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Ilhan Tanir
May 09 2019

Erdoğan's worst decision will prove costly for himself and the country

In my article on April 20, I wrote that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s actions in the three weeks following his loss in Istanbul in the March 31 local elections had made him a sore loser, listing the 10 resulting undesirable outcomes.

I finished the article with the following: "For a politician who has lost just about everything related to the Istanbul elections, it’s important to remember that his final demand is for new elections, and there is a strong possibility that he will do everything in his power to make this a reality. He is already a loser, so he may be thinking of a complete blow out by pushing for the cancellation of the whole thing."

Erdoğan had appeared willing to concede defeat in the first weeks after the election, but apparently he was simply not prepared to let his precious city go: on Monday the Supreme Election Council (YSK) ruled to rerun the election. 

With this, perhaps the biggest mistake since he came to the power 17 years ago, he has multiplied the losses he had already suffered with the original defeat on March 31.

Firstly, Erdoğan has ended the theatre Islamist parties had built in the Turkish political arena since the 1970s around their "respect for democracy". 

By refusing to recognise the results from Istanbul’s ballot boxes, Erdoğan has not only dealt a blow to the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s already questionable relationship with democracy, he has also made a case before the whole world that Islamism and democracy cannot coexist.

Secondly, he dealt a major blow to the legitimacy of his own party. For years, many have been making the point that the AKP has already lost its democratic identity. But until now, despite Erdoğan's many violations of democratic principles and actions eroding the right to free and fair elections, the feeling abroad has been that foreign governments must respect the president’s victories at the ballot box. His latest decision not to recognize the results of the election has dealt the biggest blow possible to his own legitimacy.

Erdoğan has also raised suspicions about his own future: he prevented the legitimate elections in Istanbul and the peaceful transfer of power, raising well-grounded fears that a leader who does not respect the results of the ballot boxes in Istanbul most likely will not accept the results of a more significant vote tomorrow, either. For example, an election in which he is voted out of power. 

Fourthly, he has prevented a much-needed intervention on the economy, which has been under immense strain, tipping into recession last year. Election campaigns are hugely expensive, particularly given the ruling party’s lavish use of incentives in the run-up to votes, and by re-running the Istanbul election he has shown that he is prepared to delay much-needed reforms in a country of 82 million people for the sake of winning one city.

For a large portion of the people who voted for him, this might not matter; however, in the eyes of those who are not ideologically devoted to Erdoğan and who voted for him for economic reasons, Turkey’s strongman once again showed that his economic administration does not work for anyone other than his regime and its cronies and affiliated businessmen 

The Turkish president also lost his moral superiority. Erdoğan has made great capital from his conflicts with the security forces and the Kemalist military who many Turks associate with the “old elite”. Those sections of the state have a history of interfering in the country’s democratic processes, and specifically targeted the AKP in 2007 when generals published a “e-memorandum” in an attempt to interfere with the presidential elections.

Thanks in large part to public reaction against this deep "injustice" and lack of moral strength, the generals were forced to retreat and lost in the end. Of course, it must be noted that the series of trials that broke up their power turned out to be based on large-scale fraud and falsified evidence. 

The AKP has now positioned itself in opposition to democracy. As political scientist and Ahval contributor Gökhan Bacık recalls, the AKP’s rejection of the election results breaks with a tradition of respecting the ballot that had been in place since the first votes were held in the Ottoman Empire in 1877.

Erdoğan saw that he could not tolerate a democracy or a manifestation of the "national will" that went against his interests. The “national will” has always been a go-to for the Turkish president in rhetoric, justifying his often-controversial decisions at the helm of the country. But now that it appears to have turned against him and the AKP, the manifestation of that national will has become their greatest fear. 

Moreover, Erdoğan has given more ammunition to old rivals and new opponents within his own party. When former AKP Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu published searing criticism of the ruling party, the most striking part was his assertion that a parallel organisation within its ranks was considering its own interests above those of the party and the country. That group – known to many as the Pelican group – is blamed by many in Turkey, including supporters of the AKP, for voiding the legitimate election results in Istanbul.

In my April 20 piece I wrote about the 10 losses that came out of Erdoğan's mistaken policies and stance up to then. By forcing the cancellation of the Istanbul vote, he has added another big mistake to these 10. 

He has gifted his opponent Ekrem İmamoğlu a huge advantage by turning him, in the eyes of the public, into a victim of injustice and one of the oppressed. As noted above, this is a reversal of the roles played to great effect by the AKP, which has always cast the CHP in the role of the oppressor.  

It is difficult to predict the June 23rd elections, but until very recently, Erdoğan had the profile of "winning in every scenario." Now, he has turned himself into a figure doomed to lose in every scenario with every big decision he makes.

These losses are not only felt in domestic politics, but also in foreign politics and the economy. The problem is that Turkey is left footing the bill for these incorrect decisions so Erdoğan can rule the country. We will have to wait and see how this administration will overcome the next crisis over its decision to anger its western allies by buying Russian S-400 defence systems without making a humiliating U-turn.

We have not yet seen the consequences of Erdoğan going so far astray, but it is his side that is afraid and worried ahead of the June 23 rerun. The cost of making these many mistakes in politics will be great. Erdoğan for years enjoyed a reputation of being invincible, but that now lies in tatters, by his own hand.

Erdoğan may be on his way to experiencing the fate of the old elite Kemalist military, which has been in gradual retreat for the past decade. Main opposition leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who had faced years of criticism, is this time playing his hand well as he makes smart moves and keeps a calm attitude.

This time, Erdoğan faces a truly difficult task.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.