In the run-up to the local elections on 30 March, Istanbul is a confusion of posters and promises. The streets are festooned with competing strands of political bunting and the distended faces of candidates beam down from adjacent billboards. In every square, the noise of traffic mixes with the musical slogans blaring from passing campaign buses. With only a few days left until Turkey goes to the polls, the televised speeches from rallies across the country are far from polite.
“Dirty parasites! Liars! Atheists!” booms the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, referring to his opponents. “Don’t trust them!” But: “Prime thief!” cries the leader of the opposition, using his preferred term for the prime minister. “There is no difference – none whatever – between this man and Hitler.”
Character assassination is common in Turkish politics, but it has acquired a new viciousness since a multibillion-dollar government corruption scandal broke and a nationwide ban on Twitter was imposed by the prime minister. Although the elections are local, the rhetoric on all sides suggests something bigger is at stake, something more personal to the ruling party, the AKP, and the prime minister.
Erdogan’s face is on posters everywhere, even though in theory he has nothing to do with this particular race. The 30 March poll will be a popularity test for him – and he is spoiling for a fight.
Last June, thousands of demonstrators gathered at Gezi Park in Istanbul to protest against government plans to build on the park land, precipitating violent police crackdowns and mass anti-government protests across Turkey. Since then, widespread arrests, new anti-protest laws and the ubiquitous riot police have been constant reminders of the state’s zero-tolerance approach to dissent.
In December 2013, several ministers were forced to resign following a corruption investigation. Although inquiries have since stalled, a stream of taped phone conversations, allegedly offering evidence of rigged construction tenders, stashed cash and underhand purchases of major news channels by Erdogan and his associates, has been leaked and spread through social media.
Erdogan has reacted with the defiant fury of a man who has everything to lose – not only his political career, but his liberty. If he is voted out of power in the next general election he will be vulnerable to multiple corruption charges, with no safety net. In the meantime, he has dismissed the tapes and played up to his street-fighter reputation by prioritising counterattack over self-defence, accusing his opponents and various foreign lobby groups of agitating against not only him but Turkey – two notions that have become very intertwined.
Erdogan’s core voting base remains strong, however. His supporters are convinced he is the subject of a smear campaign, and have shown their support in their thousands at pre-election rallies. Those who believe in the authenticity of the taped conversations regard him as beyond reprieve. The Gezi protesters are angrier than ever but any protest – even the most peaceful and apolitical – is difficult in the current climate.
In the past nine months, the government has cracked down on any show of opposition – on the streets, online and in the mainstream media. Newspapers are prevented from printing corruption allegations, and representatives of the Gezi movement are facing 29-year prison sentences on charges of leading criminal gangs. Even so, at moments of high tension – such as the death on 11 March of Berkin Elvan, a 15-year-old boy who had spent months in a coma after being hit by a tear-gas canister during the Gezi protests – the crowds come out in force, angry and unafraid. The 20 March Twitter ban was counterproductive: Twitter users rushed to circumnavigate the block, nearly doubling Turkish tweets in the weekend that followed.
These local elections could be a turning point – the first serious test of AKP support since the corruption scandal, ahead of the race for the presidency this summer and a general election in 2015. Istanbul and Ankara are important centres of power. The mayor of Istanbul often goes on to become party leader (Erdogan is a case in point) and the current mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökçek, has held his post for 25 years. Corrupt local politicians have an added incentive to cling to their seats: how can a mayor protect his accounts from auditors’ eyes if he is voted out of office?
The answer is he can’t, and that is why the campaign is turning nasty. Behind the colourful posters and confident slogans, this is becoming a dirty war of attrition.