Erdogan’s dictatorial grip on Turkey slips after municipal elections support democracy

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian hold over Turkey was shaken following municipal elections across the nation last Sunday. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost control of two major cities and won little more than 51 percent of the overall vote.

More than 57 million people in the country were registered to vote for mayors and councillors, with high turnout at 85 percent. The elections were considered a verdict on President Erdogan's rule, during an economic downturn. President Erdogan’s political success has rested on years of stellar economic growth in Turkey, but the currency, the lira, has been losing value recently and the economy went into recession in the last three months of 2018.

The opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate Mansur Yavas won in Ankara with nearly 51 percent against the AKP's Mehmet Ozhaseki, who won the support of just over 47 percent. Both CHP and the AKP claim victory in Istanbul, which has been in the hands of parties linked to President Erdogan since 1994, when he was elected the city's mayor. CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said, "The people have voted in favour of democracy. They have chosen democracy."

This was the first municipal vote since President Erdogan assumed sweeping executive powers through last year's presidential election; the next national election is set for 2023. The AKP, with its roots in political Islam, has won every election since coming to power in 2002. Even though Turkey is a democracy, President Erdogan has assumed broad new powers after a failed coup in 2016 when 300 people were killed, 2,100 injured, and 40,000 detained, including at least 10,000 soldiers and 2,745 judges. 77,000 people were arrested and over 160,000 fired from their jobs, including 21,000 teachers and 15,000 education staff.

Now, the AKP alleges "invalid votes and irregularities” in most of the 12,158 polling stations in Ankara and says it will also challenge the result in Istanbul, the country’s largest city, and the eastern province of Igdir. If the present results are confirmed, the CHP will gain control of municipal budgets with an estimated total value of USD $5.79 billion for 2019 in Istanbul, Turkey’s commercial hub, and the capital Ankara.

With most media either pro-government or controlled by President Erdogan's supporters, critics believe opposition parties campaigned at a disadvantage. In some 100 rallies, which dominated TV coverage during his election campaign, President Erdogan described the opposition alliance as terrorist supporters linked to the network of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish businessman and cleric whom he claims initiated the 2016 coup, and Kurdish militants. After the elections, pro-government newspapers said there had been a conspiracy against Turkey in the local elections, with the Star newspaper likening this to the attempted coup in 2016 and nationwide protests in 2013. The editor of newspaper Yeni Safak called for a second vote after what he termed a “coup via elections.

President Erdogan, whose two-month campaign included 100 rallies, said the poll was about the "survival" of the country and his party. His pre-election ritual has trended toward picking a fight with foreign governments. Not for the first time, the President sought to rouse his conservative base by inflaming issues in western countries to boost his popularity ahead of elections. At several political rallies in Turkey, he chose to screen footage from the Christchurch, New Zealand shooting, where 50 Muslims were killed by an “eco-fascist” terrorist. The Turkish President also projected excerpts purported to be from the gunman's manifesto onto a giant screen and told the crowd the suspect had made threats against Turkish Muslims. President Erdogan additionally invoked the First World War battle of Gallipoli, where thousands of Australian and Kiwi troops were killed by Turkish forces. He warned anti-Muslim Australians that their grandfathers were “sent back in coffins” and they would share the same fate if they came to Turkey. Ahead of a referendum to change Turkey’s constitution in 2017, President Erdogan accused Dutch and German government Ministers of being Nazis. A month before the 2018 presidential elections, he expelled Israel’s ambassador from Ankara.