Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s apparent landslide victory in Turkey’s recent local elections is giving him a boost as he seeks his ultimate political goal – the establishment of a strong presidential system of government, analysts say. But amid allegations of government corruption, abuse of power and election fraud, will social unity be left curbside in the process?
This August, Turks will directly elect their president for the first time. To win, the prime minister, widely expected to run, would need 50 percent of the votes from Turkey’s roughly 50 million registered voters, plus one vote.
Given the strong win for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the March 31 local elections, observers believe that the prime minister will be disinclined to rethink controversial policies or practices ahead of the presidential campaign. Preliminary counts of the local voting give the AKP about 47 percent of the vote, although final results are not expected until later this month.
“The prime minister feels that he won, feels he was whitewashed from all the corruption allegations,” noted political analyst Cengiz Aktar of Sabancı University’s Istanbul Policy Center. “Therefore, he feels free to go for the presidency. … [It is] a bit like the [Russian President Vladimir] Putin presidential system, where there’re neither checks nor balances.”
Erdoğan’s post-election pledge to follow “our enemies into their lairs and make them pay” resonates among his electoral base of working-class, conservative and pious voters, many of whom have seen their lives transformed in a decade of unprecedented economic growth. As yet, that pledge has not been put into action.
For these voters, the prime minister’s claims of an international conspiracy against himself read as a conspiracy against their own interests.
As in elections past, he has been careful to reinforce that message by maintaining the common touch; using the lexicon of his native Kasımpaşa, one of Istanbul’s poorest districts, and even disposing of his sharp, expensive suits for a traditional check jacket at weekend political rallies.
No matter what the claim against the government, these AKP voters see scant reason to question that image now, commented Soli Özel, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. “[F]or those guys, [AKP supporters] any hint that if things changed they would be even more vulnerable is a good enough reason [to] support those who they know and so far have delivered,” Özel said.
Erdoğan’s reliance on strong-arm behavior to ward off alleged “conspiracies” doesn’t sit well with Turkey’s Western partners, however. In an April 7 interview with The Hürriyet Daily News, US Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone expressed confusion about the ban on YouTube and now-revoked ban on Twitter. “It makes no sense to us,” he said. “Because we consider Turkey as a Western state of law and democracy.”
Özel angrily rejected the idea that the AKP’s election win might suggest that Turkey holds a different definition of democracy from its Western allies. Despite holding a conviction for tax fraud, Italy’s controversial former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi saw his Forza Italia returned to parliament this year, Özel underlined. “Therefore, this is not something peculiar to the Turks.”
Nonetheless, divisions run strong over what a prolonged AKP hold on power may involve.
In Istanbul’s predominantly Islamic-observant Fatih district, Mustafa Taş a 40-year-old car park attendant, described the local elections’ outcome as “beautiful.”
“Look at all the things he has done for Istanbul and our country,” Taş said of Erdoğan. “All this talk of corruption, it is just talk. He is a good man who works for us.”
But a short ferryboat ride across the Bosphorus lies Kadiköy, an opposition stronghold where 72-percent of registered voters cast ballots for the pro-secular Republican People’s Party.
One 30-something computer engineer, who gave his name as Ahmet, predicted more protests. “Tayyip probably will assimilate all things into his Islamic faith,” he predicted, using the popular name for the prime minister. “He is going to use the religion thing and people probably will believe it and, after then, [for] people such as me, it will be the end,” he said, with a nervous laugh.
Yet the potential pay-off of such divisions for the AKP is clear. Whether playing up fears of an army crackdown on his Islamic supporters or darkly warning about meddling by foreign agents, all of Erdoğan’s electoral successes since 2002 have been built on political polarization.
"Polarizing society is a very conscious political strategy adopted by the prime minister and his party, because they understand from their previous election victories in times of high polarization its electoral base always rallies around them,” commented Sinan Ülgen, a visiting Turkey scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.
Outgoing President Abdullah Gül, a founding member of the AKP, has called for an end to Turkey’s deepening differences, but many doubt that the triumphant prime minister is in a mood to listen; even to his own party.
“I am sure he is turning around and saying, ‘You see, I won,’ and it will be very difficult for dissenters to say [that] it is a Pyrrhic victory,” said Özel. Against that backdrop, he warned, Turkey’s August presidential election “is going to be tenser, it is going to be more polarized and it’s going to be more brutal.”
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.