Erdogan’s autocratic turn
Barring Istanbul mayor from elections would be a severe blow to Turkish democracy

Turkey’s fragile and imperfect democracy is in peril. When the opposition politician Ekrem Imamoglu was elected mayor of Istanbul in March 2019, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who launched his political career in the same city — pressed the authorities to order a new poll. The charismatic Imamoglu won again, by a landslide, and called election officials who annulled his initial win “idiots”. This week those “insults” of public servants earned him a more than two-year prison sentence and a ban from politics. Imamoglu might yet escape prison time. But if his appeal is denied he will be barred from running in presidential elections next year — in what looks like a Putinesque attempt to sideline one candidate who might plausibly have beaten Erdogan.

The ramifications are profound, for the 86mn people of Turkey, the wider region and the Nato alliance of which the country remains part. Turkey has clung on as a flawed democracy as 20 years of rule by Erdogan and his Justice and Development party (AKP) have led it down an authoritarian path and key institutions including the judiciary have come under the sway of him and his allies. Barring an opposition figure in national elections would mark a step towards an openly autocratic system.

Next year’s presidential poll, in the centenary of the country’s founding, is pivotal. Opposition parties see it as a last chance to unseat Erdogan at the ballot box before he becomes, like Vladimir Putin, impossible to remove (the president has said he will stand “for the last time” in 2023). The fragmented, fissiparous opposition has managed to come together in a loose alliance devoted to the goal of bringing Erdogan down.

One irony is that while Imamoglu is its most magnetic figure, the opposition alliance has not yet summoned the savvy to back him as their presidential candidate. His sidelining would appear to be an insurance policy to remove any risk to the president. To retain a chance of defeating Erdogan, the opposition ought to move on from the wooden Kemal Kilicdaroglu. The 73-year-old leader of the Republican People’s party (CHP) — the party of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — has failed several times before to achieve a political breakthrough in national elections.

Imamoglu's sentencing might yet prove a miscalculation that could galvanize the opposition and its voters. The Istanbul mayor held a rally for thousands of supporters in the city for the second day running on Thursday, vowing to hold the AKP to account. While Erdogan's methods increasingly resemble those of Putin, his grip on power is less complete, ruling through a somewhat uneasy coalition.

Before Putin’s war on Ukraine led to crippling foreign sanctions, moreover, and although he failed to use the lucrative proceeds of oil and gas sales to modernize the economy, Russia’s president largely delegated control of economic and monetary policy to competent liberals. Erdogan's flat-earth insistence, by contrast, that lowering interest rates is the cure for soaring prices has led Turkey’s economy into a tailspin, with inflation at nearly 85 per cent denting his approval ratings.

Erdogan's need for hard currency and western economic support gives the US and European partners some leverage, despite the Turkish president’s cultivation of a bumpy friendship with the Russian leader. They should make clear Turkey’s membership of the north Atlantic military alliance, and the economic relationship it desires with the EU, entails adherence to basic democratic standards. For all the president’s efforts, the roots of Turkish democracy run deeper than those in Putin’s Russia. They should not be allowed to wither away.

Financial Times

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