Turkey’s religious conservatives are rejoicing over the March 30 local election win for the ruling Justice and Development Party. For the country as a whole, there’s little to celebrate. As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made clear in his victory speech, retribution against his enemies and a polarizing presidential election campaign will follow.
Erdoğan managed to boost his party’s share of the popular vote to 46 percent from 39 percent, despite last year’s massive Gezi Park anti-government protests in Istanbul, serial foreign policy failures, a slowing economy, and a slew of corruption allegations. The election was anything but flawless: Power blackouts interrupted the counting of votes, most of the traditional news media proved pliant, and the government blocked Twitter and YouTube. None of that will stop Erdoğan from claiming a popular mandate and pressing on with increasingly authoritarian policies.
For now investors won’t mind too much, because the result provides short-term stability. In the longer term, though, it’s bad for the country. Voters have rewarded Erdoğan for erasing the progress toward democracy he oversaw during his early years in power. And they’ve encouraged him to go further. “We are going to go into their dens,” the prime minister said of his former allies in Fethullah Gülen’s religious movement, which drove the corruption allegations. “They are going to pay the price.”
Gülen and his followers were certainly out to get Erdoğan, but the prime minister convinced many Turks that efforts to defend free speech and demands for clean government and an independent judiciary were elements of an attempted coup. Religious conservatives saw a simple choice: keep Erdoğan in power or go back to the repression they experienced at the hands of Turkish secularists.
Turkey is starting to look like Russia under President Vladimir Putin, with all branches of power subordinated to a single man who sees opponents as traitors. And if Erdoğan wins presidential elections in August, he will dominate Turkish politics.
Erdoğan’s critics at home can’t undo the election or—if they have any sense—deny his popularity. They ought to concentrate on building a more effective opposition that unites liberals, ethnic Kurds, and moderate religious conservatives. Meanwhile, Europe’s governments let talks on Turkey’s eventual membership in the European Union stall, surrendering what leverage they had over the government. This was a mistake. Instead, they should stay engaged and offer to rekindle the accession process while making it clear that progress will depend on Erdoğan. That way, Europe can keep challenging him to accept EU standards on the judiciary, police, and other institutions.
All is not lost. Erdoğan is still a democrat, after a fashion: He believes in the power of the popular vote. And his country’s security interests are entwined with those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Too much is at stake to give up on Turkey.