The report, “Turkey’s Local Elections: Actors, Factors, and Implications,” was prepared by a delegation of experts and former US officials and led by two former US ambassadors to Turkey, Martin Abramowitz and Eric Edelman. Assessing the political situation in the run-up to the March 30 elections and possible political scenarios after the vote, the report sharply criticizes Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian style, likening him to an “elected sultan” or an “Islamic caudillo.”
Voters will go to polls to elect mayors across Turkey on March 30, but against a backdrop of tension on the streets and a major corruption scandal that implicates Erdoğan’s close allies, many see the elections as a vote on the future of the prime minister as well. Erdoğan has lashed out at street protests against his government, which first began in the summer of 2013 over plans to demolish Gezi Park in İstanbul and were rekindled recently when a teenager hit in the head by a tear gas canister during those protests died last week after 269 days in a coma. Erdoğan is also locked in a bitter fight with the Hizmet movement of Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, accusing members of the movement of being behind the corruption probe that he calls a “coup” against his government.
According to the report released on Friday by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), Turkish politics now faces a new rift opened up “within the Islamic conservative camp” and “Erdoğan’s determination to build a system of one-man rule, with himself at the center, and remove any competition, including his former allies, is the proximate cause of this new dividing line in Turkish politics.”
The elections are unlikely to change current trends unless there is a stronger-than-expected showing for either Erdoğan or his opponents, says the report. But with his legitimacy being increasingly undermined at home and abroad, the prime minister does not appear likely to improve his tarnished image and he will eventually be forced out, it continues. The main question, according to the report, is how much damage he will do to Turkey in the process.
“From the moment he decided to embark on a quest for one-man rule, Erdoğan began to erode the very coalition that brought him to power and kept him there for a decade. By 2011, Turkey’s liberal intelligentsia had deserted him, once they realized that Erdoğan had turned away from his earlier stated ambition to make Turkey more democratic and liberal. He then spent the better part of two years seeking to undermine the position of his erstwhile ally President [Abdullah] Gül and, from early 2012 onward, the rift with the Gülen movement grew into an open and existential conflict. Along the way, Erdoğan turned Turkey from a country with a strongly growing economy into the most fragile emerging economy in the world and tarnished the image of a statesman that he had meticulously cultivated,” said the report.
“Thus, since Erdoğan decided to become, in effect, an elected sultan — or an Islamic caudillo — his days at the helm of the state were numbered. With every move to concentrate power, he lost further legitimacy and support within society at large, as well as within his own power base. His increasingly irrational behavior and conspiratorial worldview, furthermore, make him seem increasingly a liability to his erstwhile political allies.”
“To stay in power, Erdoğan is increasingly appearing to borrow from the playbook of the world’s other autocrats. Whether Turkish society is going to tolerate this type of leader, and, thus,whether Erdoğan will prove to be more of a Vladimir Putin or more of a Viktor Yanukovych, is the main question in the coming years,” the report also said, referring to Ukraine’s former leader toppled after massive street protests.
According to the BPC report, Erdoğan’s image as the leader of the Turkey’s conservative movement, his “aura of invincibility” and his very legitimacy were pierced first by the Gezi protests and then the corruption probe.
The government responded to the corruption probe by reassigning thousands of police officers and hundreds of judges and prosecutors, introducing and passing in Parliament legislation that tightened the government’s grip on use of the Internet and the judiciary, measures that disturbed members of the European Union, which Turkey aspires to join.
“… [Erdoğan’s] only way of maintaining power is to embark on an outright repressive and authoritarian model of governance, further eroding the gains of democratization made a decade ago. Clearly, such steps will only continue to alienate international markets as well as Western powers. The more he tightens his grip on power, the more quickly it will slip from his grasp. Erdoğan will eventually be forced out, though the question is: what damage will he do to Turkey in the process,” said the report.
The report also assesses that Erdoğan is more likely to focus his efforts on remaining prime minister and that his former ally President Abdullah Gül will most likely be a candidate for the presidency for a second time in the presidential election slated for later this year.
Erdoğan may also decide to hold early elections after the March 30 polls, depending on the results.
“The result of the local elections will likely contribute to whether Erdoğan decides to hold early parliamentary elections, as he did following the military’s e-memorandum in 2007. He may well utilize this option if he calculates he can win a new mandate before his legitimacy is further eroded — and before the opposition is able to regroup,” it said.
The report also cites speculation that Meral Akşener, a lawmaker from the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), may emerge as a joint candidate of the MHP and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Former Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ, who was imprisoned on charges of plotting a coup and released from jail on March 7, is also mentioned as a contender, says the report.
The report also says that the overall percentage of votes for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) as well as who wins in the municipalities of İstanbul and Ankara are major factors to watch in the coming elections.
“The two rough numbers worth watching are whether the AKP’s share of all votes cast falls below 40 percent and whether the main opposition CHP manages to surpass 30 percent. If that happens, the elections would constitute a major upset, showing the AKP to be weaker than expected. On the other hand, the AKP would exceed expectations if its total vote tally comes close to the 49 percent it received in the 2011 parliamentary elections,” it said.
As to the races for the municipalities of Ankara and İstanbul, the report says the CHP has a good chance of winning Ankara, while in İstanbul, the electoral math is different given that İstanbul’s current mayor, Kadir Topbaş, will be hard to unseat. “Again, losing both cities would be a major upset to the AKP,” it said.