by Derek Davison
After a campaign involving a corruption investigation and nation-wide bans on social media, and an election day marred by deadly violence, Sunday’s municipal elections in Turkey resulted in what appears to have been a clear victory for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). The outcome is expected to boost Erdogan’s stature leading up to August’s presidential election, in which he is expected to run, and it seems to have encouraged him to continue the draconian measures he has employed to counter internal opposition.
Erdogan has been under fire over his response to the Gezi Park protests that began last summer, and what is seen as his increasingly authoritarian governing approach. Initially focused on the decision to pave over an Istanbul park, the protests were violently cracked down upon, which helped widen them into a general opposition movement against Erdogan’s government. Turkish press freedoms have been severely curtailed, while the government has moved to tighten its control over the judiciary. More recently, Erdogan has been challenged by a corruption investigation, in particular over an alleged scheme to bypass international sanctions against Iran that involved top officials in the Turkish government and banking industry. Erdogan responded to the scandal by firing dozens of police officials who had been pursuing the investigation, and then by attempting to block access to Twitter and YouTube nationwide, after sensitive documents and recordings related to the investigation were leaked to the public via the social media sites.
Yet Sunday’s election results demonstrate that Erdogan still has popular support, especially given that Erdogan was heavily involved in the campaign despite not being on the ballot himself. The AKP came to power in 2002 promising to improve Turkey’s economy and to remove harsh and unpopular restrictions on religion in public life; their considerable success on both counts helps to explain their continued popularity. While there were scattered reports of voting irregularities, particularly in Ankara where the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) declared its plans to appeal the results, there is little reason to doubt AKP’s victory, although press restrictions certainly color the outcome.
Despite calls for national reconciliation, Erdogan‘s victory speech strongly hinted that he views AKP’s electoral success as a mandate to pursue additional harsh measures against his opponents. He declared that “the nation has foiled insidious plans and immoral traps,” and suggested that his opponents might “flee” in the face of forthcoming criminal charges against them. In the past Erdogan has argued that a vast international conspiracy involving the CIA, Western media, international bankers, and “the Jewish diaspora” is behind the opposition to his government. But his primary targets are the Turkish “deep state” and the so-called “Gulen movement.”
The “deep state” is the predominantly military “shadow government” that has existed since Turkey was founded in 1923 and has worked behind the scenes to destabilize or remove perceived threats to Turkey’s secular order, including elected governments that were seen as too religious. The Turkish military has led three coups against elected governments over the history of the Turkish republic, and exerted considerable influence over several others. The AKP came to power with the intention of reducing the influence of the deep state, and Erdogan has used the possibility of Turkey’s entry into the European Union (whose conditions for admission include guarantees of democracy and the rule of law) to keep the army from interfering in politics. However he has prosecuted several high-ranking military officers on suspicion of scheming to overthrow the civilian government, most recently last August when several active and retired generals, journalists, and academics were sentenced to life in prison for an alleged coup plot.
The Gulen movement is a group, also known as “Hizmet,” founded by former Imam Fethullah Gulen, whose teachings have attracted millions of followers in the Islamic World and particularly in Turkey (Gulen himself lives in self-imposed exile in the United States). Gulen’s followers initially allied themselves with Erdogan and the AKP against the deep state, but the two groups have fallen out of favor with one another. Gulen is thought to have several followers among Turkey’s police and judicial ranks, and Erdogan has accused them (and, by extension, Gulen himself) of manufacturing the corruption investigation to destabilize the government, a charge that Gulen denies. Meanwhile, Gulen has been highly critical of Erdogan’s governing style, accusing him of employing “authoritarian measures…to govern Turkey,” and of building a “cult of personality…around himself.”
Erdogan’s attempt to ban social media may have finally severed his relationship with Turkey’s current president, fellow AKP leader Abdullah Gul. Gul had been a close Erdogan ally, who served as Turkey’s prime minister from 2002-2003 when Erdogan was banned from participating in Turkish politics, and then as Erdo?an’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister before assuming the presidency in 2007. However, during the height of the Gezi Park protests Gul emerged as a voice of opposition to the police crackdown, and more recently he opposed Erdogan’s Twitter ban and directly challenged Erdogan’s assertions that an international conspiracy is behind the allegations against his government. Gul has said nothing about his plans, but he is eligible for a second term in office, and while there has been talk of him assuming the role of prime minister while Erdogan becomes president (with expanded powers), the possibility of AKP’s two most prominent figures running against each other cannot be ruled out.
The coming presidential election will be the first popular presidential election in Turkey’s history. The results of Sunday’s election suggest that Erdogan would be the presumptive front-runner even against the also-popular Gul. However, if Gul runs he may benefit from having distanced himself from Erdogan’s more extreme recent actions. Any further developments in the corruption case against Erdogan could also impact the upcoming election, but at this point it seems unlikely that Erdogan will allow that investigation to continue.