March 28, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Turkish Elections Amid Swirling Protests and Social Media Blackouts
Turkey will hold important municipal elections on March 30, 2014—the first since widespread corruption charges unfolded in December of last year against allies and family members of Prime Minister Recip Tayyib Erdogan. Combined with the ongoing Gezi Park protests and ongoing tensions with supporters of former ally and mentor Imam Gülen, the corruption scandals represent the most serious and sustained challenge to Erdogan since he came to power nearly 12 years ago. Making matters worse, Erdogan’s use of a last century tactic to simply ban 21st century communication tools such as Twitter and YouTube increases the likelihood that those who were on the sidelines during the scandals and protests will react negatively or abstain from voting—not the result Erdogan and his party want in the last few days before Sunday’s election.
Despite these ongoing and rather serious challenges to his popularity, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) should get 43-50% of the votes, enough to claim victory and keep AKP officials in power. The reason for what might seem an implausible victory, given the scandals, is less a statement on the seriousness of the scandals and protests (which are indeed serious) and more a matter of simple economics.
Despite swirling protests of a number of issues, for many voters it’s the economy that will shape their choice. Under Erdogan, Turkey has averaged over 4% economic growth every year for 11 years. In comparison, the US has averaged fewer than 2% growth since 2001, and hasn’t seen sustained 4% growth since the 1960s. Turkey’s Gross Domestic Product has risen 45% since the AKP took power, while inflation that was nearing 100% in 2002 is now under 7%. While political instability can certainly lead to diminished economic returns, the average voter hasn’t yet felt much by way of negative economic repercussions from the protests and scandals.
Further adding to the drama, the elections (held every five years) are the first since a 2009 law that increased both the number (30) and boundaries of the municipalities (called büyük?ehir), throwing normally predictable and static elections into greater uncertainty. Due to the municipal expansion, more than 75% of Turkey’s 74 million people now fall under Sunday’s voting, with a large increase in the percentage of rural voters as compared to previous elections. AKP will do well in Istanbul, the country’s largest city and a traditional AKP stronghold, while the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) will likely win Izmir, the country’s third largest city. The capital and second largest city, Ankara, is a toss-up. AKP anticipates—and needs—big numbers in the party’s traditional coalition of major population centers, such as metropolitan Istanbul, in order to counter claims of growing opposition strength.
There are other issues, though, that make cloudy the electoral waters. It’s unclear if southern voters living near the large camps sheltering nearly one million Syrian refugees, a source of some tension with locals, will take frustrations out on AKP candidates. Turkey’s help for the refugees is a source of national and international pride but a source of local tension and strain. Long-standing tensions between Islamists and secularists will also drive voter decisions.
It is the scandals and protests, and Erdogan’s reactions to them, which might have the greatest near-and-long-term impact on Turkish politics. The scandal has already forced the resignations of three ministers—Interior Minister Muammer Guler, Economic Minister Zafer Caglayan, and Environmental Minister Erdogan Bayraktar—and expands by day, threatening to implicate Erdogan’s inner circle, his family, and the prime minister himself. As trouble brewed, Erdogan sacked many military and police officials—a seemingly shrewd consolidation of support within the security institutions. But Erdogan simply does not have the broad and deep public support that allowed to him to act with the impunity displayed during his earlier tenure as PM.
It is the daily release of surreptitiously recorded talks—including a posting on Thursday of national security officials discussing action in Syria—on both Twitter and YouTube that led Erdogan to ban both services. But prohibitions on the use of electronic messaging are increasingly a relic of 20th century control, for which low-tech, work-around solutions are readily available (SMS for Twitter and VPN for YouTube). They make efforts to control negative information not only futile but also counterproductive and damaging. Nonetheless, Erdogan’s position is relatively strong given Turkey’s economic track record, but any negative economic movement will add fuel to the fires of discontent.
• AKP will maintain power via Sunday's elections but lose significant support, especially among professionals and so-called "Anatolian Tigers"
• A significant volume of public debate and an aggressive press (fueled by censored social media) will create short-term tensions but strengthen the country's democracy long-term
• Erdogan will face considerable political trouble if the economy slows noticeably.
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