A Turning Point for Turkey?

A Turning Point for Turkey?

Are the Turks finally getting fed up with Erdogan?

After the local elections in Turkey in March, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, got one thing right in his balcony speech when he conceded his governing Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) defeat: “March 31 is not the end. It is the turning point.”

The main opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP), under its new leader Özgur Özel, scored a victory in thirty-five of Turkey’s eighty-one provinces (against the AKP’s twenty-four) and overall gained 37 percent of the vote against the AKP’s 35 percent. It also secured fourteen out of thirty metropolitan areas, including the largest, Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Bursa, Antalya, and Adana, as opposed to the AKP’s twelve. 

The question is where the surge of popular support for the party of Atatürk, the CHP, will lead and how, in Turkey’s fragmented political climate, this can result in institutional change. 

Five years after the AKP came to power, it was already clear that the government’s goal was to restore the role of religion in public life to counteract Turkey’s enforced westernization introduced by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The AKP was essentially a grassroots movement, which made it necessary for Erdoğan to ally himself with the Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen and his movement. 

Like Erdoğan, Gülen’s ultimate aim was to reinstate Islam as the guiding principle of Turkish society. Accordingly, Gülen’s disciples, through a policy of kadrolaşma, were able to fill posts in the state administration that AKP’s cadres were not qualified to fill. Gülen himself stated in footage televised in 1999: “You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey.”

On December 17, 2013, it came to a showdown between the Gülen movement and the AKP when the police launched a series of anti-corruption operations with accusations of bribery against four government ministers close to Erdoğan, then the prime minister. Over a hundred were detained, including the owners of three major construction companies. 

The second phase of the graft probe on December 23 of that year, which allegedly included Erdoğan’s son, Bilal, was blocked by Erdoğan. He claimed it was a “judicial coup.” 

A popular chant at football matches was “everywhere there is bribery, everywhere there is corruption,” and the government was called on to resign. The graft probe and the subsequent revelations caused support for the AKP to slip to 44 percent, below the 50 percent the party won in the 2011 election. 

So it comes as no surprise that Erdoğan, now president, regarded the failed coup attempt in July 2016 as “a gift from God” and an opportunity to “cleanse the virus” from all state institutions. Consequently, a witch hunt began, and nearly 9,000 police officers were removed or reassigned, particularly from the intelligence, financial crimes, anti-organized crime, and counterterrorism departments. There was a crackdown on public prosecutors, and steps were taken to put the judiciary under government control. Senior civil servants in the Finance Ministry, Education Ministry, and Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) were also reshuffled. 

At the same time, Erdoğan’s claim to be “a man of the people” has worn thin. Government employees or ordinary workers have to be dragooned into attending mass rallies for fear of losing their jobs. Furthermore, he has misappropriated the Atatürk Forest Farm, a first-degree environmentally protected zone outside Ankara, to build a luxurious presidential complex.

Not content with that, the historic Yildiz Palace in Istanbul has been allocated for the use of the president, and a new presidential palace near Lake Van in eastern Turkey is being constructed in defiance of a court ruling. 

Erdoğan’s new summer residence near Marmaris in southwest Turkey has also sparked outrage, especially since the president’s wife, known for her expensive Hermès handbag and shopping sprees, had advised people to cut their meal portions to avoid waste. 

Raging inflation has impoverished millions of Turkish families, which is not helped by Erdoğan’s lack of concern. Four years ago, on a visit to Malatya in eastern Turkey, workers complained they could not bring home bread, so Erdoğan told them to stop complaining, tossed them some tea bags, and told them to enjoy a nice cup of tea. As I commented at the time, much can be said of Marie Antoinette, but at least she did not toss the people brioches when they said they could not afford bread (as the apocryphal tale has it). 

A year later, Erdoğan did the same again when he tossed tea bags to the victims of wildfires in southwestern Turkey. Ahval News concluded: “Drop by drop, the fury against Erdoğan’s rule is accumulating.” The results can be seen in March’s local elections and in a recent poll, where almost 70 percent think President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP is the party of the rich. Only 16 percent believe the AKP is on the side of the poor. There is also considerable rage among the survivors of the terrible earthquake in February last year, who feel abandoned and ignored

There is also great resentment at the influx of Russians, who, by buying apartments or even entire apartment buildings, have inflated the cost and increased the shortage of affordable rentals. When Greece’s prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis paid a return visit to Ankara last month, President Erdoğan boasted that more than 1,000 members of Hamas were being treated in Turkish hospitals. However, not all Turks are delighted. 

A good friend of mine, who is caring for his seriously ill ninety-year-old father, has tried for days to find a bed for him at a leading Ankara hospital, only to find two floors occupied by Palestinians. Apparently, they are given every consideration, even cigarettes. 

Erdogan, on the other hand, talks of a “softening period” in Turkish politics. In which case, he would do well to take steps to ameliorate the conditions of his own people. As my good friend added: “The Turks are hungry.” 

Robert Ellis is a Turkey analyst and commentator. He is also an international advisor at the Research Institute for European and American Studies (RIEAS) in Athens.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Turkish first lady Emine Erdogan owned more than one Hermès handbag. According to the source linked, she appears to own only one. The National Interest apologizes for this error. 

Image: Fortton / Shutterstock.com.