While he faces international criticism for alleged corruption and for blocking Twitter and YouTube, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has received a vote of confidence at home this week.
While not running himself, Mr. Erdogan framed nationwide local elections as a referendum on his decade of rule, which critics say has grown increasingly heavy-handed in the face of regional instability and an internal power struggle.
His AK Party won victories across the country, claiming a large majority in Istanbul, which was widely seen as a bellwether of his strength during what has become another tumultuous period for the country after widespread protests last year.
The AKP incumbent also won in Ankara, the capital, pending a recount that will take weeks if granted. Winning both cities means success for the party, according to criteria laid out by a prominent Turkey scholar at Emory University’s Turkish Lecture Series March 27, three days before the elections.
Bulent Aliriza, who founded and leads the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the AKP’s share of the vote was less important than whether the party held power in these crucial test grounds.
But even a victory wouldn’t mean a guaranteed path to the presidency, on which Mr. Erdogan has set his sights this year’s national elections, Dr. Aliriza said.
“The idea that somebody who has become unfortunately such a polarizing figure could get more than half the votes seems more unlikely now than it did a year ago, so his options are somewhat constrained,” he said.
Still, Dr. Aliriza equated the victories for the party with a victory for Erdogan, its leader and by far its most influential figure.
“This period, when we look back on it, will be seen as the period in which Mr. Erdogan with his gifts and with his weaknesses characterized Turkish politics,” said Dr. Aliriza, who compared the prime minister’s charisma with that of President Bill Clinton.
He added that Mr. Erdogan could also lobby for his party to drop its three-term limit, allowing him to run for prime minister again.
Dr. Aliriza said the last three months have been even harder on the country than the more violent period of unrest that broke out over the planned demolition of Gezi Park in Istanbul last summer. Mr. Erdogan ordered a crackdown that led to multiple deaths and hundreds of injuries.
The most recent conflict is more of a power struggle than a grassroots protest movement.
On Dec. 17, Turkish police arrested a government minister and other officials on corruption charges, sparking a backlash from Mr. Erdogan, who blamed the probe on foreign elements and followers of Turkish Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen.
Mr. Gulen lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania and runs a network of schools around the world, but his followers are said to control sections of the Turkish police force, judiciary and media. Mr. Erdogan blames them for a series of leaked audio tapes that reportedly portray him engaging in corrupt dealings.
He responded by cracking down on the Internet and said he would “wipe out” Twitter regardless of the international community’s response.
The U.S. and European Union have watched with dismay at what they view as Turkey’s deterioration from a “rising star among emerging markets” and a model of Muslim democracy to a country with limited influence in the region.
It remains to be seen whether Turkey’s economy – the platform on which much of Mr. Erdogan’s support is built – will be able to weather reduced foreign investment.
“Turkey has turned inwards, it’s grown more suspicious of the world beyond, and it’s also lost some prestige,” Dr. Aliriza said.
But he ended on an optimistic note, saying Turkey would someday achieve “synthesis” between secular republicanism and political Islam, and between European sensibilities and conservative roots – competing forces that keep the country in a “state of constant schizophrenia.”
“In the long run, I think that Turkey is going to be a success story again, but before then it has to solve its own problems,” he said.