The Quick Read...About Turkish Local Elections

Ian Bremmer
In Turkish local elections on March 31, President Erdogan looks likely to suffer a defeat due to a recession and his own missteps.

The Quick Read About… Turkish Local Elections

What Happened This Week:

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan braces for municipal elections on Sunday, March 31. It’s the first time Turks head to the polls since Erdogan’s AK Party won parliamentary elections last June, securing him the executive presidency he established to remain in power (going on 17 years now). These are the first elections to be held since Turkey fell into recession for the first time in nearly a decade. Things do not look promising for Erdogan or his supporters.

Why It Matters:

Turkish elections always matter given the country’s geostrategic location between Europe and the Middle East. But this is the first time that Turkish local elections matter this much. Part of that has to do with the fact that Erdogan continues to frame these local elections as a referendum about his leadership. He keeps saying on the campaign trail, these elections are about “the survival of the Turkish state.” And given the raft of populist measures he’s introduced in the run-up to the vote—upping the minimum wage, offering loans at below-market rates through state banks, selling rationed amounts of fruits and vegetables, among others—he seems to genuinely believe that, even though the Turkish economy is sputtering and can’t really afford these types of government handouts. But Erdogan is desperate, as well he should be, because for years, Erdogan’s rule has coincided with the growth of the Turkish economy, which he eagerly took credit for. But now that same Turkish economy has begun to falter; in part because of the global economic slowdown, and in part because of continued interventions by Erdogan into the economy that have scared off foreign investors.

Late last week, Turkey’s currency took a nosedive, dropping 6.5% against the US dollar in a single day, and continued stumbling this week as the government has tried to staunch the bleeding—all told, the Turkish lira has lost 36 percent of its value against the dollar over the last year. Erdogan blamed foreign speculators for causing a run on the currency, and ordered an investigation into JPMorgan Chase, which had written negatively about the future prospects of the Turkish lira. It’s unlikely that the investigation will amount to much; it was seemingly intended as a signal to foreign investors not to publicly disparage Turkey or its economy. Unfortunately for Erdogan, it signaled to investors that investing in Turkey is increasingly becoming a political decision rather than just a financial one.

Turkey was once held up as the poster child for successfully transitioning an emerging economy into a developed market, which provided Erdogan with plenty of political capital in the first decade of his rule. As that shield has started to crumble alongside the Turkish economy, Erdogan has begun taking much more provocative geopolitical decisions to play to his nationalist base, like ordering S-400 missile systems from Russia in open defiance of the US and NATO (to which Turkey ostensibly belongs). He’s also leaned into identity politics much more overtly; just last week he aired footage of the Christchurch shooting at a campaign rally to capitalize on the sense of Muslim persecution. A poor showing in this weekend’s municipal elections may make him even more erratic.

What Happens Next:

Erdogan doesn’t face a direct threat to his hold on power in these elections, but it’s looking like his AK Party is set to suffer its worst electoral defeat in more than a decade. It remains unlikely for now that the party loses the mayoralty in Istanbul, it may very well do so in a host of other cities including the capital of Ankara. But no matter the result of the elections for the AK Party, it’s unlikely that Erdogan will take the necessary—and politically unpopular—austerity steps needed to bring the country back to real financial health. If the AK Party does better than expected, Erdogan will take it as proof that his populist interventions into the economy paid-off; if the AK Party loses big, he will be even less likely to take the politically-costly steps of cutting back on government spending. What’s more, Erdogan may renew his criticism of the Central Bank and start opining again on monetary policy to deflect blame from his recent political loss, making foreign investors even more skittish about investing in Turkey. And an economic situation that continues to deteriorate makes him more likely to take risks abroad if he thinks it will buy him more political capital back home.

The Key Statistics That Explains It:

13.5 percent—earlier this month, the country announced it was officially in recession following two quarters of contracting economic growth, the first time that has happened in a decade. Even worse, the number of Turks that are currently unemployed is at 13.5 percent, the highest it’s been since 2010. That helps explain why the ruling AK Party is bracing for some ugly results.

The One Thing to Read About It:

Erdogan was a very different type of politician when he first came to power nearly two decades ago. This piece in the New York Times gives you a good overview of how he got to this point.

The One Major Misconception About It:

That Erdogan is starting to lose it. The man is still capable of being pragmatic, even if he does the pragmatic thing a bit late. He’s capable of reversing course, as he did with the release of the American pastor Andrew Bunson, or issuing an apology to Russian President Vladimir Putin after a Russian jet was shot down in Syria in 2015. When it comes to the economy, it’s still possible for him to call in the IMF even though he has repeatedly vowed not to do so. The real question is how much damage will be done in the interim.

The One Thing to Avoid Saying About It:

Strongman? Check. Friendly with Russia? Check. If Erdogan had played his cards right, he could have gotten Trump to campaign for him like Bibi managed to do.