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There Is Hope Again in Turkey

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long seemed invincible in Turkey. But his strongman persona masked the growing weaknesses of his rule, many of which were laid bare by the mayoral election in Istanbul. The resounding victory by Ekrem Imamoglu of the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, sends a number of messages about Turkish society and its resilience to authoritarian rule.

Lessons Unlearned

Erdogan’s coalition made a number of unforced errors in the Istanbul election. These mistakes reflect the slipping of their once-steady hold on public opinion. First, after Erdogan saw the vote share of his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, slip in successive elections, he struck up an alliance with the far-right Nationalist Action Party, or MHP. To ensure success, electoral laws were amended to allow parties to enter elections in alliances, something that was previously not possible. But this also altered the incentive structure for the opposition, which had been hopelessly fractured. Now they, too, could form alliances, and this is what made Imamoglu’s victory possible.

It is also clear that Erdogan forgot the lesson of the 2007 presidential vote. The military intervened in that election to stop the AKP from electing Abdullah Gül to the presidency. Undeterred, Erdogan called early parliamentary elections in which he portrayed his party as unjustly treated by the political establishment. The AKP won nearly 50 percent of the vote, and Gül was elected president. This time around, the widespread sense that the opposition had been robbed of its victory explains why Imamoglu widened his margin from 13,000 votes in the March 31 election to almost half a million in the June 24 rerun.

These errors are closely related to the fact that Erdogan is effectively forced to rule in coalition with Turkey’s nationalists. Nationalists in the past supported Erdogan’s drive to change Turkey to a presidential system, because they wanted to deny the pro-Kurdish party its role of kingmaker. But they are effectively co-owners of the state, and the nationalists were clearly the force pushing most strongly for a rerun of the Istanbul election. They wanted a new vote, because the large Kurdish turnout in Istanbul had decided the election in favor of the opposition.

Turning a Page?

The loss of Istanbul raises the question of whether the Islamist-Nationalist alliance that has ruled Turkey for the past four years is on the ropes. Discontent within Erdogan’s AKP runs deep. Many supporters feel the alliance has weakened the AKP’s popular appeal. Similarly, many nationalists still view Erdogan’s past efforts to strike a deal with the Kurds as tantamount to treason. To make matters worse, both have suffered defections. The MHP’s alliance with Erdogan led half the party to decamp and form a new opposition party, the Good Party. And Erdogan’s former close associates, Gül and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, both appear to be planning new parties to challenge the AKP and possibly lure away a number of lawmakers. For the time being, Erdogan has few options, and the ruling alliance appears none too stable.

It is also remarkable how resilient Turkish society has been to the country’s growing authoritarianism under Erdogan. Even in a heavily biased media landscape, Turkey’s urban population has voted massively to elect opposition forces. Nearly all of Turkey’s big cities are now controlled by the opposition, providing Erdogan’s opponents a platform and resources from which to mount a national challenge to his power. Turkey’s smaller cities and rural areas are largely controlled by the AKP or MHP, but in the rapidly growing urban centers the population is no longer swayed by the government’s propaganda, its vote-buying efforts, or its scare tactics. This bodes well for the possible resurgence of Turkish democracy, and it shows that it is far too early to give up on Turkey.

In the political arena, opposition leaders Kemal Kilicdaroglu and Meral Aksener deserve credit for their astute maneuvering. In a very hostile environment, they kept their heads cool and did something unusual in Turkish politics: They avoided making elections about themselves. Kilicdaroglu in particular has shown a willingness to identify and nominate promising junior politicians to position of influence — very much unlike Erdogan, who does not seem to tolerate any subordinate voicing ideas of their own. This allowed a politician like Imamoglu to emerge on the national scene.

A final lesson that emerges from these elections is that Turkey’s politics are no longer about the confrontation between secularism and Islam. On one hand, the secularist CHP has toned down its identity politics and sought to embrace pious voters. Meanwhile, the corruption and clientelism of Erdogan’s government has done its part to lessen its appeal among religious voters, who are beginning to wonder whether their leader is politicizing religion for his own ends. This, too, is a positive sign, as Turkish politics might well begin to reflect the real issues that the country faces, rather than be stuck with ghosts of the past.

All this is important for America, whose relationship with Turkey matters to its interests in Europe, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and the Eastern Mediterranean. In the short term, Turkey is unlikely to be easier to deal with. Its domestic politics almost guarantee it will be convulsed by internal controversies that will block any clear strategic direction. This may make Erdogan and his coalition more inclined to nationalist grandstanding, including against the United States. But there is hope for the longer term. A Turkey that returns to a healthier democratic system is now feasible, though it may have to get worse before it gets better. As real political competition gathers momentum now, it makes Turkey likelier to be a partner to the United States again later.

For that to happen, however, the United States must begin engaging leaders other than Erdogan. For too long, Washington has been obsessed with Turkey’s strongman. But as the Istanbul elections show, there are other forces emerging in Turkish society. Erdogan is not going away anytime soon, and American leaders will need to deal with him. But meanwhile, it is time for the United States to broaden its contacts in Turkish society and politics, and to engage with the new forces that are emerging across the country. Only that way will the United States, over time, be able to restore its relationship with a once-crucial ally.

Svante E. Cornell is Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy, and a Policy Advisor to JINSA’s Gemunder Center. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Originally appeared in Real Clear World on July 19, 2019