to fund Erdogan’s pet projects, including his direct family members’ questionable endeavors. Large multibillion-dollar projects have reportedly been funneled, often in no-bid contracts, to Erdogan’s business cronies, and, in the process, he has refashioned and domesticated Turkey’s private sector. Losing Istanbul, therefore, would severely impoverish the AKP.

Second, Istanbul is Erdogan’s home base; he got his start as a national politician when he was first elected as its mayor in 1994. Beyond the symbolism of losing his hometown after having invested so much in keeping it, he understands that a successful opposition mayor, especially one of Imamoglu’s surprising intelligence and skills, could one day come to challenge him.

Third, Erdogan recognizes that after nearly two decades of rule the Turkish public may simply be tiring of him. Although he railed during the campaign against foreigners—that is, the United States and the West—for the deteriorating state of the Turkish economy, for many voters the buck stops with him. Losing Istanbul, he fears, would represent a further chink in his armor and give the perception that his powers are diminishing. Some Turks may interpret the loss as the beginning of the end for him. In 2017, he reportedly said that “if we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey.”

Underlying all these issues is the fact that Erdogan has transformed Turkey into a one-person authoritarian system in which all institutions are under his control. State institutions respond only to his whims; worse, the independent judiciary and its guarantee of the rule of law have been demolished. There are now two parallel justice systems: one for Erdogan’s cronies and supporters and one for everyone else. Anyone Erdogan dislikes ends up in prison on trumped-up charges; among them are many intellectuals—Turkey has the distinction of being the world’s single largest jailer of journalists. A single tweet, especially if it involves a case of lèse majesté, can land you in jail.

Erdogan used to be surrounded during the first decade of his rule by other founding princes of the party, but he has systematically eliminated them. Instead, he has surrounded himself with sycophants who dare not challenge him. He has, therefore, lost the services of people who could serve as a sounding board. The political acumen he displayed between 2002 and roughly 2010 has all but disappeared. He has become another run-of-the-mill despot—except one who’s in charge of an important, and potentially unstable, member of the Western alliance.

Erdogan will come to bitterly regret his decision to overturn the Istanbul election, primarily because it demonstrates that he is losing power and is running scared. He is terrified of any potential mobilization of civil society. His paranoia leads him to see plots everywhere and to incessantly purge the bureaucracy, military, and society of real but mostly imaginary enemies.

The unintended consequence of the Istanbul elections will be the slow but steady evolution of new forms of opposition to the regime. The Turkish electoral system was always regarded as one of the country’s few untarnished institutions; previous governments—whether partly or fully democratic—never risked such a direct intervention in election results. With good reason: If people lose faith in elections, they will resort to alternative forms of opposition. A regime, especially one still ensconced in Western institutions, that provides no avenues for real dissent amid worsening economic conditions will eventually give rise to an uprising. When the Turkish Spring arrives, Erdogan will only have himself to blame.

Correction, May 16, 2019: An earlier version of this article mistakenly described the date of the Istanbul elections, and their later annulment.

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Twitter: @hbarkey

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