Erdoğan’s ‘dictator’ challenge and Turkish elections

Erdoğan’s ‘dictator’ challenge and Turkish elections

Addressing the provincial leaders of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) on Oct. 25, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan took an unexpected defensive position, with a challenge unusual to even an outspoken politician like himself.

Referring to accusations that he was governing with an increasingly authoritarian style, Erdoğan said: “I dare those who accuse us of dictatorship and charge us with forming tutelage. Let’s settle the accounts on March 30 at the ballot box. If there is a dictator in this country, here they are, let them topple this dictator through the ballot box.”

The challenge has a few points to mention. At first, it shows that Erdoğan has taken seriously the domestic and foreign criticism accusing him of developing an authoritarian style and such criticisms hurt him; otherwise he wouldn’t underline that issue before his party’s local representatives. Perhaps he had heard that those criticisms had reflections within AK Parti too, in the form suggesting that he is evolving into a “Second Erbakan,” in reference to the late prime minister and mentor to him, who was known for his uncompromising attitude regarding in-house politics.

Secondly, Erdoğan delivered this speech a day after one in Ankara, where he said it would be “fascistic” to insist on an “I don’t want it, so you cannot do it” attitude. He was actually referring to the resistance shown by the Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ) against the (AKParti held) Ankara municipality, accusing Mayor Melih Gökçek of violating the university area and cutting more trees than agreed during a road construction to pass through it. One can deduce from Erdoğan’s rhetorical pattern so far that his mindset is somehow occupied with this subject.

However, thirdly, the elections on March 30 are for the municipalities, not for Parliament, so it is not possible to change a prime minister or a government through them. It is possible that seeing some difficulties in some towns and cities for AK Parti, Erdoğan might want to direct his local sub-leaders to focus on the importance of endorsing the image of his Party and his leadership, rather than individual candidates. It is possible that the challenge will be followed by another one, calling on other party leaders to resign if they get lesser votes than him. But that also means that the overall vote tally will be as important for Erdoğan as winning key municipalities like Istanbul and Ankara, as well the CHP stronghold İzmir.

In the last local elections in 2009, the AK Parti got nearly 39 percent of the votes. In the general elections of 2011 the votes increased to nearly 50 percent. Erdoğan is not likely to make the comparison of the 2014 locals overall result with the 2011 parliamentary one. But it is likely that if AK Parti gets more than 39 percent he could promote that as an election victory and following his latest challenge, a proof showing that Turkish people favor the way he rules the country. Will this populist rhetoric hold? It will be hard to measure. But the challenge definitely shows that one of the main themes for the AK Parti in the municipal elections will be to remind his power base of the consequences of the party’s image in government being weakened by the municipal results. This was a tactic that worked well in the eyes of Erdoğan during the Gezi wave of protests.