January 6, 2024 | Washington Examiner

Erdogan’s electoral strategy for 2024: Vilify Israel

January 6, 2024 | Washington Examiner

Erdogan’s electoral strategy for 2024: Vilify Israel

Turkey’s government is clarifying its 2024 priorities. Once again, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing an election. This time, it’s not for his own reelection as president, but an attempt to win back control over the country’s major cities — which he lost in 2019.

The elections will be held on March 31.

We should not be lulled into thinking, however, that this is merely a local election. This is Erdogan’s highest priority for 2024. Winning back governance of cities such as Istanbul and Ankara is not a simple vanity project: ruling them will allow Erdogan to preserve and strengthen his regime. It is through local governance that Erdogan can distribute spoils to cronies in the form of construction permits and zoning laws. City control also offers the primary means whereby he can appeal to ordinary citizens. His Justice and Development Party rose in popular sentiment based on the tangible difference it made to the daily lives of ordinary citizens, who live in the country’s major population centers. This came in the form of city infrastructure, including roads, bridges, airports, and public services such as buses and metro lines. Suffice it to say that Erdogan and the AKP owe their rise and tenure in national politics based on their ability to rule locally.

Cities such as Istanbul and Ankara were the AKP’s electoral fortresses. Losing them in 2019 to the main opposition Republican People’s Party has hampered their ability to maintain their bases of electoral support. Erdogan has never come to terms with these losses and is now intent on winning back what he likely thinks is his domain. Still, Erdogan’s party will more than likely win back Istanbul, Ankara, and other major cities. His demagoguery in foreign policy speeches, particularly toward Israel, will be a primary tool for wooing voter sentiment.

Erdogan is hopeful that demonizing Israel and vilifying its war on Hamas will convince voters to support Erdogan’s party in local elections. Not because the AKP is promising better governance and better material conditions for voters, but because Erdogan and his party are supposedly defending the cause of oppressed Palestinians and Muslims. One would be forgiven for believing that voters will prioritize pocketbook considerations and their material welfare when they vote locally.

The problem with this view is that this was the prevailing sentiment during the presidential elections of May 2023. Following the earthquakes that devastated the lives of over 10 million citizens and resulted in a record economic downturn, which has whittled away Turkey’s middle class, many seasoned observers believed that Erdogan’s days as president were numbered. They were wrong, as Erdogan’s identity-based, hyper-nationalist (anti-Kurdish) rhetoric convinced just enough voters to stick with him for another term.

We can expect a similar campaign season ahead in 2024. The war in Gaza has and will continue to provide Erdogan ample fodder to energize voters to the AKP and its mayoral candidates. In 2023, Erdogan pulled out all the stops. He referred to Israel as a “terrorist” state, praised Hamas as a group of holy freedom fighters, and vowed to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court for “crimes against humanity.”

In the lead-up to 2024, Erdogan continued to fan the flames by comparing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler. On New Year’s Eve, while most of Turkey’s Western allies were welcoming in the new year, Erdogan’s son, Bilal Erdogan, held a massive pro-Hamas rally in Istanbul. Attended by tens of thousands and organized by a number of NGOs close to the regime, Bilal Erdogan renewed calls for the country’s faithful to “support Palestine, and condemn Israel.” This is in addition to the material support which Turkey provides to Hamas. In late December, “Israeli authorities foiled an attempt on December 21 to smuggle thousands of weapons parts into the West Bank.” In the shipment, Israeli authorities discovered “automatic weapon and assault rifle components inside an industrial weaving machine that weighed several tons.”

As the election cycle builds up, we are likely to see Erdogan and the AKP ramp up their anti-Israel and pro-Hamas rhetoric and supportive activities, mainly in the form of public rallies. This plays upon the sympathies of ordinary Turks, who are lulled into a false belief that Erdogan is the defender of oppressed peoples and his party is worthy of their vote.

It’s all part of a two-pronged strategy for Erdogan: On the one hand, he continues to distract voters at home from economic misery by vilifying Israel. On the other hand, Erdogan is flexing his political muscle to demonstrate to his governing coalition partners and the opposition that he is in command. He may just have the winning formula that will strengthen his and the AKP’s grip on power.

Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an expert on Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy. He is also an Associate Professor of National Security Studies at Marine Corps University (MCU).


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