Erdogan’s New ‘Existential’ Test: Municipal Elections on March 31

Soon after winning reelection in June 2018 and thus completing the conversion of the Turkish political system into a fully presidential mode as he had long wanted, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had begun to stress the importance of the 2019 local elections. Although the results on March 31 will have no impact on government at the national level, which he will continue to micromanage irrespective of the identity of those who will be leading municipalities across the country, Erdogan has been focusing on the elections as if he was on the ballot himself. By characterizing them as nothing less than “existential,” Erdogan has effectively transformed the elections into a personal referendum.

The ballot is important to Erdogan as it constitutes the last electoral test for him and his party prior to a four-and-a-half-year hiatus during which they will not be obliged to face voters again before 2023, the symbolically significant 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic. Moreover, having started his inexorable push for supreme national power at the local level—he had taken the first step on his way to the political summit by winning the mayoral race in Istanbul in 1994—Erdogan is acutely sensitive to the potential political dangers of even the slightest slippage into a reverse cycle.

With his extraordinary acumen in gauging and shaping the national mood to his political advantage, amply demonstrated during the past 16 years he has been in power, Erdogan is undoubtedly conscious of the threat posed by the current economic downturn. It is interesting in this context to note that the 2009 local elections, which were held in the aftermath of the global economic crisis with its inevitable impact on Turkey—"tangentially” according to Erdogan—had helped to produce an unexpected drop in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) vote. However, Erdogan has been publicly dismissive of the credibility of some polls indicating the possibility of a similar drop in support for the AKP and its ally in the People’s Alliance, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and related speculation about losses in Ankara and perhaps even in Istanbul, Turkey’s two biggest cities, after a quarter century of uninterrupted municipal control.

Appealing to Patriotic and Religious Sentiment

Campaigning in his typical frenetic style, with at least two visits to different cities every day televised live on most TV channels, Erdogan has been asking voters to stick with him by supporting AKP municipal candidates he personally selected. His speeches have stuck to a familiar pattern in which he first praises the history and local culture of the city and province he is in and then recites undeniably impressive numbers for new airports, bridges, tunnels, highways, schools, hospitals and homes built there to emphasize development under the AKP. However, current economic difficulties have undercut Erdogan’s ability to once again take full electoral advantage of the country’s recovery under his leadership from the effects of the 2001 crisis, which, it is important to remember, had paved the way for the initial AKP victory in November 2002.

Accordingly, Erdogan has been assiduously trying to buttress his personal appeal for continued public support with patriotic calls for the need to maintain national solidarity under his leadership. In that context, he has been portraying the vote as the next challenge in his long struggle with Turkey’s enemies and their domestic pawns who can only be overcome through another electoral reaffirmation of “the National Will.” On February 8, for example, he said, “Our nation will once again slap on March 31 those who are conspiring against Turkey from the outside or the inside . . . We will frustrate every conspiracy against Turkish interests and gains and the goal of a Great Turkey.” On March 26, after constantly returning to this theme throughout, he declared, “We are not only choosing mayors, we will also be determining what kind of country we will bequeath to our children.”

Erdogan has banded together the four opposition parties across the political spectrum, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Good Party (IP), the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the Felicity Party (SP) as domestic conspirators in league with external forces who have been trying to halt Turkey’s progress since the Gezi Park demonstrations in 2013. Initially referring to them as “the Agony Coalition” and then as “the Chaos Alliance,” Erdogan has accused them of being “enemies of the flag, the national anthem and the call to prayer” and as tools of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric who has been accused of being the mastermind of the failed July 15 coup.

On February 21, for example, Erdogan said, “Those who tried to intimidate us through terror organizations and exchange rates could not achieve their goals . . . So they introduced a gang of four . . . and gave the command to Pennsylvania and Kandil. The charlatan in Pennsylvania and the terror barons in Kandil are controlling the whole process from the election strategy to the list of candidates.” Invariably focusing on CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu as his favorite target in campaign speeches, Erdogan has been threatening him, along with IP leader Meral Aksener, with serious legal consequences for insulting the president after the elections. He has also been showing a video at his rallies of HDP leader Sezai Temelli underlining the importance of Kurdish votes for opposition candidates while accusing the HDP of being a front organization for PKK terrorism.

On February 27, Erdogan argued that what mattered was “the strengthening of Turkey and the honorable, just and effective policies it is trying to put into practice around the world and within its region. They now want to make us pay for it . . . If there is a loss, we will pay the price all together as 82 million citizens. This is what we mean by ‘a matter of survival,’ this is how we see the elections.” Forcing the opposition into defensive mode through endless attacks in his inimitable hard-charging style, Erdogan intensified and expanded his rhetoric as the campaign proceeded. After focusing on what he alleged was his domestic opponents’ disrespect to religion demonstrated during a call to prayer in a Women’s Day march in Istanbul on March 8 in a number of speeches, for example, he shifted to stressing the imperative of defending Islam also against external enemies after the horrific attack on two mosques in Christchurch on March 15.

In addition to immediately dispatching his vice president and foreign minister to New Zealand to underline his outrage over the atrocity, Erdogan repeatedly used the video made by the assailant in the course of his murderous spree at successive campaign rallies—drawing a rebuke from New Zealand—while picking up on the numerous anti-Turkish references in the attacker’s manifesto to warn voters about the importance of continued vigilance under his guidance. On March 18, Erdogan used the incident to draw attention to growing Islamophobia in the world, as well as the West’s unending enmity to Turkey, during the formal commemoration of the Ottoman victory at Gallipoli during the First World War. His speech included the line “You will not turn Istanbul into Constantinople . . . your grandparents came here, and they returned in caskets.” On March 27, in another important signal to his devout followers, he promised to convert the Hagia Sophia Museum back into a mosque.

Confronting the Economic Downturn

It remains to be seen if Erdogan’s matchless political touch and oratorical skills, which have been on display on the campaign trail, combined with the massive advantages provided by national and local incumbency, seemingly limitless financial resources and overwhelming domination of media coverage, which invariably produced electoral success in the past, will overcome voters’ growing concerns over the economy. A number of opinion polls confirmed that this would be the most important consideration in determining their choice in the upcoming elections.

While the extreme financial volatility of August 2018, which saw the Turkish lira (TRY) briefly fall below 7 to the U.S. dollar (USD) in the midst of an escalating crisis with Washington stemming from the detention and trial of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson has passed, its recovery to relative stability in the 5.25-5.50 range during the past five months nonetheless represents a loss of around 40 percent compared to a year ago. In addition to increasing the debt burden of companies, which had borrowed in foreign currency when huge amounts of short-term funds were flowing into the country, the TRY depreciation also contributed to a steep rise in consumer inflation, which exceeded 20 percent in January. At the same time, the economy shrank in the final quarter of 2018 by 3 percent for the first time since 2009, pushing annual growth down to 2.6 percent last year compared to 7.4 percent in 2017. As industrial production decreased by 9.8 percent year-on-year in December 2018, the unemployment rate increased to 13.5 percent with youth unemployment reaching 24.5 percent.

In an effort to try to reduce the impact of the downturn prior to the elections, the government has been directing the three public banks to extend cheap commercial and mortgage loans and to refinance credit card debts at below-market rates while also nudging the private banks to offer rates lower than the 24 percent rate the Turkish Central Bank (CBRT) was forced by the currency crisis to adopt in September. It has coupled these stimulus measures with a 26 percent increase in minimum wages and loan packages to small and medium-sized enterprises, even as it sustained its ongoing campaign to try to boost employment with financial incentives to employers. However, while proceeding with such undeniably interventionist moves, the government has been reassuring external investors, whose continued engagement has been an essential component of the economic recovery since 2002 which had consistently brought electoral dividends, that it would adhere to the tight fiscal policies it had reaffirmed in September 2018 in its New Economic Program.

Although the inflation rate was reported to have fallen below 20 percent in February, the need to mitigate the demoralizing effect on voters of high prices of basic food items nudged Erdogan and Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, his son in law, to resort to extraordinary measures. After first dispatching inspectors to supermarkets to identify for prosecution alleged price gougers as part of the “Total War Against Inflation” campaign, they proceeded to set up numerous municipal distribution centers, mostly in Istanbul and Ankara but also in other major cities, to sell vegetables and fruit at discounted prices. Categorically denying charges that this constituted interference in the free market system, Erdogan has been justifying it as a necessary attempt to counter what he called “food terrorism” similar to what he and Albayrak have been denouncing as “the speculative attack by outside forces” on the TRY in August 2018.

On February 11, for example, Erdogan said, “Because Turkey was rising in its region and the world, they began playing a new game on Turkey. Prices of eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers began to escalate. It was a terrorist attack . . . We are confronting those who are terrorizing through vegetables by setting up distribution centers.” The following day Erdogan said that having seen that manipulating “the currency, interest rates and perception was not working . . . they were trying a different form of terrorism.” He added on March 6 that this would be “viewed as a national security threat like the terrorists on Turkey’s borders and treated accordingly.”

However, even as they grappled with the challenge posed by high food prices, Erdogan and Albayrak were confronted by a new bout of financial volatility as the election campaign entered its last stretch with the TRY dropping by more than 5 percent on March 22 to as low as 5.84 against the USD. Erdogan immediately directed his ire on March 24 at those outside the country “unhappy with Turkey’s progress and their local collaborators.” He added, “Together with their local conspirators, they are trying to get the dollar to climb.” Targeting J.P Morgan, which had issued a report on that day predicting a fall in the TRY to 5.90, Erdogan warned “If you get involved in provocative acts, saying ‘foreign currencies will strengthen, this will happen, that will happen,’ you will pay a very heavy price. I am addressing those who are involved in such actions. We know who you are and what you are doing. We will make you pay a very heavy price after the elections.”

As Albayrak added his voice to Erdogan’s warning on the same day by declaring that “outsiders trying to influence the electoral process through deliberate manipulation will regret their action,” Turkish financial authorities duly launched a formal investigation of J.P. Morgan. At the same time, the government made it very difficult for foreign traders to bet against the TRY to try to prevent it from falling below the psychologically important threshold of 6 against the USD through various technical measures. Albayrak then boasted on March 22 that those who had bet against the TRY “were beginning to scratch their heads.”

On March 27 Albayrak continued in this vein by denouncing “those saying ‘the dollar will be 8 liras, 15 liras’ as we approached the elections.” He then asked people listening to him “to check phone screens to see the exchange rate . . . God willing, it will be better. What we ask from you is that you stand tall and walk shoulder to shoulder with our president in this journey towards a big and strong Turkey.” The following day, Erdogan charged that the financial convulsion “involving the exchange rate was an operation by the West led by the U.S. to squeeze Turkey.” However, he added, “as they could not find Turkish liras, the operation failed, and the lira has recovered to around 5.3You tried before and failed, you will fail again.”

However, while the TRY remained mostly steady as Erdogan and Albayrak wanted during the crucial final week of campaigning, the steep rise in overnight swap rates, the fall in CBRT foreign currency reserves, the selling of Turkish stocks by foreign investors and the rise in foreign currency holdings of local accountholders to $170 billion, constituting around 50 percent of total deposits as of March 22, served to underline the seriousness of the current economic difficulties casting a shadow over the election campaign.

Campaigning without a Military Operation

Although Erdogan’s speeches invariably included references to earlier military action against the PKK inside the country as well as beyond Turkey’s borders, his current campaign has undoubtedly been affected by the absence of a new example of his willingness to use force to protect the country. It is important to recall that the resumption of operations against the PKK in July 2015 had helped to reverse the results of the June elections, in which the AKP had lost its majority in the Turkish Grand National Assembly, in the follow-up November elections. Erdogan had also been able to ride the nationalist wave he had helped to build up in alliance with the MHP to success in the June 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections in which a major theme was the military operation in Afrin earlier in the year against the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish militia linked to the PKK.

As he prepared to embark on his current political campaign, Erdogan moved to dramatically upgrade his earlier warnings relating to YPG control east of the Euphrates immediately below the Turkish-Syrian border. On December 12, 2018, he issued an explicit warning that there would be a military intervention against the YPG threat “within days.” As expectation built up in Turkey with a publicized military buildup on the border, Erdogan followed up with a phone call to President Donald Trump on December 14, in which he reaffirmed growing Turkish impatience over the YPG presence in this area and U.S. military support for it under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces in the joint effort against the remnants of the Islamic State.

When Trump chose to surprise Erdogan by not only refraining from any attempt to deter him from the military action he was threatening, but also by informing him that he would proceed to withdraw the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops in northern Syria, Turkish military action appeared to be imminent. This gambit seemed even more likely when Trump confirmed his decision and ordered a withdrawal in 30 days. To Erdogan’s chagrin, despite four subsequent phone conversations between the two men and numerous meetings involving subordinates, Trump gradually moved away from his commitment—to a great extent because of unyielding domestic pressure from influential congressional Republicans whose support he needs in dealing with domestic difficulties—and effectively reversed himself by confirming on February 22 that the United States would maintain a residual force in northern Syria.

With Russia also unwilling to support the projected Turkish military move, in contrast to its position during Turkey’s Afrin operation, despite the ongoing cooperation between the two countries in Syria in the context of the Astana process, Erdogan has refrained from launching the planned operation during the campaign. Consequently, he was unable to provide himself with the opportunity to once again underline his role as commander in chief while distracting voters from the economic difficulties.

Voting and What Comes After

In view of the fact that he has won every electoral battle in which he led his party during the past quarter century—through campaigns that were far from fair in recent elections according to the opposition—it seems prudent once again to avoid betting against Erdogan. Impressive as ever in front of his loyal followers, he has been displaying supreme confidence in the outcome even as he exhorted them to go to the polls and to encourage others to do so in order to ensure success. He has been assiduously maintaining a carefully cultivated and media-supported image of unassailability, exemplified on a daily basis by the exuberance he has been promoting at his nationwide rallies the mass attendance at which, he noted on March 27, confirmed the Turkish people’s continuing support for him.

Nevertheless, Erdogan chose to introduce a note of uncertainty over the election and its aftermath toward the end of the campaign. On March 18, for example, he warned Mansur Yavas, the CHP candidate in Ankara, who had come close to winning against the AKP candidate in the controversial 2014 mayoral election, that he would pay “a price . . . along with the people of Ankara” after the votes were cast because of alleged past improprieties. Erdogan declared on March 22 that “real accounting would be undertaken by the Turkish nation following the elections” while announcing that there would be a challenge to numerous HDP candidates as well as to HDP-supported candidates under CHP, IP and SP labels “because of their terrorist connections” if they were elected.

On March 27, Erdogan lent his weight to the statement by Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu through which he had reaffirmed his authority to prevent those linked to terrorism from taking office, by saying “We cannot wait five years after election night. The prosecutors will do what is legally necessary immediately.” On March 28, he said that there were specific steps ready that would be “implemented in accordance with the results of the elections.” It is important to remember in this context that 94 elected mayors were removed since the last local elections to be replaced by government appointees.

Finally, it is worth noting that Erdogan has been sending warnings during the campaign to unnamed former senior AKP colleagues, who were cast aside during his drive to supreme power. These were widely interpreted as an effort to dissuade them from launching an unprecedented challenge to him after a possible electoral stumble.

Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program