The beginning of the end of Erdogan?
12 Jul 2019|

It was some years ago that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly said: ‘Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey.’ His words must have come to haunt him on 23 June when Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition Republican People’s Party nominee, easily defeated the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate, Binali Yildirim, for the city’s mayoralty.

What must have added insult to injury was the fact that Imamoglu garnered over 54% of the votes, increasing his vote share by 6% compared to the 31 March result when he barely managed to defeat Yildirim. Under pressure from Erdogan and his party, Turkey’s electoral council annulled the March election results on flimsy technical grounds. It’s clear that last month many AKP supporters switched to supporting Imamoglu, thus punishing Erdogan and his party for this subterfuge.

If one accepts the fact that the Istanbul verdict could be a bellwether for what happens in the rest of the country when national elections are held, then it’s good news for the opposition. The Istanbul verdict is very important because one-fifth of the Turkish population lives in Istanbul and the city contributes more than 30% of Turkey’s GDP.

Istanbul is not alone in sending the signal that large segments of the population are disenchanted with Erdogan and the AKP. The second- and third-largest cities in the country, Ankara and Izmir, also elected opposition candidates in the 31 March elections, as did several other urban centres. The conservative and religious Anatolian heartland has so far stood by the AKP.

But even in the Turkish heartland, Erdogan’s popularity seems to be waning. One of the main reasons for this is the very visible downturn in the economy and the fall of the Turkish currency during the past year. The lira’s value against the US dollar is almost half what it was a year ago. Erdogan’s continuing feud with the United States has hurt the Turkish economy badly.

More important, the AKP government has grossly mismanaged the economy, in part by spending unwisely on giant and prestigious projects like a new airport in Istanbul, which is slated to be the world’s largest, and construction of bridges and gigantic mosques that have depleted resources and driven the government even deeper into debt. Now that the building boom has turned into bust and inflation is rising, it’s hit the average voter hard. It has also begun to alienate the religiously observant bourgeoisie in the towns and cities of interior Anatolia who had formed the financial backbone of the AKP.

Simultaneously, Erdogan has alienated a section of his Islamist base by his running feud with Fethullah Gülen. Gülen and his hizmet organisation were declared terrorists following the abortive military coup of July 2016. Thousands of Gülen supporters, the most educated and skilled among the religiously observant population, are in jail, and tens of thousands of others were sacked from their jobs on suspicion of being Gülenists. Several universities and schools run by the Gülen movement have also been closed.

Two additional factors have eroded Erdogan’s popularity. His recently cultivated hypernationalism, which used to placate his allies in the Nationalist Movement Party, seems to have backfired, driving many moderates to side with the opposition. This is particularly true of the Kurdish population—and Istanbul with about 3 million Kurds is the largest Kurdish city in the world—that has been alienated by Erdogan’s stridently anti-Kurdish rhetoric and the resurgence of conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Erdogan’s military campaign against the Syrian Kurdish enclave has added to Kurdish disenchantment.

Ankara’s ill-conceived involvement in the Syrian civil war has cost Turkey hugely as a result of a massive inflow of refugees and increased defence spending that has added to the country’s economic woes. At the same time, the Turkish government has been engaged in a series of disputes with the US over trade issues and differences regarding the Syrian Kurds. The US has supported the Kurdish militia in Syria, the YPG, as crucial allies against the Islamic State, while Turkey considers the YPG as an extension of the secessionist PKK that has been battling the Turkish state for decades.

The Turkish decision to buy the S-400 missile defence system from Russia has led to US threats of economic sanctions. Turkey has been defiant on this issue, and the first S-400 deliveries are scheduled for this month. Experts believe that these sanctions will kick in automatically under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, legislation penalising any country that has purchased military equipment from an American foe.

While all these factors point to a gradual but certain erosion of Erdogan’s hold on power, it’s too early to say that it will lead to his unseating at the next elections. Parliamentary and presidential elections are more than four years away and much could happen in that time to reverse the Istanbul verdict, especially given the way Erdogan has concentrated power in his hands and misused it to muzzle the media and harass opponents of all hues. He has also mastered the art of political manipulation, a skill he’s likely to put to good use in the next few years.

While Erdogan’s time may not yet be up, his grip on power will never be the same again.