Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory

Read Time:3 Minute, 51 Second – Turkey’s beleaguered Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice
and Development Party (AKP) have emerged victorious from this week’s local
elections. Still, the AKP’s triumph is unlikely to ameliorate the country’s internal
conflicts, much less revive its tarnished international standing.

The local elections were widely seen as a referendum on Erdoğan. The AKP received
44% of the national vote and now controls 49 of Turkey’s 81 metropolitan
municipalities, including Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. The main opposition
force, the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), received 26% and won only 13

The outcome can be seen as a vindication of Erdoğan’s strategy of using political
polarization to consolidate his support and counter the challenge to his rule posed
by followers of his former ally, the US-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen. With
the AKP’s initial support, the Gülen movement gradually infiltrated state
institutions, particularly the judiciary and law enforcement, until the alliance
eventually ended in an acrimonious split over the distribution of power within

The end result was a dirty war of graft allegations spread through social media,
apparently by Gülen’s followers primarily. In response, the government has branded
its opponents as enemies, and sought to promulgate new laws undermining the
independence of the judiciary and restricting freedom of expression – including
shutdowns of Twitter and YouTube.

Erdoğan’s strategy sought to complement this exercise in damage limitation with a
demonstration of its popular legitimacy. With the AKP’s overwhelming triumph in the
local elections, Erdoğan can now justifiably claim that the Turkish electorate backs
his approach, including his government’s suspension of the rule of law in order to
obstruct corruption investigations that it views as a judicial coup attempted by
Gülen’s followers.

Yet the AKP’s electoral victory heralds two specific dangers for the future of
Turkey’s democracy. The first is the persistence of intense political polarization
in the run-up to the presidential election in August and the parliamentary election
in the first half of 2015.

In Turkey, polarization does not have the same political costs as it does elsewhere:
Given a weak system of checks and balances, the Turkish executive still has ample
room to manage the state’s affairs. And Erdoğan’s recent victory will embolden him
to continue his polarizing politics as the basis of a presidential run.

The other danger is that of growing alienation from the West. With a renewed popular
mandate, the government is likely to begin prosecuting Gülenists for alleged
criminal behavior. But the creation of a wider siege mentality to boost domestic
support also requires the invention of external co-conspirators – global financial
markets, the international media, or even Turkey’s NATO allies. Such allegations
have been a part of the government’s conspiratorial rhetoric since last summer’s
protests, and the authorities dismissed the recent corruption accusations against
Erdoğan in the same way.

Turkey’s international standing has thus suffered enormously from Erdoğan’s strategy
of internal polarization. Long gone are the days when the prospect of accession to
the European Union sustained a powerful dynamic of democratic reform. With hope of
EU membership fading, reform momentum has been lost, and the European Commission is
expected to issue a sharply critical progress report in October.

The bilateral relationship with the United States is also under strain. President
Barack Obama and Erdoğan rarely speak with one another anymore, whereas Obama once
considered Erdoğan among his favorite world leaders.

Turkey has also lost several regional allies, particularly some of the Gulf
monarchies, which are angry at the Erdoğan government’s unconditional support for
the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Turkey’s much-vaunted soft-power diplomacy and
neighborhood policy now lie in tatters.

Yet Turkey remains a large and important regional power. With his popularity
reaffirmed, Erdoğan could still move in a different direction. Aware of the dangers
of extreme polarization and reassured by the level of support obtained by the AKP in
the local elections, Erdoğan may opt to lower the political temperature at home in
the hope of repairing Turkey’s frayed relations abroad.

How Erdoğan behaves will not only determine the intensity of domestic political
conflict; it will also greatly affect Turkey’s potential to regain the regional
clout that it once enjoyed. If Erdoğan believes that a higher level of antagonism is
necessary to retain power, he may remain oblivious to the harm done to Turkey’s
international standing.

Sinan Ülgen is the chairman of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank and a visiting
scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.

Project Syndicate

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