Little Time for Erdogan to savour election victory

LONDON - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AK party may have passed with flying colours its test at local elections, but more challenges await Mr Erdogan as he sets his sights on the presidency and goes after his enemies.

Although his name was not on the ballot papers for the local elections on Sunday, the vote was regarded as a verdict on him and his government.

For, in the run-up to the ballot, the AK was subjected to an unprecedented wave of allegations of corruption, mostly in the form of anonymously released taped telephone conversations in which voices which appear to resemble those of the Prime Minister, members of his family or senior officials are heard discussing bribes and kickbacks.

The source of most of these compromising tapes is presumed to be Mr Fetullah Gulen, a reclusive Islamic scholar who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, whose network commands a large number of followers among the Turkish police, judiciary and intelligence services. Mr Gulen used to be an ally of Prime Minister Erdogan, but the two quarrelled and are now sworn enemies.

"Half of those corruption claims in any other democratic country would be enough for the collapse of the government", wrote Mr Murat Yetkin, a leading columnist for Hurriyet, the country's top opposition daily.

But Turkey's latest municipal poll results provide scant evidence to support this theory.

At around 45 per cent of the votes cast, the ruling AK party's share of the vote is up six points on the 2009 ballot, while the main opposition trails with 29 per cent. Mr Erdogan remains in control of Istanbul, the country's biggest city, and Ankara, the nation's capital.

The abrasive Mr Erdogan was predictably jubilant. "Those who attacked Turkey got disappointed," he told a victory rally in Ankara.

Conspirators against the country would now be punished, he warned. "We will enter their caves andÂ… they will pay the price."

Hundreds of police officers and local prosecutors have already been dismissed for alleged links to the Gulen movement, and many more will now face similar treatment.

The opposition media can also expect no mercy: More than 100 journalists are under arrest on various charges, while social websites such as Twitter and Facebook remain blocked in Turkey.

Mr Erdogan's dominance of Turkish politics is partly due to his competent stewardship of economic affairs: The country's US$1.3 trillion (S$1.6 trillion) economy is still growing at a respectable 4 per cent. Mr Erdogan is also helped by an opposition which remains fractured.Ultimately, however, the AK party's hold on power is based on a bond between pious, Muslim countryside dwellers and working-class voters in big cities. It is a conservative alliance which accounts for more than half of Turkey's population and which, as long as Mr Erdogan holds it together, remains unbeatable.

The local election triumph comes at a perfect time for Mr Erdogan who, after more than a decade in power as prime minister, covets the presidency.

With the presidential election scheduled for August, Mr Erdogan's dream is now clearly within reach; Turkey's financial markets soared yesterday betting on political stability, while the Turkish lira hit its highest exchange level against the US dollar in more than a year.

But investors may be rejoicing too soon, for plenty of political uncertainties lie ahead.

Mr Erdogan is not interested in becoming a figurehead president as the current Constitution dictates. He wants to transform Turkey into a presidential republic, ruled by its head of state. But, since no constitutional amendment is now feasible, Mr Erdogan will have to become president under the existing arrangements.

Nobody believes he would respect the legal restrictions placed on him, so Turkey can expect a constant tussle between president and prime minister, not a recipe for political stability.

Furthermore, if he relinquishes the prime minister's role, Mr Erdogan will also have to appoint a caretaker head of government until the general election next year. There are plenty of candidates, but the one Mr Erdogan fears most is Mr Abdullah Gul, the outgoing Turkish President and a distinguished former foreign minister.

Mr Gul has already distanced himself from Mr Erdogan. He has continued posting messages on his Facebook and Twitter accounts, defying a government ban on these social websites. Once relieved of the strictures of office, Mr Gul may become a formidable opponent.

Given such difficulties, Mr Erdogan may well choose to remain in his current post. But if, as now looks more likely, he goes for the presidency, he could discover that just as he reaches the heights of power, he loses control over his party.

That was precisely the fates of Mr Suleyman Demirel, who ruled Turkey in the 1970s, and Mr Turgut Ozal, who ruled in the 1980s: Both moved from the premiership to the presidency only to see their old political parties disintegrate.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com

This article was published on April 2 in The Straits Times.

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