ISTANBUL — In Turkey, politics means everything. But football is life. So it’s hard not to take seriously the internal elections of one the most important teams in the country, Fenerbahce.
Ali Koc, a Harvard-educated businessman, thrashed Aziz Yildirim, the club’s chairman of 20 years and an ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a landslide.
Many Fenerbahce fans, especially secularists, saw this as a metaphor for Turkey’s elections on June 24. There is a peculiar reality about this upcoming vote. Even before the Fenerbahce defeat, Erdogan seemed more vulnerable than is usually understood outside of Turkey. Nearly everyone in the West thinks it’s a foregone conclusion that Erdogan, who had been running the country for 15 years, will win one way or the other.
But inside Turkey, the view is different. Power is a complex concept in Turkey. Erdogan looks almighty from afar, but here, he seems anxious to hold onto power through new electoral alliances, government handouts, nationalism and the use of Turkey’s security apparatus to stifle dissent. Demonstrations and political protests are banned under a state of emergency, and members of the pro-Kurdish opposition party are in jail. The new election law also allows members of the security forces to be stationed at polling stations or move ballots for “security reasons.”
Still, Turkey is not Russia, I always tell my European and American friends. Elections here are flawed, but real. Yes, Erdogan is still very popular and, yes, he controls the media, the judiciary and state apparatchiks. But unlike Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdogan has to campaign relentlessly, day in, day out, speaking in three cities a day and dispensing endless political favors to businesses, pensioners and religious groups to barely make it over the hurdle of an election.
Despite a stifling political atmosphere that limits free speech, this is still a competitive race. Uneven, but competitive.
The Turkish economy is in trouble — the lira has depreciated almost 20 percent since the beginning of the year — and there is a growing opposition to the personality cult that Turkey’s strongman wants to build.
It was precisely this sense of vulnerability that led Erdogan to call for snap elections nearly 18 months early. The decline in his support base is real — particularly among the urban, middle-class and young voters — and he was recently forced to form an election alliance with small ultranationalist parties to attain the 51 percent needed for a new mandate as president.
The government has a near-total monopoly of television networks, monitors dissent on social media and has put one of Erdogan’s rivals, the charismatic Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas, behind bars, where he is still trying to run a presidential campaign through messages relayed through his lawyers. But despite all the hurdles facing the opposition, the mood in the country feels very much like June 2015, when Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) shockingly lost its parliamentary majority in general elections (but subsequently gained it back in snap elections five months later.)
Muharrem Ince, a secular politician and the top contender against Erdogan, is drawing unexpectedly huge crowds in campaign rallies across the country. For the first time in the Erdogan reign, opposition parties on the center-left and right have united under the same ticket, and together with the Kurds, they may well end up winning the majority in the Turkish parliament. Such a victory would introduce an unexpected check on Erdogan’s plans for enhanced presidential powers.
He still may win, but Erdogan’s spell on the Turkish electorate is clearly broken. The outcome of the June 24 elections depends not on what Erdogan will do but on how convincing the opposition is in the face of the country’s worsening economic situation.
Turkish voters consider the economy to be the top issue, and Erdogan’s appeal has always been, in part, due to his ability to deliver a better standard of living to Turkey’s poorer parts. Now his quest to amass power at the expense of state institutions is hurting Turkey’s economic prospects, alongside its democratic gains. Foreign investment is not coming; Turkish capital is fleeing. If the opposition can convince the voters that Erdogan’s iron grip is in fact a source of instability, the country’s political trajectory could change.
You see, Fenerbahce members tolerated former chairman Aziz Yildirim’s dictatorial foibles because he won football matches. But in recent years, the football team hasn’t delivered and is in poor shape financially. Turks demand victory from their football, and prosperity and democracy from their rulers. Their vote needs to be earned at every election, even after decades of support. If Erdogan wants to continue to run the country, he has to deliver — and allow Turkey to “normalize.”
If not, some new guy will come along sooner or later.
No one should rule Turkey out. It’s a mistake to assume that Turkish voters are too repressed or too hypnotized to keep voting for Erdogan. He had been delivering economically, but he no longer does. Now it’s just a question of finding who can.