It had almost an immediate cost in cash. Worse, the Europeans expressed worry, the Turkish opposition screamed electoral theft, and the Americans – well, the Americans have yet to take a firm position, but don’t be surprised when Washington suddenly discovers its democratic scruples when it serves U.S. interest.
The decision by Turkey’s electoral board, the YSK, to re-run the March 31 vote for Istanbul’s mayoralty caught some by surprise, especially those who wonder why Erdogan, who’s AKP (Justice and Development) Party already dominates the Turkish state would risk Turkey’s reputation (and accordingly, its weakening currency) by trying to get the vote redone.
They knew, as Erdogan must have known, that re-running the vote for Istanbul, which the AKP narrowly lost, would be widely seen as a slide away from democracy, a slide away from transparency, and therefore a good reason for investors dump their stakes in Turkey and find greener, cleaner pastures elsewhere.
And Turkey can ill-afford that: the lira has slid well past its previous crisis point of 6 lira to the dollar and looking like it’ll stay there. That’s crunching an economy already feeling the squeeze of the natural end of its previous economic miracle. The economy should be Erdogan’s political weak spot, and the AKP has had a bit of interesting internal debates over who and what is to blame for all this.
Yet despite that, Erdogan doesn’t seem like he much cares. At least, not when it matters.
Important to understand is that to lose the Istanbul seat is a symbolic rather than a substantial blow. Mayors are hardly powerhouses in Turkey, even as Istanbul is a major city. Erdogan could have let the seat go and still recovered for the scheduled 2023 national elections – elections that he already has a leg up on anyway, thanks to a self-serving constitutional reform that went into effect in 2018.
Erdogan or we burn the currency
At it’s core, the Istanbul mayoralty is a contest for the future of Turkey. The opposition is an ideological conglomeration of nationalists who despise Erdogan, secularists who despise the AKP, Kurds who despise Turkey, and a sprinkling of Islamists who despise everyone waning in faith. They have historically been very weak. They agree on little and pre-Erdogan relied on the army to every there and again intervene in politics to sort out their sometimes crippling messiness.
But in 2018, that started to change. An alliance of the Republican People’s Party (the CHP, who are mostly secularists), the Iyi (mostly anti-Erdogan nationalists), and a few Islamists got damned close to toppling Erdogan in June’s general election – far closer than they ever have.
The municipal elections were the next test. Though from a standpoint of actually governing the mayors don’t really matter, the contests were proof that the opposition was organizing, gaining discipline, and able to finally take on the AKP head on. And big cities like Istanbul would give them a media and political platform to better prepare for 2023.
That Erdogan got his career started in Istanbul is also no small thing. For the Turkish strongman, the post is a matter of personal prestige, and losing it to the opposition is a serious dent in his public image.
But even all that goes too tactical: the real, strategic reason is that the AKP, and Erdogan himself, will not compromise their vision of Turkey. For them, it is a great power reborn, hoisted upon Ottoman ruins, aiming for regional dominance. That in-born belief that Turkey is destined for greatness – so long as it sticks with Erdogan – is what drivers him and many of his supporters to take short term hits for what they genuinely believe are long term gains. Having now grabbed control of much of the state, they don’t need to be so tactical as they used to. They can weather an economic meltdown, mass opposition protests, even U.S. or European sanctions, if the payoff is a state more firmly under his control and less constricted by outsiders.
This is why Erdogan’s risking U.S. relations over the Russian S-400 deal: because if he can get this defense system and survive, it proves Turkey is independent of its erstwhile NATO ally. States like Greece, Syria, Iraq, and Iran will all take note and adjust their realities to a more influential Turkey, Erdogan believes. If the economy is hammered by U.S. sanctions, if the F-35 deal with the Americans falls apart, if Turkey even looks like it might lose NATO, all of that would be worth it to Erdogan. (Though actually losing NATO membership would not).
In Syria, during the uprising, Bashar al-Assad’s loyalists supporters had a warcry: “Assad or we burn the country.” They believed there was no future for Syria without Assad. Erdogan and many of his supporters believe their own version of the same ideal. A lira run, sanctions, political instability and mass protests, even violence, are all short term pain worth the trade off of a greater, more influential Turkey somewhere in the misty future.
There are surely things that would force Erdogan to change course: a genuine threat to be ejected from NATO, substantial European (not U.S.) sanctions (as Turkey’s biggest trade partner is Europe), the prospect that his ultra-nationalists allies, the MHP, might force an early election and gut his presidency, and, as 2023 looms, the potential that his poll numbers sag so far that even the AKP-dominated electoral system couldn’t game the election. But we are not near those places yet. And until we are, we should expect more currency slides, more “why would he do this” moments from markets, and more.