Turkey – Is there a way out of Erdoğan’s populist authoritarianism?

In the March 2019 local elections President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party suffered a blow when it lost almost all big cities, including the capital Ankara, Istanbul, İzmir, Adana and Antalya, to the opposition (the Nation Alliance of the Republican Peoples Party/CHP, the Good Party/IP). The greatest loss was undoubtedly Istanbul. Ekrem Imamoglu, a rising start of Turkish politics was a relatively unknown candidate for Istanbul before the election. He ran against the former PM Binali Yıldırım, but his real rival was President Erdoğan himself. President Erdoğan campaigned fiercely for his candidate, using state resources and public funds; the government controlled major media outlets ignored all opposition candidates, including Imamoglu.

Defying all obstacles, Imamoglu won the election with a small margin of 13.000 votes. The High Election Board, however, annulled the Istanbul mayoral election after the the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) alleged irregularities. While President Erdoğan called on the Board several times to rerun the election alleging vote rigging, the board found no evidence of election fraud. Its decision was based on a weak legal argument that certain ballot officers were not civil servants, despite the fact that they had been appointed and cleared by the Board itself.

Many Istanbul voters reacted negatively to this decision, convinced that the government had pressured the Board to cancel Imamoglu’s rightful victory. In the end, Imamoglu won again in the rerun, this time with more than 800.000 votes, thereby increasing his support nearly ten per cent in two months’ time. In a short time, Imamoglu transformed from a relatively unknown mayor of the not “so important district” of Beylikdüzü into a hugely popular politician, winning twice against president Erdoğan who had not lost a single election for a long time.

In the Turkish context, Imamoğlu’s victory may be more significant than a simple mayoral election win. President Erdoğan who was once the mayor of Istanbul himself, famously said that “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey”. Erdoğan’s regime has been said to have four distinct characteristics; electoral authoritarianism as its electoral system, neo-patrimonialism as its economic system, populism as political strategy, and Islamism as political ideology.[1] Losing big cities in general, and Istanbul in particular, has the potential to affect all four aspects.

Imamoğlu gives hope to people that it is still possible to win and transfer political power through the ballot box – meaning that Turkey’s electoral authoritarian regime is competitive in nature. There is an uneven playing field, but there may still be a slight window of opportunity for the opposition to gain political power through elections, no matter how unfair or unfree they are.

Imamoğlu’s campaign strategy was to reach people in the streets, talk, and listen without grand meetings. All major media outlets are controlled by Erdoğan and they all proved useless against this strategy. Erdoğan’s discourse is premised on the existence of an enemy. His often angry, divisive, and threatening rhetoric was beaten by Imamoğlu’s good natured, hopeful, inclusive, and pluralist approach. He has been backed not only by The Nation Alliance but also the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party/HDP and the conservative Happiness Party/SP. He managed to form a larger alliance to restore Turkish democracy which he called the “Istanbul coalition”. Many people believe that he now has an opportunity to create a viable alternative to Erdoğan’s regime by running Istanbul successfully. He might also prove that it is possible to beat populist, authoritarian politicians in their game.

As for the economic system, opposition wins in big cities including Istanbul means losing one of the biggest sources of patronage for the AKP. Funds and public companies run by mayors have been channels for charitable patronage as well as other types of economic “reward” and “punishment” mechanisms. Under the current poor economic conditions in Turkey, the government has been increasingly short of funds to feed its patron-client relations, especially through charitable patronage.

Campaigning fiercely for big cities, and especially for Istanbul and losing it twice, Erdoğan seems to find it hard to keep his political support intact. This display of political weakness affects his position as the patron of his neo-patrimonial regime, as the patron’s weakness pushes clients to search for other patrons or new positions under the changing conditions.  There are already signs of this happening as former Prime Minister Davutoğlu and former Finance Minister Babacan have resigned from the AKP to form new parties. But the most important client disobedience has yet to come from the judicial elite which meters out punishments for the regime. The rule of law and constitutional rights have long been undermined in Turkey. Many journalists, academics, elected mayors, and members of parliaments have been imprisoned due to their opposition to Erdoğan’s regime.

As Erdoğan’s regime is rapidly losing legitimacy and funds to feed its patronage network, he may try to compensate by increasingly leveraging the judicial system to prosecute opponents. There is already a criminal case filed against the new mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, and another case against Imamoğlu is to be filed. President Erdoğan has alleged that İmamoğlu insulted the governor of Ordu while visiting the town and the governor has declared his determination to file a criminal case, adding that Imamoğlu will lose his office if he is convicted. Erdoğan has also threatened breakaways from his party, saying that “they will pay the price for treachery”.

As for the ideological power of political Islam to support and sustain Erdoğan’s weakening regime, it is highly doubtful that it could replace legitimacy derived from the ballot box or economic performance, or that it could console voters for the lack of charitable patronage. In short, Erdoğan’s political charm is no longer unbeatable – there is a new rival in town charming voters by just being the opposite of everything that Erdoğan is.  


[1] Ihsan Yilmaz & Galib Bashirov (2018) The AKP after 15 years: emergence of Erdoganism in Turkey, Third World Quarterly, 39:9, 1812-1830, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2018.1447371.

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