The End of an Era: Erdoğan’s Scramble for Power


Turkey’s 2019 municipal elections occurred on March 31st. For the first time in seventeen years, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost not only in its capital, Ankara, but in its largest city, Istanbul, where Erdogan himself was once mayor.

AKP’s defeat breaks with precedent, and yet it is not alarming given the recent economic downturn. Early last month, Turkey entered its first recession in a decade. The Turkish lira is rapidly losing value, inflation is at twenty percent, borrowing is becoming increasingly expensive, and foreign debt is rising and exacerbated by an ongoing trade war with the US.

Erdogan’s popularity has been derived in large part from his past economic successes––national income has more than tripled since the AKP came to power in 2002. That said, AKP’s crushing defeat calls into question the future of Erdogan’s rule as the country’s most dominant political figure. It erodes his aura of invincibility and puts his past decisions under scrutiny.

The current state of the economy cannot be studied in a vacuum, without regard to Erdogan’s foreign policy. There is a direct correlation between the regressing economy and ailing relations with the West, the US in particular. One testament to that is the economic effect of Turkey’s imprisonment of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, because of his supposed involvement in a failed coup in 2016. When Trump threatened to impose sanctions if Turkey failed to release Brunson, the value of the lira fell by 2.3%. Turkey’s economy is obviously largely hindered by Erdogan’s anti-Western sentiment, and remedying the former is not easy without first dispelling the latter.

The results of the elections also speak volumes about democracy; their implications in that regard are two-fold.

In one sense, it seems like progress. For the past seventeen years, there has been virtually no major opposition or palpable threat to Erdogan’s power. A lack of opposition translates into a lack of accountability; Turkey was, in essence, a one-party system. AKP’s defeat after close to two decades of dominating the political sphere is almost promising.

On the other hand, however, AKP has objected to the results of the elections and has demanded a full vote recount of all districts in Istanbul. Its refusal to come to terms with the election results runs counter to the principle that lies at the very core of democracy. It is also hypocritical of AKP, who in 2014 denied the opposition’s demand for a vote recount in Ankara. Equally problematic is the pro-government media’s similar disregard and denial of the results. The Sabah newspaper headlined the election as “Erdogan’s 15th victory.” Other pro-government outlets simply failed to mention the election as a whole so as to avoid acknowledging AKP’s losses.

Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic rule makes it hard to truthfully say that the results have brought Turkey one step closer to democracy. Two retired ambassadors, Ali Tuygan and Yusuf Buluc, reflect on this reality in their article on the recent municipal elections:

The country had never witnessed a campaign with such polarizing and threatening language on the part of the government which used every means at the disposal of the state to advance its cause. The media, largely under the patronage of the ruling JDP (Justice and Development Party), mostly reflected what the JDP leadership said. For them, the opposition didn’t exist.  Thus, when measured against the internationally recognized standards of fair and free democratic elections, this election didn’t offer the contestants equal opportunity.

That the government used every means at its disposal to advance its cause is hardly an overstatement. AKP went as far as to create an interactive website built around an idea similar to that of Black Mirror’s “Bandersnatch,” in which the viewer has the choice of voting either for AKP or for “the Others” and can see the consequences of both choices play out. At his election rallies, Erdogan used footage of the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand to promote and justify his Islamist rule and ultimately to attempt to undermine his secular opposition. He was ruthlessly divisive in campaigning, and the undemocratic suggestion underlying his refusal to accept the results did not go unnoticed: Frans Timmermans, the First Vice President of the European Commission first VP, urged Erdogan to respect the outcome of the election.

While AKP’s losses are unprecedented in recent history, and perhaps indicative of Erdogan’s loosening grip on power, they are not necessarily telling of the bigger picture. Prospects of substantial change are brightening, but there remains the question of what this municipal election result will mean for the general elections.

Objectively delineating what the results of the recent municipal elections mean for Turkey’s future is difficult. Is this the beginning of the end of the Erdogan age?

Raya Tarawneh