Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, speaks during a Television interview (Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)

Erdogan Fought Hard and Won Unfairly

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The existence of a vibrant political culture and a strong opposition to the political monopoly of the country’s long-term ruler were what separated Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. After Erdogan’s victory in Sunday’s hotly contested presidential and parliamentary elections, however, these differences are likely to be eroded as Turkey sinks into an Islamic version of Putinism.

It wasn’t a particularly impressive victory: Erdogan won the presidential election with about 52 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results, and while his Justice and Development (AK) party lost its majority in the parliament, together with the nationalist MHP party it garnered about 54 percent of the vote. But it means Erdogan has deflected the strongest political challenge he has seen in years, from Muharrem Ince, the candidate of the secularist, center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Given the broad powers handed to the president last year in a constitutional referendum Erdogan won even more narrowly, with 51.4  percent of the vote, he has the opportunity to run the country pretty much as he pleases for another five years. For the opposition, to use a soccer analogy, this will be five years of playing without the ball while the referee — Turkey’s increasingly dependent court system — lets the other side run rampant.

Had Ince, a talented orator whose rallies attracted millions of people in Turkey’s Mediterranean strongholds of relative liberalism, forced Erdogan into a runoff, as he’d hoped, the opposition would have had a chance to beat him despite everything the Turkish ruler had done to skew the election system in his favor. The 30 percent he won even according to the opposition-run Fair Election Platform wasn’t, however, enough to keep Erdogan from claiming a majority.

Erdogan called the election, with its near-90 percent turnout, a lesson in democracy to the world. It definitely wan’t one. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe described in its preliminary report an electoral system to which the governing party had been free to introduce hasty changes; a gerrymandered map of parliamentary constituencies; laws that criminalize harsh criticism of the president and limit his own criminal responsibility; restrictions on the freedom of assembly in some provinces; and police harassment of some opposition forces, such as the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

Add to that Erdogan’s increasing control over the media (in March, a pro-government conglomerate bought what was probably the country’s strongest independent media group), a widespread practice of jailing journalists and bloggers for “aiding terrorism” and “hate speech” against the government (hundreds of internet users were charged with these crimes just before the election), tens of thousands of political prisoners (Putin’s Russia only has about 150 known ones, according to the country’s foremost human rights organization, Memorial), reports of torture and abuse while in custody, and the idea of Turkey’s giving anyone lessons in democracy appear ludicrous. 

Unlike Putin, Erdogan hasn’t barred his opponents from running against him in elections, and so his electoral victories appear harder-won. But make no mistake about the fairness of these triumphs. The system is rigged in Erdogan’s favor. Since the failed 2016 coup, he has also done away with the military’s traditional moderating role on political power. With de-facto control of the constitutional court and a judiciary thoroughly purged after the coup, Erdogan can forget about checks and balances.

It’s no coincidence that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was the first to congratulate Erdogan on his election victory. Orban has been winning elections more comfortably than Erdogan does because the Hungarian opposition has failed to mount challenges as powerful as Ince’s, but he’s been constrained by European Union institutions from taking over the courts and jailing opponents as freely as Erdogan has done. Still, there’s no doubt he watches Erdogan admiringly — just as leftist and centrist leaders in neighboring European countries watch him with alarm. “Had this election been run fairly, Erdogan would have had to give up power,” Cem Oezdemir, former leader of Germany’s Green Party, who is of Turkish origin himself, said after the vote, in which more than two-thirds of Germany’s large Turkish community backed Erdogan.

For Europe and for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, another five years of Erdogan mean that Turkey will remain an aspiring EU member and a Western ally in name only. No one in the West except fans such as Orban can rely on the Turkish leader for anything at all, especially as he must blame the West for Turkey’s economic troubles to remain popular. 

Erdogan will keep trying to grow the economy by means of grand infrastructure projects of questionable economic value (they include, for example, the world’s biggest airport and a new, paid shipping channel in addition to the Bosphorus, which is free to ships). That’s a similar model to Putin’s, and like under Putin, the Turkish economy has come under an increasing influence of the state and of Erdogan’s cronies who get lucrative government contracts.

The inefficiency and corruption built into such a system make the growth costly to the general public, as the lira devaluation in recent months has proved. Erdogan can only justify that, as he has already done, by lashing out against the U.S. and the EU for allegedly trying to undermine Turkey’s economic sovereignty. And, unlike Putin, he doesn’t have a vast resource base to prop up his grand economic vision: Turkey is dependent for trade and investment on the very countries toward which Erdogan’s rhetoric is the most hostile.

Turkey needed a change, but Erdogan’s ability to consolidate power has prevented it. If no economic catastrophe strikes within the next five years to re-empower the defeated opposition, the country’s hybrid regime is likely to turn even more authoritarian by 2023 and the years of narrow victories will be over for Erdogan and, likely, his chosen successors.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.