Turkey, a history
Turkey has been inhabited for thousands of years. The Anatolian plateau has hosted everyone from the Hittites and Assyrians, to the Ancient Greeks, Romans and Byzantines. It’s historic capital (variously called Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul), is a particularly valued prize as it sits at the crossing between Europe and Asia, making it a key spot for trade throughout the centuries.
Before the advent of modern Turkey, the area was ruled by the Ottoman Empire – a state which held sway over much of the traditional Muslim Middle East. After the Ottoman Empire broke up following World War One, legendary statesman Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey, and ensured that it was a thoroughly secular state in keeping with the popular social-political trends of the day.
Do you see the potential for conflict? The Ottoman Empire was never a theocracy in the style of Saudi Arabia, but it’s Turkish population was mostly Muslim – many devout. It’s understandable that these people and their descendants may have felt under-represented in a state that’s fiercely secular – as Turkey was for much of its history. The stage was set for a leader who sympathised with the more devout members of Turkish society, to come in and shake things up. Enter Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Erdoğan is the leader of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (styled as AKP in Turkish), a conservative political faction which advocates for traditional Islamic principles. He rose to prominence by becoming the mayor of Istanbul in 1994. Erdoğan was eventually elected Prime Minister of Turkey, following an economic crash, in 2003 and then became President in 2014.
From the beginning, it was clear that Erdoğan was a leader in the Trump model. In his 16 years in office, he has become known for promoting misogyny and the religious right, while opposing secularism and denouncing anyone who dared to oppose him. Erdoğan has also grown more dictatorial in recent years, reacting to an attempted coup in 2016 by cracking down on his enemies, as well as pushing for an executive Presidency system for Turkey which handed him more power.
Victory at last!
The thing is that despite Erdoğan’s dictatorial tendencies, he and the AKP remained popular with much of the electorate, making them almost impossible to beat at the polls. But there’s one golden rule that you ignore at your peril in politics. It’s all about the economy, stupid! Due to a number of factors, the Turkish economy entered a recession during the final quarter of 2018, after it’s currency the lira started losing value. When the economy’s bad, people tend to turn on the ruling party.
That’s what happened in Turkey’s most recent local elections, according to the BBC. Held on 31st March 2019, the elections had a very high turnout out of just under 85%, and Erdoğan’s party did win over 51% of the vote. But they lost the capital Ankara, as well as its largest city Istanbul. They also lost Turkey’s third largest city Izmir, but the people of this city have never been big fans of him.
This was Erdoğan and the AKPs worst night ever at the ballot box. It should be noted that the vote in Istanbul was incredibly close (there’s no definitive result yet), and the AKP is contesting various outcomes. However, the writing is on the wall. Following this election, the Turkish President has already promised to make major economic reforms to appease the people.
Tide starting to turn?
Why does this matter? Why should you care about local elections – especially in a country that’s not your own? You should care because Turkey’s local elections serve as a sign that the tide of populism is beginning to turn across the world. From the election of Donald Trump as US President to the rise of Vladimir Putin in Russia, right-wing populism has been in the ascendancy globally for a while now.
Local politics very much reflects the national mood. Look at the US’ 2018 mid-term elections for example. Despite the fact that their opponents had an in-built advantage , the Democrats took back the House of Representatives by a significant margin. Perception matters here. When a leader can’t convince people to vote for their own party, like Trump and Erdoğan, it suggests that their grip on the popular imagination is slackening, and that they too could be set to lose at the ballot box.
Time to stand up
Have Turkey’s local elections proved right-wing populism is dead. No, of course not. They do indicate that its power is just starting to diminish, as people question the ability of strong-men like Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to lead. It’s up to those of us who believe in democracy and advocate for progressive principles, to seize this opportunity and change the world for the better.