March 30, 2009
The Turkish local elections ended on Sunday after a tense, national-like campaign designed by the ruling party AKP’s leaders to win key cities in Kurdish-dominated zones. Although it has won 39 percent of the vote, this is 8 percent short of the projected win envisaged by premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Moreover, this is the first time since the 2002 electoral win by AKP that the party has scored so low at the polls. Whilst many Turkish columnists argue that the global crisis is responsible for the poor electoral performance, many others including foreign observers blame it on Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic political style. Most likely, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Earlier this month, IPI (International Press Institute) and its affiliate SEEMO (South East Europe Media Organisation) have asked Commissioner Olli Rehn and other EU officials to press the Turkish government to respect freedom of the press and the life and limb of journalists who dare criticise the prime minister or lesser officials. The two organisations claim that Erdogan has publicly called for the boycott of newspapers critical of his performance in office and has slapped a 380 million-euro fine on Mr Dogan’s media empire. A friend-turned-foe, the Turkish media mogul’s journalists had been very critical of Mr Erdogan’s policies of late.
The premier’s critics claim he has all but abandoned his reform agenda. With unemployment in Turkey running at 14 % and with a fall in industrial production of more than 21 %, they had hoped his government would conclude negotiations with the IMF for a 20 billion plus bailout package. These were delayed, however, until yesterday’s election results became known.
The election results should act as a warning for Mr Erdogan if he wishes to continue in office and win the 2011 national ballot. To be sure, neglecting the economy and attacking press people critical of his performance is not the right recipe for success. Says Bilal Cetin, of Vatan newspaper: “The results show that the upward period for the AKP has ended. There are two possible reasons for that. First his choice to pursue tense policies and secondly the economic crisis that he underestimated, as well as increased corruption claims. If it continues, this downward trend poses a serious warning and even risk for the general elections due in spring of 2011. Turkey could return to coalition governments after the 2011 elections.”
In any free and pluralistic society, the press and its people are the guardians of democracy. By attacking them viciously and repeatedly, Mr Erdogan facilitates the return of his country to a time when the military played that role only too willingly – to everyone’s chagrin.