Elections to test Erdogan's appeal

ISTANBUL — He's seen as a poor kid made good, and his recent blow-up onstage at the Davos economic forum displayed the kind of macho toughness many Turks respect in a leader. But experts say Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's charismatic prime minister, and his ruling AK party can count entirely on another factor to win this weekend's local elections: a lack of competition.

And political personalities aside, as Turks across the country head to the polls on Saturday for local elections, one issue will likely be foremost in their minds: the economy. (In a twist, however, Turkish political leaders have suspended all last-minute campaigning out of respect for Muhsin Yazicioglu, leader of the Great Unity Party. Yazicioglu was one of six people on a helicopter that crashed this week — the search for the passengers continues.)

With unemployment at a record high — 13.6 percent for the general population and almost 26 percent for young adults — traditional party ideologies and local politics will take a back seat to worries over whose policies will best help families ride out the current financial crisis.

The leaders of Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish) are hoping to strengthen its lock on power with a strong showing in towns and cities. But the economy has emerged as a threat to the party's political fortunes.

“The economic crisis will play a very important role in the elections,” said Barcin Yinanc, news editor at Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. “I think the AKP will lose votes because of the implications of the economic crisis on Turkey.”

The AKP came to power in 2002, just a year after a severe economic downturn, and helped to foster an economic transformation of grand proportions, bringing Turkey through a period of instability and runaway inflation and steering its emergence as one of the world’s hottest economies.

But worrying indicators have appeared in recent months. Inflation is again inching up, now standing at 9 percent, and many fear that Turkey could roll back towards the political and economic instability that plagued the country in the period leading up to the 2001 economic crisis.

Thus far, however, the Turkish economy has proved more resilient than expected.

At present, government debt is half of what it was in 2001, and the economy as a whole is more diversified. Still, the crisis is far from over and no one knows what institutions will still be standing when the skies finally clear.

Others believe that the AKP’s reputation for good governance and its wide popularity mean it has little reason to worry.

“If I were an AKP strategist, I would be very pleased with the prospects,” said Howard Eissenstat, a postdoctoral fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. “Frankly, a loss would be a surprise.”

Recent events have helped bolster the AKP’s popularity and act as a counterweight to the faltering economy. Crucially, Erdogan’s bold reaction to the Israeli incursion into Gaza gained the AKP broad support from across the country, which is 99 percent Muslim.

Erdogan’s infamous outburst at the Davos Economic Forum, in which he stormed off the stage during a heated debate over Gaza with Israeli President Shimon Peres, was also widely praised as a much-needed show of Turkish leadership at an international forum.

The popularity of Erdogan’s actions stem not only from Turkish concern for the plight of the Palestinians, Eissenstat explained, but also because they show Erdogan as tough.

“A kid from a poor neighborhood who worked his way up and ran big cities successfully. There is a machismo to him that many Turks respect in a leader,” Eissenstat said.

But perhaps the AKP’s greatest strength lies in the weakness of its opposition, who have thus far shown themselves to be largely bereft of creativity or charisma, and ultimately incapable of garnering a significant enough chunk of popular support to be a real challenge to the AKP.

“During an economic downturn, the ruling party would normally be punished. But without a serious challenge from the opposition parties, the AKP looks set to do very well,” Eissenstat said.

Kasif Gundogdu, a shop owner based in Istanbul, said: “Although I don’t support their Islamic tendencies I want to have hope for the AKP because there is no other alternative.”

With no other strong contenders for the throne, the real question is not whether the AKP will do well in the upcoming elections — they will — but exactly how well they will do. During the previous round of local elections they won a hefty 47 percent of the vote.

“A gain in votes will enable the AKP to claim that they 'renewed the popular mandate,' and refreshed their legitimacy,” said Saban Kardas, an associate instructor at the University of Utah's political science department.

The AKP has tempered its expectations in this realm over the past few months. Erdogan initially put the target for Saturday’s election at above 47 percent, but then shifted his expectations down to 42 percent, which he said would the criteria of success for his party.

Eissenstat said that while there were advantages to one party holding such a position of dominance in Turkey at present, dangers also existed.

“A win might well strengthen the AKP's ability to move forward with European accession reforms and a broader program of liberalization. But it will also expand some of the very evident problems with the overwhelming dominance of the AKP,” Eissenstat said.

“Its war on critical media outlets would continue unabated. Its ability to distribute patronage would continue unchecked," he said. "There is a lot to respect about the AKP. But no democracy can survive without a vibrant and functioning opposition.”

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