“A Great Moment for Democracy”: Erdogan’s AK Party Suffers Major Defeat in Local Turkish Elections

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party suffered major setbacks in local elections this weekend after dominating the country’s political system since 2003. The AK Party lost control in both of Turkey’s largest cities, Istanbul and Ankara, and is now disputing the results. Voters expressed frustration with Erdogan’s autocratic rule and are also facing soaring inflation and rising unemployment. Now the results are being disputed, and recounts are underway. “Whoever is criticizing Erdogan right now is held accountable for either terrorism charges or libel against the president,” says The New School professor Koray Caliskan, faculty fellow at the Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies at The New School who has been indicted 25 times in Turkey. “This is how he’s silencing dissent.”

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NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party suffered major setbacks in local elections this weekend, after dominating the country’s political system since 2003. The AK Party lost control in both of Turkey’s largest cities, Istanbul and Ankara, and is now disputing the results. Voters expressed frustration with Erdogan’s autocratic rule and are also facing soaring inflation and rising unemployment. This is Erdogan speaking after the election.

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: [translated] Every victory and every loss is the will of our nation. And we have to accept this fact as a necessity of democracy. We will admit that we won people’s hearts in cities we won, but we were not successful enough in cities we lost, and we will act accordingly.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Erdogan’s AK Party has filed appeals to contest the results from all of Istanbul’s 39 districts, saying there were irregularities that need to be corrected, and demanding a vote recount. There have also been allegations of voter suppression in Kurdish-majority regions in the east of the country.

AMY GOODMAN: A party chairman called the election “one of the most stained in our democratic history,” he said. But other government officials have insisted the election was fair. A state-run news agency has said recounts are underway in 18 districts in Istanbul and 11 districts in Ankara.

For more, we’re joined by Koray Çaliskan. He is faculty fellow at Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies at The New School here in New York. He’s previously joined us from Istanbul, where he was an associate professor of political science at Bogaziçi University in Istanbul.

Welcome to Democracy Now! and to New York City.

KORAY ÇALISKAN: Thank you very much, Amy. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the significance of what has taken place in Turkey. Is this a real earthquake, political earthquake, for Erdogan?

KORAY ÇALISKAN: It’s a small earthquake in Richter scale, but it’s the beginning of the fall of Erdogan’s authoritarianism. It has a great potential, for two reasons. Firstly, 75% of Turkish GDP is produced by five cities that Erdogan lost—the top three plus Adana and—

SIRI: I found something on Adana: 5% of—

KORAY ÇALISKAN: Adana and Antalya. And that was Siri interrupting us. It’s unbelievable. Did you see what happened? Confirmed me that these are the top five cities in Turkey. This is unbelievable. Sorry about that. I thought that I turned it off. Digitalization is dangerous, as you see.

So, I think it’s a great moment for democracy now—not the program, but the world—because people have been seeing now that authoritarian leaders, who swing their competitive authoritarian regimes to full authoritarianism, who work on that, can actually lose when three things happen, which are the reasons of his loss. The first is, if the democratic forces do not buy into the polarization of the authoritarian leader, they win. If they have spent addressing Erdogan on the ground, they would be losing right now. Instead, they focused on their own agenda. They forgot Erdogan and just said, “This is what we are going to do. This is why we have to come to power.” Polarization off. Second, they didn’t take social media very seriously. Social media works to polarize. You’re a social democrat? Social media wants you to be a Stalinist. You’re right-wing? Social media wants you to be a fascist. All right? So they stayed away from social media polarization. They build coalitions with other sectors of the society, including right-wing democrats. Plus, the economic recession, that was the product of Erdogan’s mismanagement of the economy, helped them, too.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to go to the economic conditions in Turkey, which are really striking. In August 2018, the value of the lira, the Turkish lira, plummeted, losing 28% of its value against the dollar. Inflation is at 20%. The federal minimum wage has fallen by about 10%, etc. So, first, can you talk about what led to these conditions, because he was in power for 16 years, but the economy began collapsing only recently, and how his—obviously, he’s known, you refer to him also, as authoritarian—what were the principal features of his rule, 16 years?

KORAY ÇALISKAN: Fantastic. The first question, what really triggered this economic recession, it’s very difficult for people to invest in Turkey right now, because they don’t know what’s going to happen. The rule of law collapsed. I was indicted for trying to change the government of Turkey.

AMY GOODMAN: When were you indicted?

KORAY ÇALISKAN: I have been indicted 25 times. I got two jail times, total of three years, and then I have another court case. But I’m not alone. This is—whoever you are, whoever is criticizing Erdogan right now is held accountable for either terrorism charges or libel against the president charges. I have three years now, and probably I’m going to get two more. But they’re all deferred. This is how he’s silencing dissent.

This is what happens. When rule of law collapses, when judges begin to ask people, “Do you really want to change the government?” and when they say, “Yeah, this is democracy. My job, as an opposition, is to change government, right? I mean, when did this crime?”—they became so relaxed that they began to indict people for trying to change the government. Like Osman Kavala, who was right now indicted to change the government by terroristic means in organizing Gezi movement, which was ridiculous, because it’s a social movement of 71 cities in 73 cities of the Turkey, which is like more than 95% of the cities. Even Erdogan doesn’t have such a coordination power, right?

So, the economic crisis happened when people begin to pull back from investments as a result of collapse of rule of law. What would be the consequence of it? Imagine, when I was on your show, many times, from Istanbul, my salary was around $2,000 as a university associate professor in the public sector. Now it is around $1,000. So this means recession for, you know, middle-class people like us. Think about the working class, all right? Who are not even dreaming of making—

AMY GOODMAN: This is $1,000 a?

KORAY ÇALISKAN: A month. A month, not week. Yes, you might have thought about it, but this is what happens. And people begin to buy potatoes one by one instead of kilogram, which is two times more than pound, as you know. So, one potato, one onion. So, what did Erdogan do? He said, “Look, people are trying to play with our economy, all right, and this is terrorism, related to the United States of America and other foreign forces.” It’s always the foreign forces. And he put the blame on the eggplant terrorism, which kind of made it a little bit very difficult to understand the general people. When he says that, you know, “People who criticize me are terrorists,” people may—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What does that mean, “eggplant terrorism”?

KORAY ÇALISKAN: That eggplant is so expensive now—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ah, I see.

KORAY ÇALISKAN: —that they are trying to address Turkish polity with eggplants and increasing its price. But his son-in-law is running the economy, right?

AMY GOODMAN: Explain, though—he recently extended his term, so what does it mean in these regional elections to have him lose in his kind of hometown of Istanbul and Ankara? The significance of this? And will this mean that his term could decrease?

KORAY ÇALISKAN: It may happen, and it may not happen. He still won more people’s votes. All right? But in this election, the grassroots activity made it possible for people to look at ballot boxes. Because elections are determined not by voters, but vote counters. You don’t have a problem during vote count, you may believe in democracy.

So, the other, second, very significant consequence of this election, Amy, is the following. It was an unlevel playing field. All right? Imagine the Super Bowl, and one team doesn’t have helmets and paddings. And then they’re trying to stop the other team. The team without the helmets and the paddings were social democrats. And they stopped AK Party’s Islamist team, with huge helmets, and referees were helping them, and they had paddings.

So, this is a great message to the world. Stay away from polarization of the autocratic leader. Believe in democracy. Believe in grassroots activity, not Twitter. All right? Work together, carry your message, and then keep an eye on the ballot box. Things may change in the next general election. This is the local election. But this is how authoritarian parties feed their electorate. All right? They use local city sources to send cash support to their electorate. And losing Istanbul and Ankara is a big blow.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Erdogan said it himself, that whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey.

KORAY ÇALISKAN: Exactly.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And he was, of course, previously the mayor of Istanbul himself.

KORAY ÇALISKAN: Exactly.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Now, could you talk about what has been happening in terms of the economic crisis in Turkey, also the relationship with the U.S., Turkey’s relationship with the U.S., which has now taken a turn for the worse after Turkey has bought or is negotiating an arms deal with Russia?

KORAY ÇALISKAN: Yes, S-40s [S-400], right? The arms deal is done, and the missiles seem to be coming to Turkey. And they didn’t back down from it, which is a big blow to its NATO alliances. You don’t want to buy guns from a dictator. All right? You want to strengthen your army, being loyal to your coalitions. All right? But it becomes very difficult for Turkey to be loyal to its coalitions, because President Trump created a context where world leaders and citizens around the world do not understand what the United States is trying to do. So, people do not trust in the United States and its leadership right now. On top of this, we had a bloody coup attempt, organized in part by Fethullah Gülen, who lives in America right now. And a lot of people in Turkey know that he was behind it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: If you could just explain who he is?

KORAY ÇALISKAN: He is a cleric. He’s an imam, who used to, you know, help people pray. And then he built an empire, thanks to Erdogan’s political power. And Erdogan’s political power got authority, thanks to the empire that Gülen made. This is like—think about this as an inter-problem between Trotskyites and Stalinists in previous left.

AMY GOODMAN: But they were once close, Erdogan and Fethullah Gülen?

KORAY ÇALISKAN: Yes. So, they were very close. They were working together. And Gülen left Turkey for America and has been living here in a self-imposed exile.

AMY GOODMAN: In the Poconos.

KORAY ÇALISKAN: In the Poconos, yes, and in a huge campus. And what really happened was that his followers in the army organized a factionalist coup and failed, in Turkey, because everyone was against them—democrats, liberals, seculars, Islamists—and then they remained alone. So, Erdogan wants him to be sent to Turkey, for reasons that are legitimate. And the United States government says no. So this also creates a problem. Everyone in Turkey wants him back—Islamist or secular, anti-Erdogan and Erdogan—because Erdogan is a part of the legitimate political world in Turkey. Secular people are not afraid of Erdogan, but they would be afraid of Gülen, who has never been a part of the political society, stayed away, tried to affect it with other sources, like the military bureaucracy and the state ban.

AMY GOODMAN: But when we last interviewed you, I mean, tens of thousands of Turkish people had been arrested by Erdogan—

KORAY ÇALISKAN: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —dissidents, teachers, professors, all sorts of people.

KORAY ÇALISKAN: Yes, of course. Of course.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, this issue of global geopolitics, with Pence just this week—Vice President Pence—warning Turkey against going ahead with its planned purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile system, hours after the Turkish foreign minister said the acquisition was a done deal, Pence saying this would be a threat to NATO—just as we wrap up, where Turkey stands now? You’re saying it’s—like many countries, they don’t know how to deal with an extremely unpredictable U.S. president. But where it stands now in alliances in the world?

KORAY ÇALISKAN: Amy, United States leadership is doing worst in trying to convince governments to work with itself. If Pence says, everyone, that Turkey has to learn a lesson, or we’re going to teach them a lesson, no one is going to take for it. And diplomacy is different than policies. S-40s [S-400] is not even a part of American politics radar right now. Why do you use this in order to alienate Erdogan? Just tell him what you could be done, and then move on. Instead, American leadership recognized Jerusalem as the capital and tries to, you know, say that, “OK, Syrians’ Golan Heights now can be Israeli property.” And then everyone is looking at it. This is coffee house talk. This is not diplomacy and politics. So, Pence made it very difficult for Erdogan to step back.

But Erdogan is known to change his positions very rapidly, if he thinks that—he’s a radical pragmatist, I mean, more than being an Islamist, and usually Islamists are very radical pragmatists anyway. And he can change his position, because, last time, when he tried to blackmail American government with a pastor, sending a pastor to jail and then home arrest, he lost it, and he had to send it back, because American sanctions led to a deepening of the recession and crumbling of the dollar, U.S., lira against dollar.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there, but of course we’ll continue to follow Turkish politics. Koray Çaliskan, faculty fellow now at the Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies at The New School here in New York, recently came from Istanbul, Turkey.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, massive Algerian protests topple the president. Stay with us.

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