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Local elections raise questions about who best serves Turkey

If the elections in Turkey are different, it’s because the stakes are much, much higher than they appear: that uncertainty has become the only constant left in Turkish politics, writes Piotr Zalewski

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

Local elections are hard to get worked up about. It’s presidents and prime ministers who launch wars, create jobs, have their pictures taken with Bono one day and Angelina Jolie the next, make stirring speeches and ban Twitter. It’s mayors and councillors who decide where to build bike paths.

If tomorrow’s elections in Turkey are different, it’s because the stakes are much, much higher than they appear. The political destiny of the country’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the man around whom all of Turkey’s politics have come to revolve, hangs in the balance.

A year ago, Mr Erdogan, even with few new reforms to his credit, with the economy stalling and with Turkey’s southern border licked by the flames burning in Syria, appeared to have an iron grip on his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and on national politics as a whole. The first evidence to the contrary arrived in late May, when a series of mass anti-government protests erupted in Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city, and fanned out across the country. The second arrived in November, when Mr Erdogan fell out with the Gulen community, a powerful Islamic sect, prompting a handful of MPs to leave his party and triggering a furious backlash by the Gulenist media.

Soon afterwards, things spiralled out of control. In mid-December, the AKP government was blindsided by a corruption investigation that almost immediately brought down four of its ministers. Three resigned quietly. One openly called on Mr Erdogan to do the same. Ever since, the prime minister has had to contend with an avalanche of leaked documents and wiretapped phone conversations, some of which appear to be part of the anti-graft investigation and some of which are evidently intended to embarrass him. Their contents – the authenticity of most of the tapes has not been confirmed – are potentially toxic.

Several feature Mr Erdogan and his confidants ordering media executives to change headlines, remove news tickers and even to doctor opinion polls. Others purport to show corrupt dealings between construction tycoons and leading AKP figures. The most contentious is a conversation in which Mr Erdogan and his son are heard discussing ways to remove millions of dollars in cash from their homes. By the time this article goes to print, further, potentially even more damaging recordings are likely to appear on the internet.

In many democracies, similar allegations would have sufficed to bring down a government or, at the very least, forced it into a public apology. This one, however, has come out swinging. Mr Erdogan, defiant as ever, has purged the Gulen followers he holds responsible for engineering the scandal from the police and judiciary, accused foreign powers of trying to topple him, denounced the key tapes as forgeries, and rammed restrictive internet legislation through parliament in order to stem the leaks.

In a move greeted by outrage among his allies in Europe and the US, as well as opponents at home, his government has also banned Twitter. On Wednesday, a Turkish court moved to suspend the ban.

None of this appears to have significantly hurt the AKP’s ratings. In most polls the party maintains a double-digit lead over the main opposition. Its election rallies attract tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of people. If pro-government sources are to be believed, a March 23 rally in Istanbul drew two million. The way it unfolded left no doubt as to the impact that the local elections are expected to have on the national stage. Mr Erdogan, having arrived by helicopter, spoke at length, interrupted only by deafening music, chants, and applause. The AKP’s candidate for Istanbul mayor, the incumbent Kadir Topbas, was barely visible. Of course, the only foolproof means of gauging the damage done to the AKP by the corruption claims is the ballot box. Mass rallies and opinion polls won’t decide Mr Erdogan’s political future. The results of Sunday’s election will.

A resounding AKP victory would not only provide Mr Erdogan with a popular vote of confidence and a green light to pursue his war against the Gulenists, but also affords him the political room for manoeuvre he desperately needs.

Now in his third term as prime minister, Mr Erdogan has long pledged not to run for a fourth, in accordance with party rules. If he secures a major victory on March 30, no one will stand in his way should he decide to rewrite those rules and spend at least four more years at the helm. Likewise, no one within the AKP will stop him if he decides on a less likely alternative: to run as a candidate in this summer’s presidential elections.

Should the AKP to perform poorly, however, and particularly if it were to lose Istanbul and Ankara, where pollsters predict tight races, the party may be due for a bout of inner turmoil the likes of which it has not seen in years.

Unpredictable, abrasive and increasingly despotic as he may have become, Mr Erdogan is still the biggest force in Turkish politics. As the symbol of Turkey’s economic success, the vehicle of its global aspirations and the voice of a rising Islamic bourgeoisie, he remains the AKP’s trump card – but only as long as he delivers votes. Should he fail to do so on tomorrow, his aura of invincibility, already tested, will shatter. Beset by scandals and desperate enough to resort to measures such as the Twitter ban, Mr Erdogan may become to his party what he has already become to Turkey’s image in the US and Europe – a liability.

That is where Turkey’s president and fellow AKP founding father, Abdullah Gul, comes into the picture. Over the past year, Mr Gul seems to have made it a point to put some distance between himself and the prime minister. During last summer’s unrest, Mr Gul acknowledged many of the protesters’ grievances as legitimate. Throughout the ongoing corruption scandal, he has pointedly, if indirectly, criticised Mr Erdogan for blaming foreign powers for engineering the crisis. Earlier this week, after the authorities banned Twitter at Mr Erdogan’s behest, Mr Gul not only challenged the ban by the way of several tweets but also suggested that it was illegal.

What Mr Gul’s calculations might be is still anyone’s guess. Some Turks insist that the president is ready to pounce as soon as Mr Erdogan’s stock begins falling. Others prefer to believe that he is biding his time, waiting for the prime minister to make the first move. An increasing number think that both men are reading from the same script and playing out a sort of “bad cop, good cop” routine.

Mounting speculation about the rivalry, real or choreographed, between Mr Gul and Mr Erdogan speaks to a wider, more fundamental problem, however: that uncertainty has become the only constant left in Turkish politics.

Amid the endless stream of corruption claims, rumours of new leaks and scandals, plus the ongoing war of attrition between the AKP and the Gulenists, Sunday’s election might provide Turks with some answers. But its results are just as likely to force them, and at least some people in power, to ask new and difficult questions about what – and who – best serves Turkey’s future.

Piotr Zalewski is a freelance writer living in Istanbul

On Twitter: @ p_zalewski