The Turkish people gave Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party a victory in local elections on Sunday, throwing their support behind a man who has increasingly become dictatorial.
Erdogan has clamped down on the press and the Internet, and weeded out his opponents in the police and the prosecutor’s office after corruption charges broke in December. Although, these developments polarized Turkish society, his party retained widespread support.
This growing fracture was evident on Tuesday as thousands gathered in Ankara to contest the results and demand recounts.
“Is Turkey still part of the free world?” asked Harold Rhode, a senior fellow at the New York based Gatestone Institute and a former adviser on Islamic affairs to the US secretary of defense, told The Jerusalem Post.
“The Turkish people have spoken and what they have told us is that they don’t care if their prime minister shuts down Twitter and social networks,” said Rhode.
The key question is, “do they trad believe in freedom – the right to see what they want and do what they want.
“What does this overwhelming victory for Erdogan tell us about the health of Turkish democracy?” Rhode asked.
It demonstrates that many Turks are prepared to accept limits on their freedom in order to support Erdogan, he said.
This is a victory of Muslim Brotherhood-style “Arab Islam” over “Turkish Islam,” he said.
Erdogan’s faction identifies and allies itself with the Arab Muslim Brotherhood whereas his former Islamist ally, Fethullah Gülen, a US-based Turkish cleric, looks down on “Arab Islam” and believes in “Turkish Islam.”
Most observers viewed the elections as a victory for Erdogan.
“It was a big win for Erdogan,” Taner Aydin, the bureau chief in Israel of the Anadolu Agency, the government news agency in Turkey, told the Post.
Erdogan has won eight consecutive votes – including two referendums – and is breaking all the records, a track record that pours cold water on critics who claim his power is declining.
Anat Lapidot-Firilla, an expert on Turkey and a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, agrees. “It was a great victory. Taking into account the attacks on him and the position of Gülen, it is even a greater achievement,” she said.
There are two – economically driven – reasons for Erdogan’s victory, said Fadi Hakura, a specialist on Turkish affairs and an associate fellow at Chatham House in London.
First, Erdogan’s base of conservative religious voters tends to come from the lower class and prioritizes economic issues, putting less emphasis on corruption or freedoms typical in a democracy, Hakura told the Post.
Second, in Turkey, the right wing is traditionally seen as favorable to the poor sectors of the population, while the Left is deemed elitist, he explained.
In additional, he asserted, there is “a high tolerance for corruption in Turkey.”
Asked if the population simply does not care about the Internet restrictions, Hakura responded that only around 34 percent of Turks use the Internet and 15% use Twitter. “It is the tech savvy and globally connected” who are making a fuss.
However, unlike most analysts, Hakura sees the elections not as an overwhelming victory but as the beginning of Erdogan’s gradual decline, which corresponds with the economic downturn.
Erdogan’s support increased in every election, except in 2009 due to the global recession, and on Sunday, when for the first time it declined due to domestic reasons.
His base of support is sensitive to the state of the economy, he said.
“This is certainly an election victory for Erdogan,” Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish columnist for Hurriyet and a regular contributor to the International New York Times, said.
“One can say that he lost votes compared to the general elections of 2011, in which he won 50%, but the decline could have been much bigger, if Erdogan were not able to mobilize his base,” he said.
“He has been able to convince many that the recent corruption scandals are in fact a thinly veiled attack on this government,” said Akyol, arguing that the recently revealed wiretaps that supposedly uncovered wrongdoing by Erdogan seem to have backfired and been dismissed as a conspiracy.
As for Turkish society, Akyol acknowledged that “the polarization has only gotten deeper.”
“The fact that Erdogan keeps winning only makes his opponents more desperate and angry, while making his own base exuberant and victorious.
The only way out would be national reconciliation and consensus, which seems too far right now,” he concluded.
Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, told the Post that Erdogan has maintained his support despite the corruption scandals and authoritarian actions.
“We may see a growing dictatorial style, and more polarization of Turkish society will ensue,” Inbar warned.