Erdogan's critics fear crackdown after Turks deliver his party a victory

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's party triumphed in yesterday's local elections. Within hours, the websites of news outlets linked to a political rival went down.

Kayhan Ozer/Turkish Prime Minister's Press Office/AP
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan salutes supporters from the balcony of his ruling party headquarters in Ankara, Turkey, early Monday, March 31, 2014.

Turks voted yesterday in local elections billed as a referendum on the authoritarian drift and alleged corruption of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The result: a loud acquittal from his supporters, and warnings of more authoritarianism from a demoralized opposition.

Preliminary results indicate that Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has triumphed resoundingly, winning 45.5 percent of the vote and holding the key battlegrounds of Istanbul and Ankara, the capital. Opponents are bracing for what they fear is an imminent crackdown.

The election was the AKP's first test at the polls since Erdogan's administration was hit by mass anti-government protests last summer, which continue to smolder, and a graft probe and wave of online leaks alleging widespread corruption in his inner circle. In spite of the blows, Erdogan’s support has dipped barely four points from AKP's record general election win in 2011.

In a speech last night in front of thousands of supporters in Istanbul, Erdogan lashed out at both his formal political opponents and the religious network of Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based imam and former political ally whom the prime minister accuses of fabricating the graft allegations.

“The politics of lies, slander, blackmail and montage has been destroyed today,” he said, adding that he and the voters had given their enemies an "Ottoman slap."

His fiery rhetoric bore a striking contrast to his more conciliatory speeches after previous election victories. Many observers fear he will see his triumph as a vindication for authoritarian steps, such as his recent decision to ban social media sites Twitter and YouTube.

“Where he could have said any number of embracing or positive things, he chose instead to carry on with the very abrasive rhetoric he’s used throughout the campaign,” says Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist at the Milliyet newspaper. “He effectively said ‘I’m going to punish all of you.’” 

Mandate to crackdown

In response to mass protests in June, Erdogan backed a police crackdown that eventually left 10 dead and several dozen seriously injured. And in the wake of the graft probe launched on Dec. 17, his government has purged thousands of police officers, introduced laws neutering the judiciary, and shuffled prosecutors off the case.

And after leaks of tapped phone calls containing further corruption allegations began to appear online, he pushed a new internet censorship law and clamped down on social media.

“[The election victory] is a huge mandate for Erdogan to carry on doing as he has done on every front,” says Ms. Aydintasbas. “Whatever he was doing before, he feels he has now been vindicated.”

As if to drive home his victory, Erdogan appeared before the crowds alongside his son, Bilal, who was implicated in the now-stalled corruption probe. In February, a recording of a tapped phone call emerged online that appeared to show the pair discussing how to hide millions of dollars in cash from police investigators.

The Gulen factor

While the Turkish lira surged on the expectation that Erdogan’s victory might herald a return to political stability, shares in several businesses that he has publicly denounced plummeted. 

Among them were those affiliated with Mr. Gulen’s movement, Hizmet ("Service"), which worked with Erdogan and the AKP for years to bring down Turkey's former secular elite. Hizmet's members command a large business empire in Turkey as well as a host of media organizations including the country’s highest circulation daily newspaper. They are also believed to have a strong presence in the police and judiciary, which many observers believe has allowed them to collect and now disseminate damaging information on the government – an allegation Gulen himself denies.

As the count came in last night, the websites of several Hizmet-linked newspapers were disabled. Several said they had come under cyber attack and had their internet connections periodically cut. 

Referring to the Gulenists, Erdogan vowed that “from now on, we’ll walk into their dens. They will pay for this.” 

“It’s impossible for us not to worry,” says Bulent Kenes, the editor-in-chief of the Gulen-linked Today’s Zaman newspaper. “He has promised his supporters he would punish and eradicate the Hizmet movement. It was the biggest promise of his election campaign.”

Last week, Erdogan launched a legal case against Mr. Kenes in regard to tweets he sent mocking the sound of the prime minister’s voice during a stump speech. 

Some defeats

Among the fractured political opposition, the mood was a mixture of despondence and disbelief after a chaotic election night marred by allegations of fraud. The opposition accused the government of creating power blackouts in several battleground cities that hampered vote counting. 

In Ankara, defeated People’s Republican Party (CHP) candidate Mansur Yavas said he would contest the result in court after AKP incumbent Melih Gokcek, was reelected by a razor-thin margin.

In Istanbul, the key battleground and home to one-fifth of Turkey’s population, CHP candidate Mustafa Sarigul accepted defeat after losing by an eight-point margin to the AKP incumbent, Kadir Topbas.

While Erdogan’s party made gains nationwide, they also suffered notable defeats. Pro-Kurdish candidates solidified their hold over the country’s southeast, wresting control of three provinces previously held by the AKP.

The AKP also lost the southern province of Hatay, which borders Syria, to the CHP. The presence of predominantly Sunni refugees and rebel fighters have incited anti-government sentiment among the Shiite Alawite minority living there.

Erdogan the 'rock star' 

The election victory indicates that Erdogan's supporters either overwhelmingly disbelieve the corruption charges or chose to overlook them when weighed against the achievements of his decade-long premiership. He has presided over unprecedented economic growth that has seen per capita income increase by 43 percent in real terms, instituted popular healthcare reforms, enacted huge infrastructure programs, and lifted restrictions on religious expression. Editor's note: This paragraph has been edited to correctly reflect Turkey's economic growth.

In the run-up to yesterday's vote, Erdogan often appeared at three or more rallies a day on behalf of local candidates and continued to attract crowds in the tens, or even hundreds, of thousands.

“He’s a rock star. People love him,” says Aydintasbas, describing him as a hero for conservative voters who were second-class citizens under Turkey’s previous secularist governments.

“They identify with his anger, with his yearning, with his defiance. He’s one of them. He’s not just using polarizing rhetoric, he’s waging a popular war against the former elites, the secular leftists.”

But Erdogan's most immediate targets are likely to be members of his own conservative camp: the Gulenists. In the past week, a government revoked the broadcasting license of one Gulenist television station.

“I’m optimistic because we are not yet an entirely lawless state; there are still some just people,” says Kenes. “If he does close us down that would mean Turkey would have become a real dictatorship.”

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