Turkey: Hometown Blues for Erdogan

Turkey: Hometown Blues for Erdogan

When Istanbul elected a young, Islamist mayor in 1994, it sent a shockwave through Turkey's secular political establishment and marked the beginning of a sea change in the country's politics. Recep Tayyip Erdogan would use the mayoralty of Turkey's largest city as a springboard to national power, which he has now dominated for 16 years.

But on Sunday, his hometown turned its back on him.


In nationwide municipal elections, the coalition led by Erdogan's ruling AK Party (AKP) lost control of a number of key cities, including the nation's capital, Ankara, as well as several coastal centers.

But the biggest loss was Istanbul, which has been under the control of parties aligned with Erdogan since he was mayor. This is a significant setback for a leader, and a party, who have won every major election in Turkey since 2002.

The election was above all a referendum on Erdogan's increasing authoritarianism and his handling of the economy.

Over the past several years, Erdogan has vastly expanded his power. After a failed coup against his government in 2016, he purged more than 100,000 state employees and threw a number of journalists in jail. In 2017, he narrowly won a controversial referendum that permitted him to increase the power of the presidency, a position he then won in an election last summer.

In recent weeks, Erdogan campaigned furiously for his party, suggesting to Turkish voters that voting for the AKP was a matter of national survival and sovereignty.

But those voters went to the polls amid an economic recession spurred in part by Erdogan's disastrous economic policies: his approach of spouting conspiracy theories and pumping cash into the economy without worrying about inflation spooked foreign investors last year, leading to a currency crisis that affected the broader economy. What's more, urban voters have become increasingly frustrated with poor management and corruption at the local level in cities controlled by the AKP and its affiliates.

Yesterday wasn't all bad news for Erdogan: the AKP still won far more votes than any other party nationally, and it remains strong in the country's rural heartlands. For tens of millions of conservative Turks, Erdogan is still the man who made their voices heard in Turkish politics for the first time. And they still remember fondly the economic boom years over which he presided.

But losing the big cities means losing control over the country's major population centers and economic hubs, and with them a huge source of cash and patronage that can be doled out to supporters and cronies in the future.

Will Erdogan seek to win those cities back, or will he double down on an even more divisive politics now?

Elsewhere in the world of "throw the bums out": Turkey wasn't the only place where voters flipped on those in power this weekend. Across the Black Sea in Ukraine, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who plays a president on TV, rang up nearly twice the vote share of the actual president, Petro Poroshenko, in the first round of that country's presidential balloting. Zelenskiy and Poroshenko – a chocolate industry tycoon who won the presidency after Ukraine's 2014 uprising – now head to a Comedian vs Candyman runoff on 21 April.

And next door in Slovakia, pro-EU anti-corruption crusader Zuzana Caputova won the presidency, amid a campaign shaped in part by the murder last year of an investigative journalist who'd unearthed ties between government officials and organized crime. Although Slovakia's presidency is a largely ceremonial office, the triumph of Caputova, a political newcomer and the country's first female president, flies in the face of recent gains for macho right-wing Euroskeptic parties elsewhere in Central Europe.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody, Ian Bremmer here, kicking off your beautiful spring week from New York City. A little Quick Take. I thought I'd talk today about Russia, going to be in the news this week. Putin doesn't like it when they're out of the news for too long, certainly plenty going on between the US and Russia right now.

I'd say, first of all, to start off, the relationship is in the toilet. We know this. It is the worst it's been since the early '80s. That was true even under Trump. Trump and Putin personally had a pretty good relationship, but Trump wasn't able to get anything really done for the Russians, because both the Republicans in Congress, key members of cabinet under Trump, massive amount of constraints on what Trump could actually do, whether it's trying to bring Russia back into the G7 or recognize Crimea as a part of Russia, or remove or reduce sanctions. None of that actually got done. In fact, the relationship deteriorated over the four years.

But now we've got Biden and the focus is of course, more on human rights. The focus is more on climate change, which means that Russia as a massive energy exporter and particularly in terms of their influence on Eastern Europe and Western Europe on the downstream for gas delivery, for example, something that Biden is much more focused on. So a lot more pressure on the Russians, and the Russians don't care. Their willingness to hit back and show that the Americans are not willing to take any significant risks to constrain the Russians is also fairly significant. And this is playing out in a number of ways.

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Pakistani radicals vs French cartoons: It's been a tumultuous week in Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city. After widespread protests broke out across the Muslim world late last year after Paris defended French publications' rights to publish satirical images of the Prophet Mohammad, the radical Pakistani Islamist group Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), gave Pakistan's government until April 20 to expel the French ambassador, when it had planned nationwide demonstrations. When Prime Minister Imran Khan refused to meet their demands, more violence erupted across the country and authorities arrested the TLP leader — prompting TLP supporters to hit back by kidnapping six state security personnel in Lahore this past weekend. Authorities have now banned the TLP outright and are bracing for more violence in the coming days. France, meanwhile, has urged all of its citizens to leave Pakistan.

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