Erdogan Walks a Fine Line as Turkish Elections Approach
Mariano Giustino 19 January 2023

On the eve of crucial parliamentary and presidential elections with an outcome that is by no means a foregone conclusion, the sentencing of popular Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu to 2 years and 7 months in prison with a lifetime ban from public office on suspicion of insulting the judges of the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) has reinvigorated the opposition and provided their leaders with an opportunity to cement their base and attract sympathy and support beyond their own constituency.

The opposition presented its electoral platform after several meetings to form a coalition called the “Table of Six,” consisting of six opposition parties, that is, the entire anti-Erdoğan front except the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The three core points of its program are a return to a stronger parliamentary republic with premiership, restoration of the rule of law, and economic reform to overcome the ongoing crisis.

Meanwhile, another accusation has been made against İmamoğlu: that of hiring terrorists within the municipal administration after being convicted of insulting public officials. “The Turkish government systematically attacks the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, following a specific schedule, that is, as the election deadline approaches,” was the mayor’s response to the new accusation.

Rumors spread in recent days by certain media outlets about his possible expulsion from the municipal administration sent the Istanbul Stock Exchange index plunging 7 percent, just as President Erdoğan announced that the date of the presidential and parliamentary elections, scheduled for May 14, and as news broke that the High Court had ruled a temporary freeze on the bank accounts of the left-liberal, pro-Kurdish HDP, accused of using public money to fund terrorist activities.

The HDP, the third largest political force in the Turkish Parliament, which was already decimated when 50 of its mayors were ousted and some 7,000 of its militants and leaders were arrested, risks closure by the Judiciary for allegedly supporting the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the exclusion of hundreds of its members from political life.

It was Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu himself who announced that another investigation had been launched against Istanbul’s mayor for the suspected hiring of “people affiliated with terrorist organizations” to the municipal administration. Soylu accused the mayor of hiring 1,668 people who “have relations with armed organizations” namely the PKK and other unspecified extremist groups, and for which he launched an investigation.

Soon after taking office in 2019, Mayor İmamoğlu had requested “security clearance” for those to be hired, but the request was rejected. And later, in 2021, when the interior minister first levelled the accusation, the municipality made a request to the relevant authorities to obtain detailed information about the personnel who were the subject of Soylu’s allegations of subversion and terrorism, but again the information was denied. Soylu had linked the indicted personnel to eight different terrorist organizations, some of which were classified as “various.”

“Who are these various terrorist organizations?” asked Mayor İmamoğlu several times, and having received no answer, he concluded that the investigations launched against him showed all their flimsiness and were “clearly motivated by political calculation.”

Moreover, those attorneys general who had refused to proceed in the investigation against the mayor by deciding to dismiss it as pretextual, have been gradually removed from their offices and replaced with people close to, if not affiliated with, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). This is the case with the new chief prosecutor Arif Yıldırım, who before taking office to prosecute İmamoğlu had been a 2018 candidate for parliament in the ranks of the AKP and had opened as many as 28 investigations against İmamoğlu in his first two years.

The chief prosecutorin the case filed against İmamoğlu on charges of insulting the judges of the Supreme Election Council in 2019 had also been removed because he had opposed the mayor’s prison sentence and his disqualification from political activity for the duration of his sentence. The prosecutor himself revealed this to reporters.

Election fever is rising in President Erdoğan’s entourage as Turkey has entered the centennial year of the Republic’s founding. The stakes are very high: 62.4 million voters will have to decide whether to confirm the president’s autocratic rule for another five years or vote for change by handing over the country’s leadership to an opposition candidate.

The country’s worsening economic conditions led many observers to speculate last summer that Erdoğan was heading for a possible electoral defeat as galloping inflation, triggered in large part by his insistence on lowering interest rates, has led to a significant rise in the cost of living leading in turn to an overall impoverishment of the middle class.

In recent months, however, Erdoğan and the AKP have mobilized, and most pollsters now predict a tighter race. In recent weeks, the government has embarked on a so-called “pre-election spending spree” in an attempt to alleviate the considerable hardship facing voters. In “election spending,” the president has included raising the minimum wage by 55 percent to 8,500 liras ($453) a month and increasing subsidies for fuel, electricity, and natural gas. In addition, a retirement age rule was abolished, potentially allowing more than 2 million Turks to retire early, while in December, both active and retired civil servants received a 30 percent increase in their paychecks.

Meanwhile, with relief for consumers, the Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜIK) announced that the inflation rate fell to 64.3 percent in December 2022 from 84.4 percent in November. However, independent economists estimate the real inflation rate to be 137.6 percent. Inflation in October had hit a 24-year high of 85.5 percent. With this rate of inflation, even the considerable payroll increase that has just been passed would be completely eroded, and so for this reason the Turkish leader intends to bring forward the elections otherwise he would be forced to enact additional “election spending,” which, the coffers of Turkey’s already dry sovereign wealth fund could not allow. The AKP administration knows full well that improvements such as the increase in the minimum wage, the new early retirement regulation and now the increase in civil servants’ pensions and salaries will lose their effect in a few months in the face of such exponential growth in the cost of living.

In the meantime, the debate rages over the eligibility of a third Erdoğan presidential bid. According to the Turkish Constitution, a maximum of two terms are allowed for the presidency. Erdoğan was elected president in 2014 and 2018, so a third term would be impossible for him. But according to his supporters, the first term should be ruled out because it occurred before the reform approved in a 2017 referendum that introduced the current presidential system.

According to some constitutionalists, a third term for Erdoğan would only be legitimate if Parliament decided to call early elections with a three-fifths majority. But the AKP and its allies do not have the three-fifths majority to call early elections, and therefore Parliament can only be dissolved by President Erdoğan, but if he were to do so, in that case, he could not run for a third time. In any case, the Turkish president knows a thing or two about winning elections, for example, he knows that the best way to secure a victory is to win before the election date.

The election race in Turkey is by no means a foregone conclusion. İmamoğlu’s final conviction will not take effect until it is upheld by the Court of Appeals, and in any case, the mayor will not go to prison because the sentence is less than five years. Of course, Erdoğan has other aces up his sleeve, and a possible ban on İmamoğlu’s political life is just one in a series of aces to shape the political playing field in his favor ahead of the elections. After 20 years in power, and having made many enemies, the Turkish president has a lot to lose.

The so-called “disinformation law” recently passed by parliament, which critics say has the potential to restrict free speech and the flow of information on social media, is another move put in place by the president to silence the opposition. But the Turkish leader is also skillfully performing in the geopolitical arena as well, trying to achieve successes that he hopes will strengthen his image and power at home.

He has profited both economically and geopolitically from the war in Ukraine by keeping Turkey halfway between the West and Russia, in what the Turkish leader describes as a “balanced” policy. However, which more appropriately should be called “pendulum diplomacy.” Turkey is selling drones to Ukraine and has helped secure the agreement on Ukrainian grain exports, but it is not enforcing Western sanctions on Moscow and has tripled its trade with Russia. Capital from unknown sources worth $28 billion continues to flow towards the Central Bank coffers, an inflow that has prevented a balance of payments crisis and enabled the government to provide new subsidies for citizens through its “election spending” strategy.

The Turkish president also hopes that he can convince Vladimir Putin to green light a new Turkish, anti-Kurdish incursion into Syria just as the election deadline approaches, in the hope that this will demoralize or drive Kurdish voters away from the opposition camp by creating a hypernationalist atmosphere. It would be a nice gift from Putin to help his friend and reciprocate the favors he is receiving, as Turkey has become the gateway for Russian trade in the world. Yet, even though the Turkish president remains a skilled tactician, there are signs that he has lost touch with the people. He is giving his main rival an opportunity to walk the road to political power like the one he traveled in 1998, when he was mayor of Istanbul and came into conflict with the government that removed him from office and had him serve four months in prison. The voters never forgave that violation of their will and rewarded him by electing him president in the 2002 general election. Now he is giving İmamoğlu the opportunity to follow a similar trajectory.


This article has been updated on January 25th, 2023, with the elections date.

Cover Photo: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech as he holds a press conference following the cabinet meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, on February 1, 2021 (Photo by Adem ALTAN/AFP.)

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