Local elections in Turkey
An erosion of Erdogan's legitimacy

Turkey is holding nationwide local elections on 30 March. The prime minister, mired in growing corruption allegations, has turned the polls into a referendum on his rule. With such high stakes, the vote is widely seen as one of the most important in the country's history. Dorian Jones has more from Istanbul

With only days left before the local election on 30 March, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is relentlessly crisscrossing the country addressing mass election rallies. "These really don't feel like local elections," observes Asli Aydintasbas, political commentator for the Turkish news channel CNNTURK. "This is essentially a referendum about Erdogan. It has more of a mood of the general election. It's about the corruption investigations and whether or not the AKP is honest or not."

Erdogan has declared that if he wins the elections, it will be a vindication of his probity. Last December, prosecutors launched a series of high-level corruption investigations into senior ministers and their relatives. The probes even implicated the prime minister's son Bilal. But the government insists these investigations are part of a conspiracy against it by followers of the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States.

In a dramatic and controversial move, Erdogan extended government control over the judiciary and removed thousands of police officers and prosecutors involved in the probe. "Ultimately, it is a struggle about democracy," declared Osman Can, a former judge, who is now a member of the ruling AK Party's Central Committee.

An image of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on a twitter account page viewed through a magnifying glass (photo: Reuters)
Just days before the country goes to the polls for its local elections, Turkey's courts have blocked access to Twitter. For weeks, Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been battling a corruption scandal that has seen social media platforms awash with alleged evidence of government wrong-doing. The ban came hours after a defiant Erdogan vowed to "wipe out" Twitter and said he did not care what the international community had to say about it

Erdogan's fiery election rally speeches, which border on demagogy and are broadcast live by numerous TV channels, focus primarily on confronting the corruption allegations. "Leeches are more virtuous. Leeches suck dirty blood, while these people suck clean blood and hold sessions cursing me, my wife, my children, my administration," Erdogan bellowed to his supporters in the Aegean city of Denizli. "This is a conspiracy supported by the opposition parties to overthrow the will of the people. With this election you can answer them."

Endless stream of corruption allegations

But the prime minister's campaign efforts are being dogged by the relentless release via Internet and Twitter of alleged telephone conversations by him and his inner circle, implicating themselves in high-level corruption and political skulduggery. Erdogan insists that the recordings have been maliciously edited and are part of the same Gulen plot to unseat him from power.

On Friday, he took the dramatic step of banning Twitter, accusing it of failing to comply with court orders. "It's a sign of panic and a hopeless situation," claims Kadri Gursel, political columnist for the Turkish newspaper "Milliyet".

Despite the ban, which has drawn international condemnation (the US State Department described it as "twenty-first century book-burning"), Erdogan continues to stand firm, warning that the ban could be extended to You Tube and Facebook. With only days left until polling stations open, the prime minister is stepping up the rhetoric against not only Gulen, but also his political opponents, even implicating them in terrorism attacks and drawing parallels with past military coups in Turkey.

Mustafa Sarigul (centre) speaks during a protest against Turkey's ruling AKP and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, 26 February 2014 (photo: Reuters)
Mustafa Sarigul (centre), the Republican People's Party (CHP)'s candidate for the post of mayor in Istanbul, speaks at an anti-government protest in the wake of corruption allegations against the prime minister and his son. Sarigul has said that he does not believe that the local elections on 30 March will be fair

Tried and tested polarisation tactic

Polarising the country as an election tactic has served the prime minister well. His previous landslide victories were all secured in such an environment, with him presenting himself as the victim of political plots, argues Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar of Carnegie Europe: "This may be a well-chosen and considered strategy on the part by the prime minister to consolidate the vote behind him. But every society has a threshold of absorption regarding polarisation, and Turkish society has seemingly reached that level. We are talking about a very polarised atmosphere, the like of which we have not really seen in this country except in the late 1970s."

Despite the mounting corruption allegations, all opinion polls say that the ruling AK Party enjoys a strong lead over its rivals. The prime minister has declared that surpassing the 39 per cent of the vote he secured in the last local elections in 2009 would be a victory. "If he [Prime Minister Erdogan] has [a] good showing, he is going to continue to fight," predicts columnist Aydintasbas, "If things look lousy for the AKP, there will be more calls for President Gul to step in and play a mediating role and maybe assume greater responsibility."

But it's not just about a specific percentage of votes. Success and Erdogan's fate will probably be determined by the ability of the AKP to maintain its 20-year local control of the capital Ankara and, most importantly, Istanbul. "It would be a huge loss, losing Istanbul will be like losing Turkey," says political observer and former newspaper editor Yasmin Congar. "Istanbul is the dynamo of the whole society; politically, economically, culturally everything happens in Istanbul. It would be a huge loss; it would be the beginning of the end for the AKP if they lost Istanbul. At this point I still don't see them necessarily losing, but there is a chance."

Free and fair elections?

In one recently leaked telephone conversation, the prime minister allegedly reprimands a senior board member of a TV channel for giving to much coverage to opposition parties. The board member apologies and promises to deal with it. According to figures published by the government's own media watchdog RTUK, one of the state TV channels, TRT News, devoted 89 per cent of its coverage to the ruling party during one week of election campaigning. The remaining 11 per cent was divided up among the three main opposition parties.

"It's not really very fair because of the non-exposure of certain political parties, the control of the media and stuff like that," observers Soli Ozel, political columnist for "HaberTurk" newspaper. "But we have never really had serious problems in the way we conduct our elections, and I hope the local elections don't turn out to be the first one."

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses an AKP rally in Adiyaman, Turkey, 4 March 2014 (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
Erdogan has turned Turkey's local election into a referendum on his rule and has said that if his party wins, it will be a vindication of his honesty and integrity. However, even if he does win, his legitimacy will have been badly eroded by stubborn corruption allegations and he could find it more difficult to rule the country

Turkey is widely considered to have had free and fair elections since 1947. "I don't believe this election will be fair; they are creating fake votes; they are registering Syrian refugees to vote," accuses Mustafa Sarigul, Istanbul's mayoral candidate for the main opposition People's Republican Party. "That's why we are calling for international observers from the Council of Europe."

"Certainly we are watching carefully, but we cannot obviously say in advance whether we believe they will be fair or not," said Richard Howitt, member of the European Parliament's committee on Turkey, "but we will absolutely be watching carefully. That will be done through the Council of Europe. The results of that will be taken extremely seriously."

But the ruling AK Party is also crying foul, "They will do everything they can in the last five days. There will be evil," warned Family Affairs Minister Aysenur Islam, addressing a campaign rally. She went on to call for volunteers to monitor the ballot boxes.

In 1994, Erdogan caused a political earthquake when he was elected mayor of Istanbul. Since then, he has never lost an election, enjoying unparalleled electoral success. But the growing allegations of corruption and deepening political polarisation may ultimately make any electoral success a pyrrhic victory. "I am afraid the political consequences will be quite severe because regardless of the vote the AKP will get in the local elections, it will become much more difficult for Erdogan to rule this country, essentially because of this erosion of his legitimacy," warns analyst Ulgen.

Dorian Jones

© Qantara.de 2014

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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