How Turkey's Elections This Weekend are Tomorrow's Geopolitical Crisis

March 26, 2014
November 1, 2016

With  Putin's actions in the Ukraine and the Malaysian government's continued inability to produce a convincing theory as to what happened to its' missing aircraft, other stories have fallen by the wayside. As a consequence, recent events in Turkey have taken a back-seat in the Western media. To the extent events in Turkey have received coverage, that coverage has focused on the quixotic efforts of Prime Minister Erdogan to ban Twitter, after users of the social media service began spreading evidence of corruption within the ruling party. Erdogan is not a popular figure in the Western media, nor with members of the Turkish elite with whom they tend to communicate, and his increasing authoritarianism has been more or less  taken for granted. Little notice has been taken of the fact that Turkey faces elections on March 30th, or of the consequences that are likely to follow.

This is unfortunate. Turkey occupies a vital position both in regional politics, and in American Foreign Policy. This has become if anything, a truism under the Administration of Barack Obama, who from the first months of his Administration, based his Middle Eastern Policy - in Libya, in Egypt, in Syria, on a close Axis with Ankara, even subordinating policy towards the Gulf, the Israeli Palestinian Peace Process, and Iran on the altar of alliance with Erdogan. Its been reported that Erdogan speaks with the President more than any other foreign leader, and in an interview with Fareed Zakaria, the President described the Turkish Prime Minister as among his most trusted friends.

Obama's decision to see within Erdogan a model for the Middle East, an Islamic leader who was also reformist, democratic, a supporter of the free-market and legal norms, led him to base his Middle Eastern policy on reaching out to Turkey's friends in the region, most prominently the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria. Whether this strategy had promise or could have succeeded is a subject so contentious it would need a thousand articles of its own which it more than has; what matters however is that the over-reliance on Turkey alienated key American allies, the Saudis, the Israelis, the Egyptian military, and led them to look out for themselves, giving America little or no influence over the course of events when it mattered, namely when a military coup in Egypt last June destroyed Obama's entire regional policy. The consequences were demonstrated two months later when the President tried to go into Syria, and found himself and Erdogan alone in their support for the move.

One can say the failure of the Brotherhood in Egypt, of intervention in Syria, and the embarrassment of ties with an increasingly authoritarian eccentric are the real costs of the Obama-Erdogan relationship, but the truth is that worst is yet to come. For Turkey is not just on the verge of elections; it is also on the verge of major civil unrest, unrest that promises to have serious geopolitical consequences, as well as domestic ones in Europe and America. And Erdogan has done more than anyone else to provoke the current climate. If the local elections next week, which will be the electorates first real chance to pass judgement on Erdogan's recent actions, are close, or wracked with fraud, it is almost certain that mass protest will break out, and past experience indicates that Erdogan and his government will not refrain from using deadly force against them. And given that the opposition are already warning of fraud, and the government indicating it may not recognize an defeat, a clash seems almost certain.

I want to do two things in this piece. First I want to approach these elections as an impartial observer viewing them within the context of a democratic system in a country with parties and institutions playing by the rules. I want to discuss the playing field, the key races, and what would be indicated by a range of likely outcomes.

That is a best case scenario and the one I dearly hope will happen. It is not however the context in which Turkish politics has ever truly functioned. For that reason I will want to examine in the second part what we are likely to see next week. Hint: its likely to be a good deal bloodier than what just happened in the Crimea.

A bit of a warning for readers with short attention spans; the following segment dealing with the elections themselves is fairly provincial, and most relevant to those with an interest in Turkish politics. For those mainly concerned with why who may or may not be the next mayor of Istanbul matters to them, or why the aftermath of these elections may pose a major political problem for Barack Obama and present an opportunity for Vladimir Putin, skip to next section entitled A Political Fight to the Death.

The Partisan Picture

The elections scheduled for March 30th are nominally only for local councils and mayoralties across the country. An opposition victory would not impact in any direct manner the Justice and Development Party's hold on the National Assembly, nor would a government victory preclude an opposition success in this summer's presidential elections or next year's parliamentary ones. Yet these elections have become vital nonetheless for three reasons. First, they are the public's first chance to pass judgement of the unrest of the last year - the handling of the mass protests in Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park, the corruption investigations into senior AKP leaders, and the government's response which has involved efforts to ban Twitter and Youtube. Also up for judgement are government proposals to ban co-ed housing on University campuses, to limit access to legal alcohol, and to introduce segregated class rooms in schools. If the AKP wins, it will appear as a public vindication of their policies, while if the opposition triumphs it will show a public rejection, and encourage the opposition to use everything in its power to block them until new federal elections. Secondly, many of the policies in question, most prominently the redevelopment plans for Taksim Gezi Park are policies over which the local municipal governments wield extensive influence. And  an opposition Mayor in Istanbul City Hall could go a long way towards killing those plans through obstruction. Finally, the Istanbul mayoralty in particular holds symbolic value - Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held it before becoming Prime Minister.

Of course the next question is what an opposition "victory" looks like. Much like midterms in the United States, local elections in Turkey are often brutal on the governing party. The previous ones in 2011 took place when the AKP was on the downswing, and its sub-39% showing was the party's worst since the 2002 National Assembly elections, and in no way predicted their best ever performance in the 2011 National Assembly Elections two years later.

As a consequence, what does the opposition need to do in order to win? Bring the AKP below its 49.86% showing in the 2011 National Assembly elections? Or do better than in 2009, in which case even a loss of 10% for the AKP might allow it to claim a win? A better answer might lie with the opposition itself. While the AKP has gained in vote percentage in every National Assembly since 2002, it has also lost seats in each. At fault is the Turkish electoral system, which is proportional for all parties that receive over 10% of the vote. The result was that in 2002, only two parties, the AKP and the secular People's Republican Party(CHP) made it into the Assembly, meaning parties representing nearly 48% of the electorate failed to make it in. That number fell to 21% in 2007, and 8% in 2011 as opposition votes concentrated. The same happened in the local elections between 2004 and 2009.

This consolidation has been important because although local council seats are elected by PR, Mayors are elected first past the post. The result has been that the AKP has been over-represented due to divisions among the opposition. A good example for this lies in Istanbul, probably one of the most fiercely contested races this year. In 2004, current Mayor and Erdogan protege Kadir Topbas won 45% to 29% for the CHP candidate. In 2009 however, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, now the national leader of the CHP, held him to a 44%-37% margin. Given that close call, and the increased polarization, its possible that the CHP nominee, Mustafa Sarıgül, the Mayor of Istanbul's Financial District, can win with only a marginal swing against the AKP. In fact, two recent polls have shown the race too close to call, with the AKP candidate either tied or with a two point lead, despite large CHP leads nationally. Similar polls have shown the CHP candidate leading by two in Ankara. In a sign that Erdogan is worried about the situation in Istanbul, he publicly accuse the CHP candidate of corruption earlier this week, singling him out by name as part of the conspiracy targeting senior members of the government.

(from the Wall Street Journal)

A minimal goal for the opposition will therefore be to win Ankara and Istanbul. Doing so will set them up well for the Presidential elections this summer. Those will be Turkey's first direct Presidential elections. Erdogan is widely expected to run. Incumbent President Abdullah Gul, who preceded Erdogan as Prime Minister while he was banned from serving due to his Islamist political activities in the 1990s, was rumored to be considering a reelection bid as an independent, and has clashed with Erdogan, most recently opposing the twitter ban and dismissing the Prime Minister's conspiracy theories. The final version of the enabling legislation for Presidential elections passed in January however, forecloses this possibility, banning all previous occupants of the Presidential office from running, even though Gul has served only a single term. In effect, this eliminated Erdogan's strongest potential challenger. With Gul eliminated, Sarıgül would probably represent his strongest challenger, a further motivation for Erdogan to block his victory, but even he would have an enormous uphill struggle compared with the AKP defector Gul.

A Political Fight to the Death

It's unclear however if Turkey will even get to those elections. Tensions have been rising. The opposition has deployed armies of fraud watchers,  while the CHP candidate for Mayor of Ankara, denounced recent attacks on CHP rallies and warned of violence. At the same time, his AKP opponent,  Melih Gökçek "he claimed “foreign powers” might attempt to assassinate CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli, CHP Ankara candidate Yavaş or CHP İstanbul mayoral candidate Mustafa Sarıgül, noting it was impossible for foreign powers to accept that the AK Party will receive at least 48 percent of the national vote." Whether this is helpful advice or a threat is up to interpretation.

More worrying however is the prospect that political polarization has reached a point where even if there is no fraud, no one will accept the legitimacy of the results. In the event of an opposition defeat, trust in the process has been so depleted that there is little doubt opponents will take to the streets to protest a "stolen election." Disappointed opposition supporters, convinced that the political parties have failed them will likely see their only hope in the streets. Erdogan, vindicated in his belief that he represents the real sentiment of the country against his critics will have little patience, seeing in them conspirators seeking to overturn the election results, and will have little reluctance to use direct force.

Little better would be an opposition victory. The opposition over the last year has become so used to engaging in direct action rather than electoral politics, that it will likely see the elections not just as a midterm referendum on Erdogan's policy, but on Erdogan's government itself, and take to the streets demanding his resignation. No move could be better designed to trigger a crisis. Erdogan already believes that his opponents, like those "liberals" in Egypt who opposed Morsi, yet took to the streets to call for a military coup, either seek such an outcome in Turkey, or are in fact in league with the military. As such, he is likely to move aggressively against such protests.

Furthermore, such moves are likely to rally dissident members of the AKP around their leader. The Turkish electoral system favors party loyalty in any case, since the Party leader selects the lists for the National Assembly, but losing power now would not simply spell a period in opposition. The recent revelations of corruption and struggles with judiciary indicate that there would be a reckoning to come for senior AKP ministers who are as guilty if not guiltier than the Prime Minister. Not only might they face trial for corruption, or obstruction of justice over their efforts to purge the judiciary. Prime Minister Adnan Menderes was executed along with three of his ministers by a military tribunal in 1961 after the coup that deposed his Democratic party government. The charges against Menderes, who had won three landslide victories? Violating the constitution. This does not even touch upon the example of Morsi and his associates, currently on trial and facing the death penalty for the murder of protesters. There is blood in Taksim Gezi Park.

Finally there is the role of the Gulan Movement, led by its leader, in exile in Pennsylvania. Prosecutors linked with the movement are widely believed to have orchestrated the corruption probes which have so embarrassed the ruling party in recent months. Can the opposition parties, hitherto irrelevant to what for many Ministers has been the real battle for survival be acting on their own? Can an opposition bid for power be the product of anything other than an alliance of expedience with the Gulenists?

For  these reasons Erdogan and the rest of his government understand they are likely to rise or fall together. They also know that their best bet is to imitate Nicolas Maduro, who has stood firm and suppressed protesters, rather than Viktor Yanukovych, who tried to conciliate them.

An International Crisis

If so, Erdogan will find the the wider international context to be very different from that last summer. The Gezi Park protests were rapidly overtaken by events in Egypt which had initially mirrored them, and provided justification for Erdogan's accusations that the opposition was seeking to trigger a coup. Neither the United States, whose Administration, if not its intelligence agencies, had backed the Brotherhood in Egypt and needed Ankara's support for contemplated intervention in Syria, nor the EU wanted to see Erdogan ousted, and as a result the opposition found itself alone. Now however, the circumstances are different. Obama's influence in Washington has diminished due to the failure of his Middle Eastern policy, and congressional skepticism about Erdogan will now play a bigger role. Furthermore, the prospect of Turkish collapse or dictatorship which Erdogan represents now weighs more heavily on as official Washington as a threat to US interests than the need for Turkish support in Syria.

Finally, the nature of the Crimean Crisis has changed the situation. The failure of European governments to do anything about the Crimea will increase pressure on them to do something about another crisis, especially given the bad press things like the Twitter ban have generated. If Pro-Western demonstrators are being gunned down in the streets by an eccentric, anti-semitic madman, demands for action will be universal. There will be no shortage of martyrs, and those martyrs will be young, attractive, speak English, be social media savvy, and include LGBT and Feminist groups with close links to foreign media outlets.

Finally the opposition will have friends of convenience. Putin occupies an anomalous position regarding Turkey. Erdogan has been outspoken in opposing Russia's annexation of the Crimea, while perceived support from Obama for Erdogan has led to a degree of anti-Americanism among the Turkish opposition, much as it did with the anti-Brotherhood opposition in Egypt. Whether Putin would prefer an opposition government, and the pro-Military, establishment CHP probably would be a preferable partner, chaos in Turkey is within his interests. At the very least, it would distract European attention from the Crimea, perhaps even to the relief of Merkel and Cameron, and it would stir up a domestic beehive for Obama over his past support of Erdogan. If protests break out, expect Moscow to be very concerned about the "integrity" of the elections, and Russia Today to run non-stop coverage of the atrocities committed against opposition protesters. It will be an excellent wedge - between Brussels and Washington, President Obama and Congress, the Turkish opposition and the United States, and odds are that the result will be that both sides will end up alienated from the America and believing it is backing the other.

Erdogan's claims of a conspiracy may make him appear unhinged, but just because your paranoid does not mean that people are not out to get you. Erdogan is not only alone, but he faces an international situation in which most regional powers would not mind seeing him taken down a peg, while his only real friend, Barack Obama, is not in any position to help him. That means the next major international crisis may be just around the corner.


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