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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference on October 31, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. (Adam Berry/Getty Images)

Turkey on the Brink: Will Elections Undo Erdogan?

Hillel Fradkin & Lewis Libby

A year ago or so, standing before his Justice and Development Party (AKP) Congress, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proclaimed great goals for Turkey and himself, pointing toward 2023, the hundredth anniversary of the Turkish Republic, as a potential golden moment. Among his plans was a constitutional change giving the presidency enhanced powers equal to and perhaps exceeding even those of modern Turkey’s founding father, Kemal Ataturk. It was obvious to his audience that Erdogan planned to run for this more powerful office in the presidential elections scheduled for this coming summer and that his prospective victory would consolidate his role as the “new founder” of the Turkish Republic.

But now, on the eve of what might have once seemed less important mayoral and local elections, this imperial dream has evaporated. Erdogan admits he faces a “test,” but in fact, his risk is more serious—not just his status as a uniquely charismatic leader of a crucially important country, but perhaps even his continued control of his own party.

Erdogan has repeatedly sought the mantle of the Ottomans, and in an ironic way he has attained it, although not in the way he hoped. When speaking in Germany in February 2014 about Turkey’s upcoming March 30th municipal and local elections, the first of three over the next eighteen months, he could not avoid the topic of alleged government corruption, of a scale one might call “neo-Ottoman.”1

The charges exploded into public view in December 2013 with the detention of some of the sons of Erdogan’s senior ministers and other close associates. Erdogan’s response, also reminiscent of the Ottomans, included the wholesale removal of public prosecutors and police officers bedeviling him—now more than seven thousand—and new legislative initiatives designed to bring the judiciary totally under his control. Not surprisingly, these steps have contributed to a political crisis unprecedented in his decade-long premiership.

In Germany, Erdogan answered charges of corruption and anti-democratic behavior by arguing that Turkey’s dramatic economic growth during his time in office, along with his party’s electoral triumph in 2011, prove he is honest and democratic. “The national income increased from $230 billion to $800 billion. Exports rose from $36 billion to $152 billion. Can a corrupt country or a government achieve this?” Erdogan asked rhetorically. “We are here because there are no such things. We are here because we fought corruption, poverty, and prohibitions.”

According to Erdogan, the Turkish public sees the justice in his reign even if sectors of the intelligentsia do not: “We had three general elections, two local elections, two referendums, and we have come through all those. Now there is an election on March 30th and the real test is this: If the people choose us as the top party, that means this government is honest. . . . I can say this is a test.”

The judicial and legal logic of Erdogan’s defense may seem wobbly, but he is certainly correct that the upcoming elections mark a crucial moment in contemporary Turkish history. In fact, they are a critical test of Erdogan’s entire vision of democratic governance and how it should function.

That a municipal election has acquired such portent is largely the result of Erdogan’s political behavior since the last elections in 2011, which Erdogan won with approximately fifty percent of the vote. He has since argued explicitly that this majority legitimates whatever policies he has advanced and actions he has taken, whether or not they conformed to constitutional principles or liberal democratic practices. He has been compelled to make this argument ever more frequently as he has run roughshod over liberal democratic rights—freedom of the press, for example, in his government’s suppression of journalists; and freedom of assembly in its crackdown on opposition rallies; and most recently the constitutional principle of an independent judiciary.

This behavior, as well as efforts to impose his Islamic convictions on Turkish private life, has led critics—both domestic and foreign—to charge that Erdogan is converting Turkish democracy into autocracy. Indeed hardly a week passes that Erdogan does not introduce some new initiative or statement that aims to restrict the constitutionally protected rights of Turkish citizens or bend Turkish institutions to his will without regard to their proper autonomy.

For example, responding to Erdogan’s complaints about criticism of his rule, the Turkish Parliament recently moved to enact a law that grants the Turkish Telecommunications Directorate, an agency under the control of his government, the power to block summarily and arbitrarily the content of Turkish websites. In addition, it requires all service providers to maintain records of customers’ Internet use and to submit them to the government at its request. Fatih Altayli, the editor in chief of Haberturk, a large-circulation mainstream newspaper, recently said, “Today, the dignity of journalism is being trampled underfoot. Every day, instructions rain down from somewhere.” He was responding to reports that Erdogan had personally intervened to have stories dropped and journalists fired, a report Erdogan brazenly confirmed.

Still more ominously, Erdogan has presented new legislation that would govern the National Intelligence Organization. It would vastly increase its powers and make it accountable exclusively to the prime minister. Opposition politicians have charged that this would make Turkey over into a so-called “Mukhabarat state,” or “intelligence state,” the term commonly used in the Middle East to designate authoritarian regimes.

Perhaps most bizarrely, and cruelly, his government has now made it a crime for doctors or first responders to give emergency medical aid without the express permission of the government. Why? To discourage Turks from engaging in unauthorized, anti-government protests where there might be a violent police response.

Undaunted by critics, Erdogan insists that his rule is entirely democratic. Since the nation gave him fifty percent of its votes in 2011, his will is the “national will.”

The natural complement to this definition of democracy, which Erdogan also does not hesitate to express, is that all opponents are not merely critics but enemies of the national will. In other words, critics are traitors, plotting to undermine Turkey.

Thus, the Turkish citizens who mounted a peaceful protest against the transformation of Istanbul’s Gezi Park into a shopping mall in 2013 were labeled as “thugs” and “looters” and beaten and suppressed accordingly. Erdogan claimed further, against all evidence to the contrary, that they had violated the dignity of Islam by violating the sacred precincts of mosques and the honor of pious women. He has charged members of the Cemaat movement, founded by Islamic leader and now rival Fethullah Gulen, as parties to a secret conspiratorial governmental group—“a parallel state”—engaged in a “judicial coup.” He described them as modern-day heirs to the Islamic terrorist movement known as the Hashasheen—the infamous Assassins—active in the medieval Seljuk era.

As for their foreign co-conspirators, they are variously the American ambassador to Turkey, an “interest rate lobby,” the “Jewish diaspora,” “the porno lobby,” the BBC and Wall Street Journal, Lufthansa airlines, Britain, France, and so forth. As his imperial ambitions have collapsed into a desperate struggle to hold onto power, Erdogan has created the specter of a vast domestic and international conspiracy hostile to the greatness Turkey has achieved under his rule, and determined to prevent its future progress that would otherwise be assured. Seeing himself as the embodiment of the national will, as well as champion of Turkey’s present and future glory, Erdogan promises to defeat these conspiracies—most immediately the “judicial coup” he discerns in the corruption investigations against his AKP elites. He will, he declares, seek out the plotters in their “lairs.”

It is in this spirit that he now approaches the upcoming municipal elections. It is true that whatever the results of these elections, his party will maintain its large majority in the national Parliament until the next general elections in 2015. But having insisted that democratic legitimacy stems from having half of the national vote, he and the AKP need to win a majority once again, as he did in 2011, if he is to continue to use an electoral justification for his growing authoritarianism. If his party does not get fifty percent, his continued authority would require falling back upon the constitutional arrangements of which he has been recently so contemptuous and thus confronting a crisis of public confidence he had done much to manufacture.

How likely then is Erdogan to win the March elections? A year ago it seemed that he would have clear sailing, but in the intervening months much has happened to call into question the level of his popular support.

One element, although a subordinate one, is the state of Turkey’s foreign relations. Erdogan’s foreign policy and that of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, famously known as “zero problems with neighbors,” is a complete failure. Today, Turkey has nothing but problems with its neighbors. The Syrian civil war has caused unending havoc just over the long Turkish-Syrian border. After first trying to persuade his then close friend Bashar al-Assad to respond to protests with political reforms, an effort in which Erdogan was humiliated, he called for Assad’s removal. But in the more than two years since, Assad has defied Erdogan, and the war is now tending in Assad’s favor. In addition to a diplomatic defeat that makes the government’s foreign policy appear incoherent, Turkey is now burdened with close to a million Syrian refugees. With the majority of the Turkish public, including his own supporters, Erdogan’s Syria policy is regarded as a failure.

In addition, Turkey now has difficult and even hostile relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and its relationship with its NATO allies, especially the United States, has become troubled. Above all, Erdogan and Turkey now are losing out to their principal regional rival, Iran, which has defeated Erdogan in Syria. Recently, Erdogan practically conceded as much by visiting Tehran and declaring it his “second home.” Altogether, Turkey’s regional stature and influence have been diminished across the board.

These foreign policy issues might not in themselves have much impact on the election if they did not make a mockery of Erdogan’s trumpeting of the revival of Turkish preeminence, and his boasts of recapturing the glory of the Ottoman Empire.

The issues most likely to influence the election’s outcome, however, will be the voters’ perceptions about party corruption and, likewise, Erdogan’s manipulation of the police and courts, as well as the government’s perceived ability to promote economic prosperity. Erdogan’s earlier electoral victories depended upon a coalition of constituencies. Traditionally pious Turks, previously denigrated and dismissed by Turkey’s secular elites, were gratified by Erdogan’s self-assertions of piety and helped form the core source of his support. Also crucial were the Gulenists, who were similarly critical of the lack of openness to religious expression; and even secular and leftist Turks who were troubled by the autonomy of the Turkish military and its frequent interventions into Turkish politics.

To all these groups, Erdogan promised honest government, democratic reforms, civilian-led rule, the restoration of the proper role of Islam within the state, and economic prosperity. And for a while he delivered—even spectacularly so. Democratic reforms were instituted, culminating in a referendum in 2010 that rectified many past abuses; the military was neutered as a force in Turkish politics; religious feeling and expression became more respectable and therefore more publicly visible; and above all, Turkey enjoyed a period of unprecedented prosperity during which per capita GDP tripled.

As a result, Erdogan gathered an ever greater percentage of the vote, culminating in the 2011 election margin, the AKP’s highest count ever. But now the party faces a situation in which Erdogan is coming to be perceived by some of these core constituencies as reneging on those promises or unable to continue to fulfill them.

The corruption issue may prove especially harmful to the government. Erdogan’s assault on the judiciary and police may render impossible any serious adjudication of these charges. But of course that lends them substantial credibility. Moreover, a majority of the charges are attached to real estate transactions, which makes them particularly problematic for Erdogan. He has closely identified himself with a vast construction effort taking place throughout Turkey, especially in Istanbul. There, his signature projects include a new bridge over the Bosphorus, a new subway to connect the European and Asian coasts, a gigantic new mosque that will dominate the Asian horizon, and a new airport that will be the largest in the world. But many smaller projects, commercial and residential, have had his active encouragement as well. The most famous of these was the attempt to transform Gezi Park into a shopping mall that was supposed to take its design from the Ottoman barracks that had been on the site years before.

Indeed, many voters may seize on the corruption charges as credible in light of Erdogan’s near megalomania for building. And although the investigations and prosecutions continue to be stifled, further evidence of possible corruption—in the form of leaked documents and taped phone calls—continues to be made public almost daily, largely through a Twitter account called Haramzadeler—Turkish for “Sons of Thieves.” Most recently, a tape of five phone calls, alleged to have taken place between Erdogan and his son Bilal on December 17th, the day of the first corruption arrests, became public. In them, Erdogan is heard giving instructions to his son to disperse large amounts of cash—totaling in the millions of euros—from the residences where they were kept. Erdogan has claimed that the tapes are an “edited montage” and thus present a false account. But many credit their authenticity, not least because Erdogan has also claimed that his encrypted phones, with which these calls were presumably placed, have been tapped.

Turkey is also beginning to experience serious economic turbulence, some of which may be linked to Erdogan’s building program. Turkey’s currency has fallen some thirty percent in value against the dollar in less than a year. In part this may be the result of global economic developments. But it also reflects the easy credit of the Erdogan years, which supported the construction boom, as well as a large increase in consumer spending. These factors combined to produce a large current account deficit in international trade, which has required significant short-term lending—“hot money”—from foreign lenders and investors.

Whether this decline will continue remains an open question, not least since Erdogan has undermined investor confidence by attacking the so-called “interest rate lobby” as well as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which have probably been reliable investors. The common opinion of economic and business analysts is that Turkey is in for at least a slowdown in economic growth, if not worse.

Having had his wings clipped decisively in foreign affairs; having been charged with widespread corruption; having presided over economic deterioration—these are the factors, along with the general ridicule of his imperial persona, which present Erdogan with substantial liabilities heading into the March elections. With less than a month before the vote, some surveys put Erdogan’s share of the vote at forty percent. In previous elections, the opposition parties, especially the Republican People’s Party, have been generally unable to shake the public’s past distaste and distrust. But this time around they have put forward new and more appealing candidates. It is now credible that opposition mayoral candidates may win in both Istanbul and the capital, Ankara—Turkey’s two largest cities.

Such an outcome would not be a disaster in an ordinary democratic environment such as the one Erdogan claimed to be building in the early years of his reign. Then, many of his Western supporters believed that he had created the model Muslim republic that answered an urgent contemporary question: Could a Muslim state reconcile democratic institutions and practices with Islamic religious sensibility and provide freedom and prosperity? Although his roots were in the Islamist movement, Erdogan was alleged to have succeeded where others had failed. In that era, the main question was not whether his “model” was a success in its own right, but whether it was exportable to other Muslim countries.

But for the last four years Erdogan has steadily created a new “Turkish Model” on the strength of his fifty-percent win and the authoritarian mode of governance he claimed it justified. If now he fails to reach that bar, he will have lost his legitimacy by his own criteria.

If he loses, what might follow? Erdogan’s next test is the summer presidential elections, for which he has not yet declared his candidacy. Because Erdogan failed to push through the constitutional changes he sought, the office is inferior in power to the prime minister. Moreover, it is not certain that Erdogan would win the election if he ran, because of the continuing popularity of the current president, Abdullah Gul, Erdogan’s old friend and co-founder of the AKP.

As a result, Erdogan might decide to seek a fourth term as prime minister through the general elections of 2015. But doing so would require a change in AKP rules, which presently limit him to three terms as prime minister. Of course these rules could be revised—just recently and for the first time, rumors began to circulate that this was under consideration—but it would inevitably cause some grumbling in the party ranks.

Still, none of this might be decisive if Erdogan were now to recast himself as an advocate of democracy; if he were to indulge in some self-reflection, even publicly so, and offer a more humble persona to the Turkish public. But for someone who has proposed himself as the “embodiment of the national will, the bearer of Turkey’s present and future glory,” as a “man of iron will,” as recent AKP posters of him declare, that would be difficult. For the moment there is no sign of a change of heart or approach. Quite the contrary: Erdogan continues to lash out at his opponents and even his own party members who cross him, creating polarization that may provoke an ever graver political crisis.

The difficulties Erdogan now faces have implications that extend far beyond Turkish domestic political life. His fate implicates those in the international community that have enthusiastically embraced him and his “model.” Most notably these include the United States, especially under the administration of Barack Obama, who famously termed Erdogan one of his five closest friends among world leaders. The implications are grave, as well, for the unity and prospects of the broader Sunni world in its deadly contest with Iran.

Erdogan might be able to take some short-term solace in the fact that the Ottomans, whose ideal he constantly evokes, also proved weak at self-correction. But the long-term fate of the Ottomans must give him pause.

Ottoman decline followed centuries of extraordinary success, accordingly taking centuries to unfold. Erdogan’s successes were less substantial and shorter lived. They have increasingly been displaced by what amounts to angry, empty boasting. Just how empty these boasts are, and the decline they may represent, will be revealed much more quickly, perhaps as soon as the coming municipal elections.

1 In the elections, Erdogan’s AKP suffered a decline from his fifty percent benchmark in the overall vote and came close to losing the mayoralties of Istanbul and Ankara—criteria highlighted by this article. He did win a substantial victory, although this was aided by his restriction of social and other forms of media during the campaign. Re-emboldened by the results, Erdogan made a victory speech reiterating his claims that he embodies the “national will,” that his opponents are “traitors” to the state, that he will pursue them relentlessly, and that he will now move forward to consolidate the “New Turkey” and design it according to his will.

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