Electoral Politics, Erdoğan’s Ambitions, and Democratic Struggles in Turkey

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a 2006 World Economic Forum panel in Davos, Switzerland, titled ‘The New Comparative Advantages.’ Image: World Economic Forum. The local elections on 30 March 2014 show once more that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan remains the undisputed master of politics in Turkey. He has won three parliamentary elections, three local elections, and two popular referenda on constitutional amendments since 2001. Even more remarkable is Erdoğan’s ability to remain domestically popular while abandoning his previously liberal political agenda for one much more authoritarian. He crusaded against corruption when campaigning for the 2002 parliamentary elections after huge bank scandals ruined Turkey’s economy. Now he fabricates conspiracy charges to cover up extensively documented corruption scandals involving his tight inner circle. He formerly declared that Turkey was no longer the country of extrajudicial executions and unsolved political murders; now he defends police brutality and the use of excessive force resulting in the deaths of a number of citizens including children. He promised to end restrictions on freedom of religion and expression; now he now bans Twitter and YouTube. He once claimed that LGBT rights should be protected; now he argues that homosexuality contradicts Islamic beliefs. Although Erdoğan is abandoning his commitments to liberal democracy and other campaign promises, his sustained popularity is no puzzle. Turkey has achieved sustainable economic growth under his rule after a decade of unstable and incompetent coalition governments. GDP per capita in Turkey increased by close to 50 percent from 2002 to 2013. Erdoğan remains credible and irreplaceable in the eyes of many voters, even if his image as an incorruptible leader has been tarnished. Moreover, his power is built on a solid demographic primarily composed of pious Muslims who felt like pariahs in the secular Turkish Republic. They now are rallying behind a Prime Minister who has lifted the ban on headscarves among university students and public servants, increased the scope and influence of religious education, and made Islamic symbols much more visible and assertive in public sphere just less than a decade after the military ended an Islamist-led coalition government. As Erdoğan defeats his political opponents, he seeks to monopolize power. In early 2013, he sought a deal with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned Kurdish nationalist leader, to deliver a sustainable cease-fire between the Turkish security forces and the Kurdish militants after a period of intensified armed clashes. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) ensured the partial rehabilitation of Öcalan and made some limited administrative and policy reforms demanded by the Kurdish nationalists. The quid pro quo of the deal was Kurdish support for Erdoğan’s initiative to establish a presidential system through a constitutional referendum. While the cease-fire has received widespread support, Erdoğan was unable to muster enough public support to push for presidentalism. The Gezi protests in June and an anti-corruption operation orchestrated by the Gülenists, who formerly supported Erdogan in his initial fight against the military, in December completely derailed Erdoğan’s plans. While Erdoğan solidified his support among his core supporters, his confrontational and polarizing reactions to these crises greatly undermined his ability to reach broader segments of the society. Consequently, the AKP’s public support dropped from 54 percent in early 2012 to the mid-40s by March 2014. Nonetheless, the AKP’s performance in the recent local elections just after a series of potentially damaging leaks was impressive. These results bolster chances that Erdoğan will run for president in the popular elections in August. Erdoğan will likely seek alliances with other political forces (either with the Turkish and Kurdish nationalists) both to increase his presidential powers and guarantee his own election. His choice will also have a decisive influence on the sustainability of the fragile truce with the Kurdish insurgents. The public perceives Erdoğan as a visionary leader and builder of a model of “Muslim democracy” in an era of popular democratic aspirations in the Middle East. Erdoğan is not inherently authoritarian, but the Turkish political system, which is still based on a constitution established in 1982 during military rule, is not designed to tame his ambitions. As Erdoğan rides a wave of populism, he is skillfully exploiting the institutional weaknesses of the system while ignoring calls for a new constitution. By amending the system to his will while continuing to win elections, he will have fewer incentives to compromise. Paradoxically, then, an economic downturn would contribute to Turkish democratization by weakening Erdoğan’s hold over power. Economic discontent will not only make the electorate less tolerant of his authoritarian and corrupt tendencies but also encourage critical voices within his party to speak up. The emergence of a less asymmetric distribution of political power would necessitate political coalition-building and cooperation, thus paving the way for a new liberal constitutional order.