DURHAM – In the run-up to Turkey’s municipal elections on March 30, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that the popular vote would serve as a referendum on his scandal-plagued leadership. With the help of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which centered its campaigning on him, Erdoğan was able to redefine the elections. His opponents blindly played along, hoping that the polls would force him out. But, of course, diminishing Erdoğan’s power could never be so simple.
The main source of opposition to Erdoğan’s leadership is his increasingly dictatorial style. He seems to have interpreted a 50% vote in 2011 as a mandate to refashion the country according to his own values. His authoritarian streak, already evident in his leadership of the AKP, is now on constant display in both his speeches and his government’s policies.
Last summer, the Erdoğan government’s brutal response to popular protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park made Turkey look like an intolerant one-party state, as did the polarizing speeches that Erdoğan delivered in defense of the crackdown. His incessant demonization of secular Turks fueled fears that an Islamic morality police was in the works.
Jaws dropped as Erdoğan used scandals as a pretext to eliminate the remaining checks to his authority. In response to a corruption investigation involving his family members and close associates, he reassigned hundreds of prosecutors and police officers, assumed control over the judiciary, and established a state agency to block any Internet site at will. When leaks of incriminating audiotapes continued, he banned Twitter and YouTube, putting Turkey in league with China and Iran with regard to freedom of expression.