The electoral invincibility of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is officially no longer. When his party’s candidate lost the Istanbul mayoral race in March, he cried foul. After all, Istanbul was Turkey’s biggest city and the mayoralty was once the job which propelled Erdogan himself to political power. He demanded a recount, hoping the original poll was as tainted as he claimed. The tame electoral authorities obliged him. The result was an overwhelming defeat and a humiliation for the autocratic Erdogan.
But to his credit he took the result with good grace, saying how important it was to respect Turkey’s electoral democracy even though he rides roughshod over law and order, locks up anyone he takes exception to, sacks civil servants by the thousands and silences the media.
Erdogan is a leader long accustomed to getting his own way. The election outcome was a stinging rebuke for him. That is, he is not as popular as he likes to think he is. His candidate lost the mayoral race in March by just 13,000 votes. This time he lost by 800,000. As a Turkish columnist observed, ‘The ballot box this time did not talk, but shouted’. It was the biggest defeat of Erdogan’s career.
He is reported to have once said that whoever wins Istanbul wins the (national) election. So he must be relieved that he doesn’t have to face the electorate until 2023. Most of all he will have to overcome the problem every Turk wakes up to each day – economic survival. The Turkish lira has plunged by 40% in the past two years against the US$, official unemployment is running at 14%, inflation 19% and the price of everyday staples is hurting.
These numbers and the fact payment for large debts in the US$ funding of Erdogan’s grand development projects are due would be enough to keep the Turkish leader awake at night in his 1000-room palace in Ankara. Turkey’s official debt at the end of 2018 was 40% of its GDP. Little wonder that investors worry that Turkey might follow Argentina down the slippery chute of economic basket cases.
Such has been the flight of capital out of the country that the central bank has tried to arrest this by offering short-term interest rates of 24%. But when so much initial borrowing was in US$ which now costs 40% more to settle, this rate will satisfy few.
In his early years in office, Erdogan impressed the West with Turkey’s rapid expansion and secular ways. Since then he has found projects to glorify Turkey irresistible with money being no object as if to give national pride to his countrymen just as his hero Ottomans did. But later he found it more convenient to impress Turkey’s millions of conservative Moslems with harder line Islamic policies.
While the Istanbul setback is no threat to Erdogan himself – his presidency runs until 2023 – it may have emboldened the opposition that a window of opportunity is at hand. They now control cities which produce 70% of Turkey’s GDP. Nine of The country’s 10 biggest urban areas are now in opposition hands. That’s a lot of electoral and, in the Turkish tradition, patronage clout.
Erdogan has always been a master geopolitical juggler in a region beset with turmoil. His biggest challenges lie ahead – not only to restore stability to Turkey’s economy. But more importantly for him to be able persuade his countrymen that he is not the spent force as the Istanbul mayoral result may have suggested. Erdogan’s task now is to rally voters fed up with his authoritarian rule and the tattered economy he presides over.
He could well learn from the winner of the Istanbul mayoralty, Ekrem Imamoglu, who took a gentle, unifying approach to win over the people in contrast to the divisive manner of Erdogan’s style. It is in Erdogan’s interests if he wants to fulfil his wish to be Turkey’s longest ruling president. He has another nine years to go to surpass the 15 years of Turkey’s great unifier, Kemal Ataturk.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.