May 11 2019

Erdoğan may have provoked a Turkish Spring – U.S. scholar

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may have provoked a Turkish Spring by forcing a rerun of mayoral elections for Istanbul, according to Prof. Henri J. Barkey, a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Erdoğan is doubling down on a mistake of inserting himself into the elections, using polarising rhetoric and claiming the elections were about national issues, terrorism and foreign plots against the country, Barkey wrote in Foreign Policy.

Meanwhile opposition politician Ekrem Imamoğlu, the legitimate winner of the Istanbul election, focused on local issues and ran a near perfect campaign, refusing to duel with Erdoğan, Barkey said.

In 2017, in a referendum for introducing a full-blown presidential system in Turkey, Erdoğan managed to reverse a defeat by last-minute ballot stuffing and other means of cheating. On March 31 it was different, and Erdoğan’s allies, supporters and media had to work for more than a month to discredit the result and persuade the election authority to overturn it, Barkey said.

“Erdoğan risks a tremendous backlash from an electorate that will deem the action as unfair and may deliver him another humiliating defeat despite the fact that he and his party will mobilise to cheat and effectively try to guarantee success a la 2017,” Barkey wrote.

“Even if he wins, it will be a Pyrrhic victory; it will be viewed by a very large segment of the population as an illegitimate and tarnished result. He will also have created a formidable and popular new opponent in Imamoğlu.”

Erdoğan, who has turned Turkey into a one-person authoritarian system, is taking the risk because Istanbul is a cash cow and losing it threatens to severely impoverish his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), Barkey said. Istanbul is also Erdoğan’s home base, where he started in national politics; a source of symbolism, pride and personal success.

Turkey is also in the middle of a painful recession. While Erdoğan has sought to blame the United States and the West for the country’s economic ills, many voters think the buck stops with him, Barkey said.

“Losing Istanbul, he fears, would represent a further chink in his armour and give the perception that his powers are diminishing. Some Turks may interpret the loss as the beginning of the end for him.”