When he was mayor of Istanbul at the beginning of the century, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan possessed few political assets but had popularity and a flare for blending religious diatribes with serious doses of Machiavellianism.
The party he founded at the time went on to outstrip Turkey’s venerable secularist parties, as well as that of his Islamist mentor Nicmettin Erbakan.
Erdogan’s place on centre stage of national politics in Turkey was crowned in the 2002 elections in which his nascent Justice and Development Party (AKP) garnered 366 out of 550 parliamentary seats.
A decade or so later, as he escalated his drive to bring the country’s legislature, judiciary and municipal government under executive control, Erdogan saw his sun begin to set.
The first ominous sign occurred in the June 2015 elections, in which for the first time in over a decade the AKP lost its parliamentary majority. Erdogan deliberately frustrated all attempts to form a coalition government so as to be able to call further elections, held in November 2015.
These marked the end of an era of electoral integrity and transparency, symbolised by an incident of the tripping of an electric switch that caused a blackout in over half of Anatolia just as the votes were being tallied. The AKP duly won back all the seats it had lost in the previous polls.
The next ominous sign came with the referendum over constitutional amendments in April 2016. These amendments were designed to transform the Turkish system of government from a parliamentary to a presidential one, vesting unprecedented powers in the executive, namely Erdogan.
Contrary to Erdogan’s expectations, that referendum only passed by a percentage point, thanks to the country’s vigilant Supreme Electoral Board which deftly changed the rules in the middle of the tallying process to legitimise some two million unstamped ballots.
The amendments scheduled the next presidential and parliamentary elections for November 2019. But Erdogan was impatient.
The coup attempt in Turkey of mid-July 2016 gave him the opportunity to impose a state of emergency, rule by decree, stifle opposition and secure almost complete control over the press.
With the above-mentioned portents in mind and the immense powers he had in hand, he then called for the snap elections that were held last Sunday, almost a year-and-a-half ahead of schedule.
According to the official results, Erdogan won 52.5 per cent of the vote in the presidential elections. His main rival, Muharrem Ince of the Republic People’s Party (CHP), came in second with 30.5 per cent of the vote.
Ince’s 15 million votes were the result of less than three months of campaigning, compared to the incumbent’s 15 years in power and ability to avail himself of all the resources of the state.
The government media machine and AKP apparatchiks have been unrestrained in their celebrations of the results. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that “all the oppressed and downtrodden on the earth” had prayed for Erdogan’s victory and been rewarded with the results.
On social-networking sites, Erdogan supporters posted selfies showing their ballots beneath his picture in defiance of regulations forbidding photographs inside voting booth.
There were no major “irregularities” in the polls, according to Erdogan who announced his victory long before the counting was complete. Unkind commentators asked whether this was an official acknowledgement of tampering, the only remaining question being its scope.
The fact that Ince drew some 2.5 million people to a rally in Izmir, three million to his rally in Ankara and 1.5 million to his rally in Istanbul, and that none of these received coverage in the state media, speaks of some unfairness.
After the results were announced, that same media praised Ince for his “sporting spirit” in acknowledging Erdogan’s victory.
Reactions in Europe to the Turkish elections were non-effusive. The parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey were “neither free nor fair,” said Sevim Dagdelen, head of the German-Turkish parliamentary group in the German parliament the Bundestag.
“Erdogan has reached his goal of an authoritarian presidential system through manipulation that began long before election day,” she said, adding that a more-empowered Erdogan could drive Turkey to “new levels of extremism.”
Erdogan has once said that “democracy is like a train: when you reach your destination, you get off.”
Former German MP and head of the German Greens Party Cem Ozdemir, who like Dagdelen originally comes from Turkey, criticised Turks in Germany celebrating Erdogan’s victory with shouts of “hail to our leader, Erdogan!”
“They are not just celebrating their dictator. They are voicing their rejection of our liberal democracy [in Germany],” he said.
In contrast, extremists of various stripes, most notably the Muslim Brothers, have found a refuge under the wing of the occupant of the presidential palace in Ankara, and these have hastened to express their joy at Erdogan’s victory.
No sooner did the Anatolian News Agency break the news than Islamist luminaries dispatched congratulatory telegrams to the victor. Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mounir Ibrahim wired from London.
From Doha, which also shelters Taliban extremists, Youssef Al-Qaradawi, head of the International Federation of Muslim Ulema, an Islamist group, congratulated “the Turkish people across the political spectrum for the success of their democratic feast”.
Most extraordinary was the congratulatory message from the comptroller-general of the Sudanese chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood who was breathless in his praise for the “astounding experience and great lesson” from last Sunday’s elections in Turkey.
That “great lesson” was that “the people are the first guarantee of the perpetuity of the era of freedom and stability,” he said.
However, as Erdogan has seen his actual popularity slide, his pledges have become more excessive and increasingly jarring with the deteriorating conditions in a country that has begun to scare away foreign investment.
When his supporters awake from their euphoria, he will have the job of proving to them that he can come through on his pledge to lift the state of emergency in Turkey and return to the rule of law, while at the same time steering the country out of its current economic straits and placing it among the world’s economic powers.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Erdogan wins in Turkey