Streetwise Professor

June 23, 2019

You Should Have Been Careful What You Asked For, Recep. You Got It.

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Turkey — cpirrong @ 6:07 pm

I ask for very few things in life, because I am a firm believer in unintended consequences, as summarized by the adage: “Be careful what you ask for–you might get it.”

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should have heeded this adage when he asked for–and got–a rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election. I guarantee he hadn’t bargained for the way his wish was granted–a humiliating loss to CHP (pronounced “jay hey pay”) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu.

İmamoğlu had won by a mere 14,000 votes in the 31 March election that Erdoğan claimed was tainted by fraud (in a first where the opposition allegedly won by fraud, rather than the party in control): he won by over 700,000 votes today. Meaning that by insisting on a mulligan, Erdoğan succeeded in increasing his opponent’s margin of victory by a factor of a mere 50. That takes talent!

There is rejoicing in the streets of İstanbul, and elsewhere in Turkey, especially in places like İzmir. But there is no joy in Mudville, er, the massive (as in 3.2 million square feet) presidential palace in Ankara, which is symbolic of Erdoğan’s sultanic pretensions. So far, over 8 hours after the polls closed, he has been silent. Only his hapless and comically uncharismatic candidate in İstanbul, former prime minister Binali Yildirim, has made a monotone concession speech.

Erdoğan has straddled Turkish politics like a colossus for almost 20 years. This is his first major defeat, which raises questions about his future.

In the near term, İmamoğlu’s control of government in İstanbul will allow him to uncover and publicize the massive corruption of AKP/Erdoğan rule there. Further, money the the lifeblood of politics, and the CHP victory will allow it to sharply reduce the flow of this lifeblood to AKP’s pockets.

Over the longer run, there is now a credible personality to oppose Erdoğan. The national CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (who was almost lynched by an AKP mob near Ankara recently) is not a threat, for many reasons. He is deemed an elitist, and worse, he is Alevi, a religious group that is scorned by most Turks.

İmamoğlu’s biography has eerie parallels to Erdoğan’s. Both are from the Black Sea region who moved into national politics in İstanbul. Erdoğan gained considerable sympathy as a result of his jailing 20 years ago: denying İmamoğlu victory in March gained him considerable sympathy too. Both figures have a common touch. Unlike many in the CHP, İmamoğlu is not viewed as a hard-core secularist, or anti-Islam. Indeed, his name denotes a Muslim heritage. (An ardent secular Turk I know says he is glad that is not HIS name.)

Meaning that Erdoğan like faces the biggest political threat in his life, and it comes at a time when Turkey’s economy is teetering, and its international position is fraught.

Top at the very long list of Erdoğan’s foreign policy headaches is his testy (to say the least) relationship with the US. Matters are coming to a head here, with Erdoğan swearing that Turkey will cross a US red line, and buy S-400 SAMs from Russia.

I have been wondering for some weeks whether Erdoğan’s chest thumping on this issue has been driven by his need to look tough before a largely anti-US Turkish electorate in the runup to the rerun of the İstanbul election, and that he would back down once the results are in. He has backed down before after claiming he would never concede to Trump (on the issues of the American missionary and the NSA employee imprisoned in Turkey). It’s hard to know how the crushing defeat will affect his calculations. Will he realize that in his weakened domestic situation he can’t afford to confront the US? Or will he figure that he can’t afford to look weak now?

I don’t know, but I do know that as consummate a domestic politician as Erdoğan has been, internationally he has been a disaster for Turkey. Turkey has alienated the US and Europe, has bungled in Syria, and is at odds with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Turkey literally has no friends or allies now, except for Qatar, which is itself isolated in the Arab world. Given this record, I think it is highly likely that Erdoğan will make the wrong choice.

We should see within days. He is to meet Trump at the G-20 this week. Perhaps Trump will offer him a face-saving way out of the dilemma he has put himself in. Whether Erdoğan is wise enough to take it is another matter.

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  1. He and Trump might discuss why Hussein promoted that failed coup, and what to do about it. Like Italy, Turkey makes an appearance in the greater SpyGate story

    Comment by Richard Whitney — June 23, 2019 @ 9:25 pm

  2. “He is deemed an elitist, and worse, he is Alevi, a religious group that is scorned by most Turks.” So, like Mitt Romney then?

    Comment by dearieme — June 24, 2019 @ 8:02 am

  3. Interesting history of the AKP. When they made it big, back in early 2000 as a true conservative movement in E Europe, they made big headlines. Finally, a Turkish govt that was going to be market friendly, and stay out of peoples lives. It only took 12 years for the ‘conservatives’ to move so far left toward totalitarianism that riots broke out. Restrictions on internet, banking, foreign investment, abortion, and other crackdowns on personal habits made things even worse! What a shock, voters chose what they thought were conservative principles only to be let down by an authoritarian. I don’t think Erdogan was ever much of a believer in free market, or peoples will. He sat on the dias, read the right stuff, but in the end – he was no more conservative than McCain, even worse it now appears.

    So, no real shock his party got whacked in the city elections. They deserve it after all the shenanigans they’ve pulled in the past 6 years. There is no rule book that says a conservative can’t be a crook(Nixon anyone?). His 15 minutes are already up. He IS the 3 day old fish. If they can, AKP should start to distance themselves from Erdogan and find a new savior, or the entire party may be toast.

    Comment by doc — June 24, 2019 @ 9:05 am

  4. Have to say this news did make me smile. That said, there was an intriguing piece of news today which serves as a counterpoint to your assertion that Erdogan has been a disaster internationally. A large BBC survey found he is widely revered amongst Arabs, way more so than other leaders one would assume would have high standing in the region. The survey also found that atheism was on the rise in the region too…

    Comment by David Mercer — June 24, 2019 @ 12:15 pm

  5. @David–I watched the Turkish television coverage of the election results with two Turks, very much CHP supporters. One was a university student in Paris 2014-2018, and has many Arab friends. He said they revered Erdogan because of his strident anti-Israel stance. To which I say: First, from a geopolitical perspective, a Turkey-Israel alliance makes sense for both countries, and Erdogan’s Islamism has torpedoed cooperative arrangements that served both countries well. So I would put this down as another blunder. Second, there are few more overrated forces than the “Arab street.” Especially when it comes to geopolitics. Third, the influx of many Syrian Arabs into Turkey has been one source of rising discontent with Erdogan. Many Arabs may like Erdogan, but I have to say that Turks are not big fans of the Arabs. This is especially true when it comes to Palestinians. Many Turks remember what they consider Palestinian treachery in WWI, when the Ottomans were fighting Allenby in Palestine.

    Comment by cpirrong — June 24, 2019 @ 12:52 pm

  6. @doc. One of the fault lines in Turkish politics at the time of AKP’s rise was the public ban on headscarves, which was deemed as oppressive by large numbers of Turks–and (ironically in light of later developments) by many European governments, including France. In that respect, and others, AKP was deemed as a popular, liberating force.

    But the trajectory should not be a surprise. Power corrupts, and ideals that launch movements are often forgotten once the movement is in power, enjoys the sinecures of that power, and is paranoid about losing it. Erdogan/AKP are are case study in that regard.

    Comment by cpirrong — June 24, 2019 @ 12:55 pm

  7. @dearieme–Interesting analogy, though I have to say that Mormons in the US are much more accepted and part of the mainstream than are the Alevi in Turkey. This is especially true among more devout Muslims in Turkey.

    That, and Mitt hasn’t been lynched. Not yet, anyways 😛

    Comment by cpirrong — June 24, 2019 @ 12:57 pm

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