Oliver Wright
May 10 2018

Erdoğan’s election manifesto: prizes for all

When Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, unveiled his election manifesto to cheering crowds in Istanbul, he promised more of everything

There was to be more democracy, more freedom, more money, more jobs, more welfare, more security, a more independent Turkey, an economy more integrated with the global economy and so on.

There were, to paraphrase Alice in Wonderland’s Dodo, “Prizes for Everyone”. Never mind that some of the promised prizes (more security) seem to rule out others (more freedom).

But one can hardly blame Erdoğan for acting as politicians the world over act as elections approach ― promising voters the stars to divert them from the unpleasant reality at their feet.

So what was alarming about the manifesto announced on Sunday were not its sweet sounding promises of democracy, freedom and prosperity, but the “more” part. Erdoğan evidently believes, or wants voters to believe, that he and his governments have been continuously delivering more of all those things ever since he first took power in 2003.

That is not the case. In recent years Turkey has been characterised by regression, not progress. There is less democracy, less freedom and, increasingly, less prosperity. Anyone who values such things will be quaking in their boots when they hear Erdoğan promising to deliver more of what he has been delivering all along.

Amongst their concerns will be Erdoğan’s pledges to do more to tackle corruption and to bolster judicial independence. In the last few years, he has given every impression of a man doing his best to cover-up reports of corruption among his inner circle and of trying to dismantle judicial independence.  

As for promises of economic prosperity, few voters will need reminding of Erdoğan’s unorthodox views on the relationship between inflation and interest rates. Nor should they need reminding of the not very subtle threats he regularly issues to dissuade the only nominally independent central bank from taking the very measures - raising interest rates - that almost all economists see as essential to curbing inflation, stemming the currency’s decline and putting the brake on an overheating economy.  

Meanwhile, promises to implement the structural reforms needed to support the economy after the elections ring no less hollow now than they have on each of the many occasions they have been made, and not kept, in the past. Just ask Turkey’s economy Tsar Mehmet Şimşek.

Thus as Erdoğan promises more in the way of economic prosperity, the reality is that only a Damascene conversion somewhere between now and election day will enable him, if not to deliver on those promises, then at least to prevent the dam from collapsing.

It is the same for his promises regarding democracy. "We have been decisive in developing standards in our democracy and human rights,” he said on Sunday.

Anyone with more than the most cursory interest in the state of democracy and human rights in Turkey over the past few years would agree that there have been decisive developments in their standards, just not in the direction Erdoğan implies.

Their decline has been so well and so extensively documented that there can be no serious debate on the issue. This does not, of course, mean that Erdoğan’s cheerleaders in the government and in the media accept the point. It is just that their arguments defy logic. And facts.

Erdoğan also claimed, on Sunday, that his Justice and Development Party (AKP) offers justice to all the segments of society. This is likewise divorced from reality. Ask Turkey’s Kurds. Or its Alevis, or Christians or Jews. Or the secular minded. People from all segments of society, save the AKP’s key constituency of conservative Sunni Muslims, have lost confidence in the country and are voting with their feet. They are leaving, or trying to leave, or dreaming of leaving. The occasional state funding of the restoration of a church or synagogue, presumably for publicity purposes, fools no one.

Perhaps this is unduly harsh on Erdoğan.

After all, he would not be the first politician whose electoral promises become aspirations and then mere historical footnotes. And truth be told, his track record suggests he will make good on some of his pledges.

He has already started to deliver on his promises of welfare. An economic package that involves cash handouts to pensioners ahead of religious holidays and an amnesty on illegal construction is due to pass through parliament even before the June 24 elections.

He will also likely deliver on his promise of more security. The state of emergency, in place since July 2016, may be extended indefinitely, or the legal goalposts may be shifted to make it the new normal.

He might further, given his latest pledge to end terrorism and his own definition of terrorists ― which appears to be a kind of shorthand he uses to describe critics and opponents ― jail yet more elected officials, journalists, students and the like. He may even shut down opposing political parties. When Erdoğan promises more security, we all know what to expect.

Thus, as Erdoğan repeats his campaign pledges, it is clear he will live up to some of them and discard others. It does not require much nous either to guess which of those pledges will be fulfilled and which forgotten.

But what is unusual, paradoxical even, is the suggestion that by keeping doing what he has been doing the result will be more democracy, more freedom and more prosperity. This is magical thinking ― like a child trampling a sandcastle, and then insisting that by continuing to trample, the castle will somehow be restored.