Authoritarian and liberalization appear to alternate regularly in Ottoman–Turkish constitutional history. Moves towards authoritarianism were often motivated by intense power struggles between conservative forces opposing westernization/modernization and favoring political Islam, while reformist/revolutionary forces favoring secularization, democratization motivated changes towards the other end. Authoritarian turns were instigated by one of the three following coalitions: civil forces that came to power in a relatively democratic environment but were not willing to hand over political power through free and fair elections; revolutionary civil forces aiming to design a new society, regime, and state based on their revolutionary ideas; or military forces that had no intention of establishing a long military rule, but wanted to design a constitution reflecting their vision of the state. Liberalization turns, on the other hand, come with an alternation in political power (removal and replacement of government by a civil competitor), and are characterized by a return to relatively free and fair political competition.
The Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led government is consistent with a civil competitive authoritarian regime, i.e., coming to power in a democratic environment but not willing to hand over political power through free and fair elections and turning increasingly autocratic since the Gezi protests in 2013. However it seems that this regime has run its course and the cycle may turn in favor of liberalization once again, if the local elections on 31st of March are any indication.
Specifically, even though President Erdoğan’s alliance (the AKP and MHP) won %51.6 of the votes, they suffered a loss of 8-9 percent in comparison to previous local elections; more importantly they lost major cities including the capital Ankara. The biggest blow came from Istanbul, the economic centre of the country. According to the first official results the opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu won the election with a slim margin of 0.28 despite heavy pro-government media that showcased the polarising rhetoric of President Erdoğan, directly targeted opposition candidates, and systematically pressured the opposition that typified neo-patrimonial award-punishment processes. On April 9, the AKP leader Erdoğan and his alliance have demanded a recount to challenge the outcome, clearly unwilling to accept this loss.
On election night, the Supreme Election Council (the YSK) and Anatolian Agency (official news agency) stopped declaring results for 11 hours at 98.8 percent. The AKP candidate Binali Yıldırım declared his victory with a difference of 3000 votes meanwhile the opposition candidate İmamoğlu announced that he is leading the race according to the official ballot records and pleaded the Supreme Election Council (the YSK) to carry on with the counting. He had 11 news conferences on the same night and in the end declared his victory, too. On the following day, the YSK’s official results showed that İmamoğlu won the race with a slim difference. The AKP contested the counting and demanded recounting. Many of the invalid votes and some valid votes have been counted for 10 days, and the result did not change. Now the ruling alliance has demanded a re-election, based on voting irregularities. These claims of voting irregularities were made only when the results of recounting became obvious; perhaps interestingly, the opposition is accused of stealing the metropolitan city but not the smaller municipal divisions and city assembly, the majority of which won by the AKP. It seems highly improbable to cheat in one vote but not the other two as all three votes were cast in a single envelope. The YSK is expected to reach a decision regarding the AKP’s challenge in the coming days
Regardless of the result of this challenge, it seems clear that the AKP and its leader Erdoğan is losing influence on the people in big cities. The economic crisis is eroding support from the working class, and it seems that his polarising rhetoric is no longer effective. Erdoğan made the election a vote of confidence for himself and his regime; it seems that the people of major cities have turned in a vote of no-confidence. Rejecting the ballot results for Istanbul, then, may lead to the loss of the only legitimising factor in Turkey, given that performance legitimacy has completely eroded due to the economic recession. Such a move may shorten the remainder of the Erdoğan rule.
Equally important, economic crisis and end of privatizatio have eroded Erdoğan’s ability to use the neo-patrimonial reward-punishment processes that has maintained the AKP’s hegemony. Offices of mayors, especially the Istanbul metropolitan Mayor, have been chief beneficiaries of such rewards, and they have benefited notwithstanding rife allegations of corruption in the 25 years of AKP rule in Istanbul metropolitan city. Loss of big cities ends any additional resources for patromonial rewards and, instead, bring new evidence of corruption.
Christopher Carothers contends four major factors leading to regime breakdown in a recent article on competitive authoritarian regimes.[i] One factor cited is the loss of mayoral elections, where an electorate seeking an alternative to the ruling party may hasten the process when it sees some success at mayoral level, notwithstanding the heavy pressure from the government. Opposition mayors in Turkey, then, share a responsibility of creating an alternative for Erdoğan’s long lasting rule.
Henry Hale in his book on patronal politics explains client
organisation, resources and expectations of clients are critical to maintaining
a patronal network.[ii] Clients
(state elites including judiciary, media networks etc., party elite) monitor
and deliver rewards for the patron, and follow patrons when they expect other
clients to do so. Problems with organisation and resources influence
expectations and expectations determine obedience and follow-through. Patronal
relations breakdown when clients see or believe that a patron is no longer able
to control the patronal network. Deteriorating political support, emergence of
political alternatives, and shortage of reward resources have already fanned
impressions that President Erdoğan is unchallengeable. The results of recent
elections seems to signal the beginning of an end, even if only a slow end, for
the patronal rule of President Erdoğan.
[i] Christopher Carothers, “The Surprising Instability of Competitive Authoritarianism”, Journal of Democracy, vol. 29, number 4, October 2018.
[ii] Henry E. Hale, Patronal Politics Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective, (New York: Cambridge Uni. Press, 2015), 31-35.