Turkey held local elections March 31, 2019

Local elections took place in Turkey on Sunday. There was a stunning change in the political landscape which bodes well for Turkey’s citizens, for U.S. relations with Turkey and maybe even for the rest of the world.

Five years ago Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) acquired an iron grip through a virtual landslide. In the 2014 elections, the leading opposition parties were successful in only a few of Turkey’s 81 provinces, all located on the coasts.

But on Sunday, several parties took a huge bite out of Erdogan’s standing. In Turkey’s capital city of Ankara, Erdogan’s party was defeated. The Main Opposition Party (CHP) reported victories in five of Turkey’s six largest cities including Istanbul, Erdogan’s hometown, and Izmir. The final results show a slim majority for the AKP, but that can hardly be understood as a win for Erdogan.

WHY TURKEY’S LOCAL ELECTIONS SHOULD MATTER TO AMERICANS

Turkey has the largest economy in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe, though Turkey has few natural resources. It is an industry-driven economy. Also, Turkey has the second largest army in the National Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

ATATURK CREATED A VIBRANT SECULAR DEMOCRACY AND ECONOMIC POWERHOUSE

For fifteen years after the Ottoman Empire dissolved at the end of World War I, Turkey was led by the secular Muslim leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who made the country into a shining example of a secularist Muslim-majority nation.

Under Ataturk, Turkey looked towards the West and had a booming economy and significant respect for civil liberties. Those basic principles guided Turkey until, in 2003, the current leader, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, began steering the country away from the free market powerhouse it had been so long.

Though he was first elected prime minister in a democratic election, Erdogan is no believer in democracy. “Democracy,” he explained long ago, “is like a train. When you reach your destination you get off.” And Erdogan’s destination, he has made very clear, is to “lead the Muslim world.” So it’s not surprising that since attaining power, Erdogan turned the wheel and has been driving Turkey back towards an Islamist nation with ever-fewer freedoms for its citizens, and especially for journalists.

UNDER ERDOGAN, TURKEY IS THE WORLD LEADER IN JAILING JOURNALISTS

Turkey is the world leader in jailing journalists and has been so for at least the past three years, according to a December, 2018 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

But while the constriction of freedoms has been harshly felt by journalists and by any who oppose the current leader, most Turks are focused on the economy, and this is where Erdogan was most vulnerable.

A Turk who fled his country for Europe because he was an outspoken critic of Erdogan, we will call him Ekmel, explained to this reporter that the Main Opposition was unable to make headway with its liberal policies and anti-Islamism rhetoric.

In addition to reverting to an Islamist nation with a pan-Islamist vision and one which has vastly curtailed civil rights for its citizens, the political corruption of the Erdogan government has driven a spear through the heart of Turkey’s erstwhile booming economy.

UNDER ERDOGAN, TURKEY’S ECONOMY IS STAGGERING

Inflation in Turkey has broken new records recently, while incomes have remained stagnant. The Turkish lira lost nearly fifty percent of its value in the last year and a half. Turkey’s debt levels are out of control, and the interest rate reached nearly 30 percent. Nearly all of Turkey’s debt is in U.S. dollars, and the Turkish lira has been losing eight percent of its value each month against the dollar, Ekmel explained.

The Main Opposition, the Nation Alliance Party or Republican People’s Party (CHP), initially focused its criticisms of Erdogan on his ever-tightening vise grip over civil liberties and a dramatic retreat from secularism. This was not a successful strategy. Turks are primarily a conservative people. Those who are not public critics of Erdogan, such as judges or practicing journalists, were largely unaffected and mostly uninterested in the ongoing crackdowns. But the spiraling economy affected everyone.

Corruption was found primarily in public service projects, where, according to Ekmel, every road construction cost nearly ten times what it would normally cost because of pay-offs and bribes. Healthcare is another area in which government spending is wildly exorbitant, despite delivery of service not meeting the needs of the people.

A third political party which represents a much smaller percentage of the populace nonetheless warrants close attention. This is the center-right opposition party, the “Good Party,” or IYi. The head of IYi is Meral Aksener, a firebrand observant Muslim woman who is a nationalist, not an Islamist. Aksener’s IYi promotes secularism and equal freedoms for all citizens, and especially a free press.

One of Aksener’s primary criticisms of Erdogan is that he has destroyed Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. IYI is especially important because it is a growing and conservative party, which means it is taking votes from Erdogan’s AKP. The Main Opposition party is unable to sway the vast numbers of conservative Turks who are not as interested in the CHP’s focus on women’s and even LGBT rights.

ERDOGAN WAS BFF WITH OBAMA, BUT A FOE OF TRUMP

Erdogan had a close relationship with former U.S. President Barack Obama. In 2012 Obama told then Time editor Fareed Zakaria that Erdogan was his closest ally in the Middle East. The relationship with President Trump has been far less friendly, particularly with respect to Trump’s perceived support of and favor towards Israel.

The Turkish President had particularly harsh words for U.S. National Security advisor John Bolton after Bolton told reporters earlier this year that the U.S. would only pull out of Syria if Turkey pledged not to attack U.S.’s Kurdish allies there.

This election, the Main Opposition recognized that pointing to all citizens’ shrinking pocketbooks, and linking economic woest to the Erdogan government’s corruption was a far superior strategy. When the Main Oppositon party pivoted its message, the shift translated into Sunday’s dramatic poll results.

The Main Opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, spoke to the public following final poll results. His message was clear: “We will always follow the legacy of Ataturk, it shall never perish, secularism shall never collapse.”

For his part, Erdogan took public comfort in the fact that his AK Party will continue to control 56 percent of Turkey’s municipalities. He acknowledged a slide in the AKP’s control, but attributed that to an inability to explain themselves to the public. “As of tomorrow morning, we will start finding and making up for our shortcomings,” Erdogan told the public.

Turkey’s national elections will take place in 2023.