Turkey's Elections: Erdogan Is Still On Top

When young Tayyip Erdogan played semipro soccer, his teammates called him "Imam Beckenbauer." "Imam" was a nod to his faith, "Beckenbauer" a reference to German footballer Franz Beckenbauer. One of the all-time greats, Beckenbauer dominated the soccer pitch from the centerfield, just as an older Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister since 2002, presides over the center of Turkey's political playing field. Last Sunday's local election results clearly disappointed Erdogan, but the team he captains, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is still at the center of Turkey's politics, still the champions. To analyze the results, the previous local elections in 2004, and the national election of 2007, serve as useful proxies for national elections. They're not perfect, of course, because local factors come into play and the personalities of individual mayoral candidates are important. By either measure, AKP support is down by 3 percentage points to 7 percent. Arguably that's not such a bad result, given the economic crisis: Turkish banks are pretty sound, but Turkish exports are being hammered despite significant depreciation of the lira, and GDP shrank at annual rate of more than 5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008. Unemployment is breaking records at almost 15 percent.

It is significant, though, that no party emerged as the dominant competitor to AKP. The Turkish political map is not the one-dimensional Republicans-lose-Democrats-win competition found in the United States. Rather, it is a square. On one side sits the secularist establishment Republican People's Party (CHP), which regularly accuses AKP of having a hidden Islamist agenda. Opposite it is the Islamist (but democratic) Contentment Party (SP), from which AKP split in 2001. On the third side is the National Action Party (MHP). It is as nationalist as its name suggests and violently opposed to the party on the fourth side, the Democratic Society Party (DTP), which promotes itself as the party of Kurdish identity. In the square's middle sits AKP, which has now lost some support to all four parties on the sides. Once the economic crisis weakened people's attachment to AKP, it lost votes to CHP for being insufficiently liberal or too Islamist, and it lost votes to SP for not being Islamist enough. Similarly, it lost votes to MHP for being too accommodating to Kurdish aspirations and votes to DTP for not being accommodating enough. Being a political Beckenbauer is no easy task.

Looking to the future, the next national elections would normally occur in mid-2011, and that is a long time in politics. If Sunday's results were repeated, however, AKP would fall some 20 seats short of an overall majority and would need to form a coalition. If AKP regained about 3 percent of the votes, it would continue as a single-party government. Evidently much depends on the economy. AKP, however, is widely held to have managed this well and granted some signs of recovery. Voters might be less inclined to desert it in an election that would put economic management in other hands. The real question, though, is whether Erdogan will attempt to expand the square he dominates through bold policy moves, or defend what he holds today with a policy of careful trimming while hoping for a few breaks on the economy?

Here are some of the bold options: by opening relations with the northern Iraq Kurds, Turkey may now have a real opportunity put an end to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), though an amnesty will probably be needed. MHP supporters will hate that, but peace would be hard to argue against, and DTP supporters, of course, would not dream of doing so. Also, there is talk again of major changes to make the present coup-era Constitution more democratic. The European Union is in favor of it, and, interestingly, the economic crisis appears to have revived Turks' enthusiasm for membership. CHP's hard-core supporters will oppose this as weakening the state establishment, but many who have drifted to CHP recently however will not. A truly democratic Constitution would protect AKP against charges of hidden Islamism and also against a repeat of last summer's attempt to close the party. A truly democratic Constitution would also liberate Turkey's headscarf-wearing women from their second-class status and appeal to those drifting toward SP. Then again, AK Party's original appeal, and indeed its name (ak means white in Turkish), was its perceived lack of corruption. Erdogan has arguably been too tolerant of both the appearance and the reality of corruption creeping into his party.

Boldness is not guaranteed to work, but Erdogan is not a timid man. Nor is he unambitious. Going down in history as a great leader is certainly his aim. On the other hand, he is nothing if not an extraordinarily gifted politician, and we would do well to remember that such men have better antennae than pundits. For Erdogan the game is still wide open. I wonder how Beckenbauer would play it.