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Erdogan's Not Running, But the Turkish Elections This Weekend Are Still About Him

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

On Sunday, local elections will take place in Turkey against a backdrop of turmoil. In recent months, a corruption investigation has allegedly disclosed that members of Erdoğan’s cabinet took bribes, resulting in the demotion of four ministers. Then, anonymous whistleblowers leaked wiretapped recordings of Turkey’s hotheaded Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his son allegedly disposing of large amounts of cash. As speculations spread, the government reacted by blocking access to Twitter. (On Wednesday, a court overturned the ban.) Meanwhile, the protests that began last year rekindled recently with tens of thousands marching the streets. 

Under normal circumstances, such unrest would likely signal a drastic change in a country’s political landscape. But Turkey’s current government—especially Erdoğan—still appears to be standing strong. How have Erdoğan and his party, the AKP, maintained their position?

One reason is the ruling government’s relatively liberal attitude toward aid. One of the landmark features of the AKP's local governing system is the party’s continuous offer of free gas, coal, provisions and even financial aid to voters in rural areas. “They’ve first made the people poorer and now dependent on government aid,” says Mustafa Sarıgül, the opposition party’s mayoral candidate in Istanbul. “They’re using scare tactics and spreading false rumors that we’ll cut their aid. Their campaign budget is 1.5 billion dollars.” 

Another reason is that for less well-off voters, corruption just doesn’t rank as a primary issue. “Poorer voters,” posits Bülent Gültekin, former governor of Turkey’s Central Bank and now a professor of finance at Wharton, “don’t regard corruption allegations as sin.” Corruption, he says, “always existed in Turkey, especially in local governments.” But Erdoğan, he allows, “made it more organized.” 

Then there’s the charisma factor. “Erdoğan’s skills as an orator allows him to explain his anti-democratic steps to his voter base,” says Melih Aşık, a writer for the Milliyet daily. The AKP’s campaign heavily relies on Erdoğan’s cult of personality, placing the leader’s photographs, rather than the candidates’, on posters. Erdoğan often takes center stage on the campaign trail as well. One of Erdoğan’s advantages as a politician, as Aşık points out, is that “for many citizens he has no alternative and the opposition parties don’t seem to be adequate.” 

Time on the campaign trail is well-spent for Erdoğan, as the local elections mean much more to him than just control of the municipalities. The outcome in these elections will most likely determine Erdoğan’s political future, if he has any. “If Erdoğan gets more than 40 percent of the votes in local elections, he will probably assume that the path for Presidency will open up,” says Aşık. In August, for the first time in the country’s history, the president will be elected by popular vote, and after serving three terms as the Prime Minister, Erdoğan is expected to step up. (The party charter of the AKP limits all representatives to three terms, so it’s expected that Erdoğan will seek a new position.)

But the real battleground in the upcoming elections, everyone agrees, is Istanbul, where voters are not completely behind the AKP. As Turkey’s main hub of commerce and trade, the city produces half of the country’s GDP. According to Sinan Ülgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based think tank Center for Economics and Foreign Policy, Istanbul “remains the most important pillar for the consolidation of the vast network of business-politics that underpin the financing of politics.” For the main opposition, winning Istanbul is almost a prerequisite to winning general elections and toppling Erdoğan. Erdoğan began his career as the Islamist mayor of Istanbul; since his departure for higher office, the city has been uninterruptedly run by Islamist mayors from the AKP and its political ancestors.

Istanbul’s construction boom is at the center of the corruption scandal that broke on December 17, and, among other allegations, government officials are accused of receiving bribes in exchange for zoning permits and other favors for construction tycoons. Four ministers were removed from office in a cabinet reshuffle, but the government did little to further the investigation. On the contrary, Erdoğan denounced the allegations as a conspiracy against his government by foreign media and business groups seeking to create unrest in Turkey, and removed prosecutors and police chiefs in an attempt to prevent the graft from widening.

When the recent corruption investigation was blocked, it created an army of whistleblowers online. Phone conversations purportedly pulled out from the investigation files were leaked through anonymous Twitter accounts and rapidly spread. An alleged phone conversation between Erdoğan and his son, in which they discussed disposing of large amounts of cash, has been viewed 5.2 million times on YouTube. Erdoğan and his party members, on many occasions, claimed some of the recordings were fabricated, but independent analysts have confirmed that they are authentic. As people speculated on Twitter about Erdoğan's misdeeds, including an extramarital affair, the government took the radical step of blocking access to Twitter on the social media network’s eighth birthday, followed by a block on DNS providers, including Google’s.

Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism has been a growing source of frustration for a while, mostly for the urban middle-class, who marched in the streets during the Gezi Park protests last year. The protests were rekindled in recent weeks for the funeral of Berkin Elvan, a 15-year-old who was hit by a teargas canister fired by the police during the Gezi protests and was pronounced dead after 269 days in coma. All this has resulted in an ostensible boost for Mustafa Sarıgül, the opposition candidate for mayor of Greater Istanbul, who claims he’s currently running head-to-head with AKP incumbent Kadir Topbaş. (Some polls support his position; other claim Topbaş is still in the lead.)

These elections are also notable because some of Erdoğan’s former allies have abandoned him, most notably, Fethullah Gülen, the leader of an Islamic network who’s living in self-imposed exile in the Poconos. The two men severed their relationship when the Turkish government threatened to shut down private college prep institutions, a major revenue source for the Gülenist movement. With great influence in Turkey’s judiciary and the police, Gülen has been accused by Erdoğan of creating a state-within-a-state

In the past, Erdoğan has won every political battle and outlasted all his enemies, including the powerful military. But for the first time in over a decade, the opposition seems to have united against him. “These elections now turned into a battle between the AKP and a confederacy of his opponents who have nothing in common but enmity towards the party,” notes Akif Beki, former spokesman of Erdoğan and a writer for Hürriyet daily, in an e-mail. Therefore, for some, this Sunday may mark the beginning of Erdoğan’s downfall.