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Gökhan Bacık
Apr 18 2019

Has Turkey become an Islamist tutelary regime?

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has long been on an authoritarian track.

However, despite its authoritarian agenda, the Islamist party has previously succeeded in elections. As a populist-authoritarian party, the AKP was always happy with an electoral democracy that served its interests. The party championed terms such as democracy and the national will.

But the March 31 local elections quickly ended the AKP’s populist democratic narrative. Listening to how Islamist political leaders react to the results of the election for the new Istanbul mayor – opposition politician Ekrem Imamoğlu was inaugurated on Wednesday but the AKP still wants the vote re-run -- we observe a new brand of elitist and anti-democratic narrative.

Consider how AKP leaders now talk about the national will, saying that no one has the right to claim an election victory in a city of 10 million voters with a margin of 13,000 votes and that such tight margins instil public unease.

The most notorious example came from Binali Yıldırım, the AKP candidate for Istanbul mayor. He declared the elections in Istanbul as “murdar”, a word that means religiously or morally filthy.

Having lost control of the municipalities of key cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, the Islamists immediately changed their political narrative and came up with a Plan B; the establishment of Islamist tutelage.

While not conceding their election defeat in Istanbul, the new motto of the Islamists reveals their bourgeoning tutelage mentality: “The Supreme Election Council will have the final say.” That is in contrast to the AKP’s slogan in the 2002 general election when the party came to power, “Enough! Now the people have their decision!” That was adapted from the slogan of the Democrat Party in the 1950 election, the first democratic handover of power after the republic was set up in 1923, “Enough! Now the people have their say!”

Given Turkey’s worsening economy and foreign policy, it is very likely that the AKP may not be able to secure popular support in any upcoming elections. Reading this situation correctly, the Islamists want to develop their brand of tutelage in which various supreme bodies have the final word. The model, very reminiscent of the previous Kemalist tutelage, will have a simple logic: The AKP-led state establishment will share national sovereignty with various bureaucratic supreme bodies which are expected to decide in favour of the Islamists.

Attempting to create a tutelary regime is not easy, but the AKP’s recent narrative proves the Islamists are now confident that they fully control the higher judiciary, bureaucracy and army.

The chaos in the Istanbul mayoral election is an important test to observe whether the AKP has the leverage to impose a tutelary model on the Turkish state. Thus, how the Supreme Election Council (YSK) decides the results can be seen as the first key signal to understand how the higher echelons of the bureaucracy and judiciary will respond to the Islamist attempts to create this tutelary regime. However, no matter what the YSK decision is, the AKP will not give up its strategy of advancing a tutelary system.

Meanwhile, it has been 17 days in which the chaos of the Istanbul elections has not been eradicated. It is the first time in Turkish history that the result of elections in such a big city has remained unclear for such a long period. Istanbul is the most critical Turkish city, so the ongoing chaos is definitely a crisis of state. The crisis has its origins in the ruling party’s pressure on the state apparatus not to declare the opposition party’s candidate the winner. Thus, the Istanbul elections are now a test of whether the Islamist AKP is able to annul elections through its influence on the judiciary. The YSK is both a supreme bureaucratic and judicial body whose decisions are final and binding.

If the AKP succeeds in cancelling the Istanbul elections, the case will become a notorious turning point, such as the coups, attempted coups, closures of political parties and other anti-democratic interventions that fill Turkish history.

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