The impact of corruption on elections

Abdullah Bozkurt
Abdullah Bozkurt

Date posted: February 3, 2014


The corruption scandals that have plagued the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and implicated Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and people around him since Dec. 17 of last year will have serious impacts on the political landscape in Turkey. Rampant corruption in the government is not an unknown phenomenon for Turks, yet the sheer size and magnitude of the recent scandals, which involved billions of dollars in money laundering, influence-peddling and land development schemes, allegedly committed by at least half a dozen Cabinet members, have shocked everybody in Turkey. Perhaps next to the economy, which shows signs of distress, with an immediate impact on households’ budgets, this corruption is the second most important issue for voters.

Erdoğan has been able to stay ahead of the curve in Turkey with a reformist agenda every time he found himself in trouble politically. He was able to project himself and the party as the only agent for change in terms of delivering bold reforms that have consolidated Turkish democracy. Now he does not have that card to play, and in fact he is doing everything in his power to steer Turkey away from the rule of law, rolling back the accomplishments in democracy and fundamental rights. He does not even care about market rules, by which the government should limit its role of monitoring, supervising and intervening if necessary to correct anomalies. Erdoğan’s harsh rhetoric, bashing business groups that are not aligned with his rule, has gone beyond the bitter words he often invokes, even organizing groups to come after less loyal companies with politically orchestrated fines, audits, license suspensions and penalties.

His demonization and intimidation tactics needed a new imaginary villain to rally people, and the Fethullah Gülen-inspired Hizmet movement, which has been critical of the government’s weakening of transparency and accountability, fit the profile of usual suspect perfectly in his defamation campaign. Apparently the usual whipping boys, such as the US, the European Union, Israel, global capital and the international media, which Erdoğan had floated in the past to distract voters from domestic problems, did not make the cut this time. Yet, looking at the data in several recent surveys, including the AKP’s internal polling, the public does not seem to be buying the conspiracy theories any more, against the background of overwhelming evidence indicating massive wrongdoing in the government. The rushed decision by Erdoğan to reassign thousands of police officers and hundreds of prosecutors and judges as well as introducing controversial bills to reign in the judiciary have all reinforced the perception that Erdoğan and his people are deeply involved in corruption.

The AKP will have to pay the price for all this at the local elections on March 30. Having lost its edge as the most progressive party, there are serious challenges ahead for the ruling party at the local elections. The success of the AKP stems from the well-organized political establishment it runs across the country, as well as generously funded and well-focused election campaigns. Erdoğan’s party structure has started showing cracks both in the parliamentary group and local branches, with hundreds of party officials resigning en masse, mostly in protest of the government’s mishandling of the corruption investigations. The organizational prowess of the AKP’s political machine was dealt a blow when Erdoğan attacked the Hizmet movement, which is the strongest civic movement at the grassroots level. AKP candidates will be damned by the leadership if they decide to work with Hizmet people in the local elections. If they adopt the demonizing rhetoric of Erdoğan, they will face a formidable challenge at the local level that might well help the demise of their campaigns. In other words, AKP candidates are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The party definitely lost its focus when Erdoğan limited the campaign to rhetoric about an international conspiracy in collaboration with domestic partners such as the media, business groups, opposition parties and the Hizmet movement, without offering any hard evidence to support these preposterous claims. Erdoğan lacks a centerpiece theme to mobilize troops for “get-out-and-vote” and “canvas-the-neighborhood” campaigns. The only powerful tool at his disposal is the money that he will use to buy ads and for handouts in low-income neighborhoods. He will definitely turn to populist spending, although his room for maneuver has been somewhat limited by external factors over which he does not have control. He has to deal with the problems of emerging economies, such as a slide in the currency, interest rate hikes, low growth, rising unemployment and a burgeoning current account deficit.

The loss of votes in the last local elections in 2009 was partially attributed to a condescending attitude on the part of AKP officials, who had grown overconfident on the heels of their 47 percent victory in the national elections just two years earlier, in 2007. Now the AKP is repeating the same mistake at a greater volume as Erdoğan’s hateful speeches, echoed by his deputies across their constituencies, will surely turn many voters off the ruling party. Turks do not like an overbearing attitude or arrogant posturing from politicians, and they react strongly by voting them out at the ballot box, especially in local races.

The AKP for a long time owed its success to the charismatic personality of Erdoğan, who was once an underdog before climbing to the top of the ladder, beating all the odds for his survival. It was almost the usual routine for local candidates to pay homage to him, putting Erdoğan at the center of their campaigns. Now this credit has turned into a major liability for most of the low-ranking candidates when Erdoğan and his family were personally implicated in orchestrating a massive corruption scheme. In other words, for local candidates, associating with Erdoğan will not bring votes any more and in fact may result in pushing voters to the opposition bloc.

In the local elections, Erdoğan will be hammered by a loss of votes, ending up with a vote tally of around 35 to 40 percent. This will mean a drop of at least 10 percentage points from the last elections of 2011, which will in turn lead to calls for major soul-searching in the ruling party. The outcry will be stronger if the AKP cannot hold on to the prized jewel, the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality, and, to a lesser degree, the Ankara Metropolitan Municipality. Erdoğan’s stumble will embolden AKP dissenters to defect in droves to either a newly established party on the center-right or existing ones. In either case, Erdoğan will be compelled to call snap elections in order to remove challengers’ chance to organize themselves. The divided vote may even give an opening to the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) to secure the race in the next national elections as the first political party if they can capitalize on the weaknesses of the AKP and adopt the right policies in the nick of time, paving the way for a coalition government in the next elections.

As for the presidential elections, Erdoğan’s dream has already been deflated. He has almost no chance of winning the elections if he decides to run on the AKP ticket, simply because he has widened the hostility to his leadership by alienating more groups in Turkish society, which will be enough to eliminate him in the second round of voting, if he can even makes it there. Recent polls suggest that his approval ratings took a dive amid the corruption scandals. The only viable alternative is to go for a constitutional amendment to switch from a direct presidential election to a parliamentary election of the president, reversing the results of the public referendum of 2010. That will come with its own price tag for Erdoğan as well.

Erdoğan does not have any traction left to keep himself in power. That is why he is courting Kurdish voters in general and making deals with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to the extent that he has reportedly given up the Southeast in exchange for support from the PKK in İstanbul. That strategy, however, has a huge trade-off with Turkish voters, especially in coastal areas and in the heartland of the country, where nationalists have been picking up more votes than ever. The polls suggest the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is the most important beneficiary of the decline in the AKP’s popularity. Erdoğan also gave hope to neo-nationalist figures by offering them the chance of a retrial in the landmark Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledgehammer) cases. This is yet another ill-advised policy that goes completely against his past record and will not get any votes for his ruling AKP. In fact, letting convicts who were tried for plotting to kill non-Muslim minority leaders and planning to bomb major mosques in İstanbul and shoot down a Turkish fighter jet over the Aegean to wreak havoc in Turkish society will be a huge turn-off for mainstream voters on the center and center-right.

It seems there are no good options left for the embattled Erdoğan in the political space any more. All these political calculations will not help him ride out the stormy legal troubles, either. He will eventually be held accountable in court for these legal issues, no matter how he fares at the ballot box.

Source: Todays Zaman , February 3, 2014

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