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Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory

ISTANBUL – Turkey’s beleaguered Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have emerged victorious from this week’s local elections. Still, the AKP’s triumph is unlikely to ameliorate the country’s internal conflicts, much less revive its tarnished international standing.

The local elections were widely seen as a referendum on Erdoğan. The AKP received 44% of the national vote and now controls 49 of Turkey’s 81 metropolitan municipalities, including Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. The main opposition force, the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), received 26% and won only 13 municipalities.

The outcome can be seen as a vindication of Erdoğan’s strategy of using political polarization to consolidate his support and counter the challenge to his rule posed by followers of his former ally, the US-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen. With the AKP’s initial support, the Gülen movement gradually infiltrated state institutions, particularly the judiciary and law enforcement, until the alliance eventually ended in an acrimonious split over the distribution of power within Turkey.

The end result was a dirty war of graft allegations spread through social media, apparently by Gülen’s followers primarily. In response, the government has branded its opponents as enemies, and sought to promulgate new laws undermining the independence of the judiciary and restricting freedom of expression – including shutdowns of Twitter and YouTube.