Turkey’s beleaguered Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) have emerged victorious from last week’s local elections. Still, the AK Party’s triumph is unlikely to ameliorate the country’s internal conflicts, much less revive its tarnished world standing. The local elections were widely seen as a referendum on Erdogan. The AK Party received 44 percent of the national vote and now controls 49 of Turkey’s 81 metropolitan municipalities, including Istanbul and Ankara. The main opposition force, the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), received 26 percent and won only 13 municipalities.
The outcome can be seen as a vindication of Erdogan’s strategy of using political polarization to consolidate his support and counter the challenge to his rule posed by followers of his former ally, the U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen. With the AK Party’s initial support, the Gulen movement gradually infiltrated state institutions, particularly the judiciary and law enforcement, until the alliance eventually ended in an acrimonious split over the distribution of power within Turkey.
The end result was a dirty war of graft allegations spread through social media, apparently by Gulen’s followers. In response, the government has branded its opponents as enemies and sought to promulgate new laws undermining the independence of the judiciary and restricting freedom of expression – including shutdowns of Twitter and YouTube.
Erdogan sought to complement this exercise in damage limitation with a demonstration of its popular legitimacy. With the overwhelming triumph in the local elections, Erdogan can now justifiably claim that the Turkish electorate backs his approach, including his government’s suspension of the rule of law in order to obstruct corruption investigations that it views as a judicial coup attempted by Gulen’s followers.
Yet the party’s electoral victory heralds two specific dangers for the future of Turkey’s democracy. The first is the persistence of intense political polarization in the runup to the presidential election in August and the parliamentary election in the first half of 2015.
In Turkey, polarization does not have the same political costs as it does elsewhere: Given a weak system of checks and balances, the Turkish executive still has ample room to manage the state’s affairs. And Erdogan’s recent victory will embolden him to continue his polarizing politics as the basis of a presidential run.
The other danger is that of growing alienation from the West. With a renewed popular mandate, the government is likely to begin prosecuting Gulenists for alleged criminal behavior. But the creation of a wider siege mentality to boost domestic support also requires the invention of external co-conspirators – global financial markets, international media or even Turkey’s NATO allies. Such allegations have been a part of the government’s conspiratorial rhetoric since last summer’s protests, and the authorities dismissed the recent corruption accusations against Erdogan in the same way.
Turkey’s international standing has thus suffered enormously from Erdogan’s strategy of internal polarization. Long gone are the days when the prospect of accession to the European Union sustained a powerful dynamic of democratic reform. With hope of EU membership fading, reform momentum has been lost, and the European Commission is expected to issue a sharply critical progress report in October.
The bilateral relationship with the United States is also under strain. President Barack Obama and Erdogan rarely speak with one another anymore, whereas Obama once considered Erdogan among his favorite world leaders.
Turkey has also lost several regional allies, particularly some of the Gulf states, which are angry at its unconditional support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Turkey’s much-vaunted soft-power diplomacy and neighborhood policy now lie in tatters.
Yet Turkey remains a large and important regional power. With his popularity reaffirmed, Erdogan could still move in a different direction. Aware of the dangers of extreme polarization and reassured by the level of support obtained by the AK Party in the local elections, Erdogan may opt to lower the political temperature at home in the hope of repairing Turkey’s frayed relations abroad.
How Erdogan behaves will not only determine the intensity of domestic political conflict; it will also greatly affect Turkey’s potential to regain the regional clout that it once enjoyed. If Erdogan believes that a higher level of antagonism is necessary to retain power, he may remain oblivious to the harm done to Turkey’s international standing.
Sinan Ulgen is the chairman of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).