Choose from among an autocratic regime, a cult and a xenophobic party. These are cartoonish caricatures of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), Gulenist movement and Republican People’s Party, but there are hints of truth in these descriptions, which left many Turks with a tough choice in Sunday’s municipal elections – added political drama to an already interesting election season of Twitter bans and incriminating YouTube videos.
In the past decade, the ruling AKP has turned the Turkish economy around. Now a burgeoning G20 member, the state is building mega-infrastructural and public-works projects that are helping take advantage of Turkey’s geostrategic position at the crossroads of continents and cultures.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has helped a new class of nouveau riche entrepreneurs come from the Anatolian countryside to profit from the country’s industrial and construction boom. And he successfully sidelined the iron fist of Turkey’s secular military elite, which had once ruled at the expense of socially conservative Turks. In doing so, he’s opened up political space for new debates about secularism and foreign policy.
However, Mr. Erdogan’s 11-year run of success at the polls has given him a colossal sense of self – infused with crony capitalism connected to the country’s construction industry.
The protests and violence at Gezi Park, in Istanbul’s Taksim neighbourhood, exposed the ugly underside of Mr. Erdogan’s success: the silencing and imprisonment of critics, including journalists, intellectuals and academics. The arrogance of his responses to each political and social challenge – dismissing protesters as thugs and political opponents as foreign conspirators. The protests are often against the bellicose Prime Minister himself, his style still popular mostly among the narrowest of AKP diehards.
Mr. Erdogan’s latest victim is the Gulen movement. Headed by an elusive mystical sufi living under self-proclaimed exile in the United States, Gulen was first attacked through legislation targeting its tutoring schools, or preparatory classes, used by university students headed for the legal and medical professions. Whether as a reaction or as a failed warning, Gulen supporters in Turkey’s highest law offices and police sector have been supposedly behind the recent release of audio and video recordings that have implicated Mr. Erdogan and elements of his party in corrupt practices, including in the construction industry.
Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister’s reaction was merciless. Thousands of Gulen supporters in the judiciary and police bureau were relocated, arrested or demoted. Mr. Erdogan accused the Gulenists of running a parallel state and effectively clamped down on a key government arm used to provide oversight on his policies and dealings.
The recent death of a teenaged boy who had been in a coma since being injured by a police tear-gas canister, sparked another wave of street protests, with protesters calling for the regime’s demise. Rather than giving condolences for the boy’s death, Mr. Erdogan blamed the international conspiracy against him and called for a ban on the Internet. Then, he had Twitter and YouTube access blocked in Turkey.
Amid this growing opposition, one could presume that the AKP would have tumbled in Sunday’s municipal votes. But not only did it surpass its previous share of electoral support, but they retained the highly symbolic Istanbul mayoral race. Why?
For many Turks, this was always going to be a no-win situation.
Many in the AKP and the Republican People’s Party (Turkey’s largest opposition party, known as the CHP) have long argued that the Gulen movement is a cult. Given their shadowy cultish characterization, they’ve been accused of running the show behind the scenes, in selected professional circles, while excluding outsiders.
But the CHP is deemed little better by many Turks, including social conservatives, the nouveaux riches, the Gulenists, and even Turkey’s Kurdish minority – a key group accounting for 20 per cent of the country’s population. The CHP still has its old-guard views of preserving a secular, nationalist Turkey with no place for socially conservative Muslims or “mountain Turks,” the demeaning term sometimes used to describe Kurds.
There is growing support among CHP hard-liners for a return of the ban against women’s head scarves in state institutions, after a hard-won fight by social conservatives. The AKP has done more to support Kurdish minority language and cultural rights, though it has led many CHP supporters to draw links between Mr. Erdogan, terrorism and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Kurdish support for their own political party was on the rise, but as elections loomed closer, many felt the safer bet would be to support the AKP rather than splitting the vote.
The AKP may be relatively stronger than its competitors, but its greatest weakness is the Prime Minister. Mr. Erdogan is not the party, and the Turkish people have concurred that the AKP can be more than Mr. Erdogan. He will claim victory in this election season, despite having polarized his country and made himself the autocratic target of the opposition’s ire.
Bessma Momani is associate professor at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.