The Beginning of the End for Erdoğan

06/08/2015 11:44 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

ISTANBUL -- With yesterday's historic elections, 13 years of AKP rule in Turkey came to a crashing halt. Having lost its majority in parliament, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's party will no longer be able to form a single-party government. In practical terms, this means the end of Erdoğan's dreams of changing the Constitution to create a presidential system. From now on, Erdoğan is no longer the only one in charge in Turkey.

The country's three opposition parties -- the CHP (social democrat), the MHP (Turkish nationalist) and the HDP (a progressive party rooted in Turkey's Kurdish movement) -- collectively make up a parliamentary majority. They may re-open the investigation into corruption charges implicating numerous high-level members of the AKP, including Erdoğan himself. They may call Erdoğan to account for his many other unconstitutional actions as well: intimidating the Turkish press, illegally building his own presidential palace on protected land, spending billions of dollars of treasury money, putting the interests of his business cronies above those of society and impeding the workings of the justice system. Tough times are ahead for Erdoğan, who -- at least in theory -- is supposed to remain in office as president until 2019.

A native son of Kasımpaşa, an impoverished working-class district of Istanbul, Erdoğan first came into the public eye in 1994, when he was elected mayor of Istanbul at the age of 40. As the voice of the poor and oppressed, Erdoğan has won all eight of the elections in which he has run over the past 20 years. Over these two decades, however, both Erdoğan's public persona and the nature of his political office have undergone a dramatic transformation.

An Illegal Palace for Turkey's New Sultan

Erdoğan has come a long way from the shantytown neighborhood of his youth. Today, he resides in a 1,150-room palace built at a price tag of over 600 million dollars. Constructed illegally on protected land, this lavish building, the Ak Saray, or "White Palace" (its name is a reference to the ruling party's initials), is the most tangible symbol of the 21st century sultanate Erdoğan has fashioned for himself. How this system operates is by now quite well-known.

Companies and foundations established by Erdoğan's children and relatives oversee investments worth millions of dollars. Erdoğan's numerous cronies in the mining, construction, energy and media sectors receive AKP support in the form of state tenders; in return, these same companies (which incidentally have purchased many of Turkey's newspapers and television stations) ensure that ordinary citizens receive non-stop positive coverage of Erdoğan and his party.

Over his 13 years in power, Erdoğan has managed to shut down any and all institutions capable of challenging his authoritarian rule. First, hundreds of journalists, politicians, high-ranking military personnel and state bureaucrats were arrested and jailed for years on trumped-up charges of plotting a coup. Little by little, opposing or criticizing Erdoğan became equated with being a coup-plotter, a traitor, an agent of the West and/or of Israel. The public's simmering discontent at this slide towards authoritarianism eventually boiled over in the summer of 2013 following protests about a plan to build a shopping mall on the site of Gezi Park in downtown Istanbul. The police's heavy-handed response soon caused the protests to escalate into nation-wide anti-government demonstrations in which eight protesters were killed and hundreds wounded.

In December of the same year, serious allegations of corruption surfaced against Erdoğan, his family members, his ministers and businessmen with close ties to him. However, as with the Gezi protests, Erdoğan dismissed the ensuing legal investigation as a "coup attempt," this time blaming it on Fethullah Gülen, the leader of the Gülen religious movement and an erstwhile ally of Erdoğan's. The investigation was severely hampered by the arrests of many of the prosecutors involved, and the charges were eventually dropped.

Erdoğan's Autogolpe

Contrary to popular belief, a coup d'état need not be carried out by the military. Democratically-elected presidents have also been known to carry out autogolpes (self-coups) by chipping away at their countries' legal and political institutions. This was the case with Getúlio Dornelles Vargas in Brazil during the 1940s and 1950s, Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina during the same era and Alberto Fujimori in 1990s Peru. After Erdoğan was elected president in August of 2014, it became clear that the country was in the throes of a Latin American-style autogolpe by its former prime minister, who announced that Turkey was taking a moratorium on the parliamentary system.

As president -- traditionally a ceremonial, mostly symbolic office in Turkey -- Erdoğan is constitutionally obligated to remain unaffiliated with any political party. This has not prevented him from promoting the AKP at large electoral rallies paid for with state funding (an additional violation of the constitution). At these rallies, openly flouting the secularist principles of the Republic of Turkey, Erdoğan has not hesitated to use religion to drum up support. Waiving a copy of the Quran, he has accused his political opponents of being unbelievers, while also seeking to please Turkey's Sunni-majority electorate at the expense of its large Alevi community.

Erdoğan: No Longer Invincible

Yesterday's elections shattered the myth of Erdoğan's invincibility, which has long been a potent source of his charisma as a leader. The AKP, which netted almost 50 percent of the vote in the 2011 elections, received barely 40 percent in yesterday's race. When Erdoğan began his rise to power in 1994, the electorate perceived him as a leader whose piety made him immune to corruption; he was "one of them," a man of the people who had grown up in a poor, religiously devout community. Now, however, Erdoğan is seen as presiding over a venal political system which exploits religion in order to remain in power.

Erdoğan has surely realized that the tide of his political power is turning: this may account for his increasingly erratic and unpredictable behavior of late. Throwing diplomacy to the wind, Erdoğan has made disconcerting public statements such as the Westerners "look like our friend but they want us dead." He has threatened opposition journalists, saying that they will "pay a heavy price" for their activities, referred to the New York Times as the instrument of "Jewish capital" and accused the BBC and the Guardian of "not knowing their place." One can only guess what further reckless behavior Erdoğan might have displayed had Turkish voters not decided to clip his wings once and for all.

Many of the great movers and shakers of Ottoman and Turkish history -- from Mehmed the Conqueror to Atatürk -- have become the subject of films and television programs in recent years. One day in the not-too-distant future, audiences worldwide may have the chance to see a film narrating the life-story of a modern-day Turkish politician who rose from humble beginnings to become the leader of his country, consolidate his power and eventually build his own palace in the capital. To judge from yesterday's elections and Erdoğan's now-inevitable fall from grace, this film is bound to end on a tragic note.

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