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Not the ‘End of History’ for Turkey

The municipal election results in Turkey over the weekend suggest that there is still some hope for democratic change there — that despite a descent into authoritarianism, ballots still count.

On Sunday, March 31, more than 50 million Turks went to the polls for local elections. The result was a phenomenal success for the opposition bloc, made up of the main opposition People’s Republican Party and the new nationalist “Good Party,” with some boost from Kurdish voters as well. They won the municipalities in most major cities, including, most significantly, Istanbul and Ankara— the two hearts of Turkey which have been dominated uninterruptedly by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political movement for the past quarter century.

In other words, the elections were a major setback for Erdogan and a major win for the opposition, which used to be a hopeless coalition of constant losers. So, how was this possible? And what does this moment mean for Turkey’s future?

Putting it in Perspective

To begin with, this surprising victory for the opposition is an exciting moment, but it should not be exaggerated. Erdogan is still in power and has the mandate to rule Turkey until June 2023. He still controls the whole executive branch, the majority of the parliament, key positions in the judiciary, and also much of the media, which has become a circus of his sycophants. We also know that Erdogan has faced other setbacks — like his party’s regression in the June 2015 general elections — but was able to turn the tide with shrewd maneuvers.

It should also be noted that Erdogan still has very strong electoral support. His Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is still the most popular one, commanding some 45 percent of the national vote Sunday. Combined with the votes for AKP’s political ally, the Nationalist Action Party, that number went up to 51.6 percent, suggesting that Erdogan would still win in a presidential election. The opposition’s victories were made possible by a shift in only some 2 percent of the overall vote and better cooperation among opposition parties.

Furthermore, when I was writing these lines, it still wasn’t clear whether the government would concede defeat in Istanbul. Government spokesmen rather called for a recount, while their media empire began pumping conspiracy theories about some ballots having been rigged by the opposition. If they use this argument to cancel the announced results and stick to Istanbul, there may be even darker days on Turkey’s horizon.

Despite all this, Sunday’s results still showed something important: that Erdogan isn’t invincible. It showed that there are at least some pragmatic voters who will move away from him when the economy falters and decent alternatives are available.

Therefore, the election results suggest that there is still some hope for democratic change in Turkey — that the country has not yet reached a point of Erdogan-dominated “end of history.” This may surprise some Western observers who decided that Turkey had become yet another third-world dictatorship where the same ruler reigns for decades without any serious challenge.

In the past several years, I have argued that this is not exactly the case, and that votes still matter in Turkey. Some have found this incredulous, noting that voting is just a façade in dictatorships, a club which Turkey seemed to have eagerly joined as the world’s top jailer of journalists.

Perhaps those who hold this opinion still think in terms of the past century’s clear-cut political dichotomies, with liberal democracies on the one side and plain dictatorships on the other. Yet what is happening now is more complex, with countries falling on a spectrum — ranging from Norway to North Korea. Since 2013, Turkey has certainly moved quickly toward the darker end of that spectrum, with diminishing freedom of speech and rule of law. But as Sunday showed, its longtime tradition of competitive elections has not died.

The Scope of Potential Changes

The creation of a new political party by some of Erdogan’s old comrades who think that the AKP devolved into something unrecognizable would further change Turkey’s political scene. Political rumors are plenty, but an important one is that former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan (under whose watch the economy did wonders) are working to launch a new opposition party. This would go a long way toward dispelling the idea that the battle between Erdogan and his opponents is a battle between Islamic piety and rigid secularism. It is a false image that helps Erdogan and that his propaganda machine is trying to keep intact.

In fact, the “Islam-versus-secularism” dichotomy has already broken up a bit, and that is the underlying reason for Sunday’s election results.  The winners of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, are not the typical hardcore Kemalists who despise the women in headscarves and anything that is visibly religious, always alienating the average Turk. Quite the contrary. Yavas is a politician from the nationalist right, and Imamoglu (whose surname literally means, “Son of Imam”) is an unusual figure in his camp who can recite the Quran. During his campaign, Imamoglu recited the Quran in a mosque, to honor the victims of the massacre in Christchurch. Such actions have capitalized on the “religion card” that Erdogan has exploited for too long.

Now, Imamoglu is set to take over the city that Erdogan won some 25 years ago. If he does, he will certainly face an uphill battle, with a declining economy and unfriendly central government. But many still feel that he is the next big star in Turkish politics. In other words, Sunday’s election results give reason to believe that Turkey’s political scene — authoritarian and corrupt as it might be — is not hopeless.

For its part, the West, including the United States, should resist those hawks who argue that Turkey is an anti-Western, Islamist, irredeemable dictatorship that should be purged from all Western institutions. Turkey’s future is still uncertain, it still has a chance for recovery, and trying to preserve its ties with the West would be much wiser than pushing it to the orbit of Russia, China, and other autocracies of the East.

Mustafa Akyol is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, where he focusing on the intersection of public policy, Islam, and modernity. Akyol is a renowned Turkish journalist, author and a regular contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. He is also the author of Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.