Ankara, Turkey – While the dust from Sunday’s local elections in Turkey is far from settled, observers are looking to see how President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will react to the loss of Istanbul and Ankara, after years of sustained electoral success.
With the results in Turkey’s two largest cities among those under question and the election board carrying out recounts over alleged invalid ballots, Erdogan’s advisers will nevertheless be analysing the campaign to see how Justice and Development Party (AK Party) candidates lost the two biggest prizes in the mayoral polls.
Opposition gains have led to speculation whether the vote marks the “beginning of the end” of the AK Party, after decades of electoral success.
“It would be more appropriate to call it a milestone on the road leading to the end,” said Kemal Can, a veteran newspaper columnist. Like many other commentators, he identified Turkey’s stuttering economy as the issue that had alienated many voters after years of booming growth and prosperity.
“This being a local election, the voting base of the ruling party wanted to give a lesson to the rulers even though they were ‘kindly asked not to do so’ by Erdogan and others.”
Others suggested the AK Party’s campaign, which saw senior figures characterise the opposition as supporters of terrorism, may have estranged some of the electorate.
“The government used harsh language against everyone who was against them,” Can said. “This language was not welcomed even by some of their own supporters. The opposition successfully managed not to be dragged into this fight and left the ruling party alone in the tension they created.”
Erdogan, who has led the country since 2003, most recently as a president with enhanced powers, has ruled out calling presidential or parliamentary elections before they are due in June 2023.
However, many observers think opposition control of four of the five largest cities, which between them contain around 27 million of Turkey’s 82 million citizens, could force the president’s hand.
Gursel Tekin, vice chairman of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which, in addition to Ankara and Istanbul, took major population centres such as Adana, Antalya and Hatay from the AK Party and its Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) partner, said the election results indicated a desire for change.
“The future of the AKP relies on whether they will heed the lesson of this demand,” he said.
Pointing to polarisation in Turkish society, he added: “People want to live in peace and harmony; they demand solutions to their economic problems; they want a state of law; they want to get rid of partisan politics; they want a solution to our common problems by consensus.”
More likely than early elections is the possibility of personnel and policy change within the government, with some analysts forecasting a ministerial reshuffle this month.
Mustafa Hos, a journalist and author of Big Boss, a study of Erdogan’s political career, said voters had issued a warning over an economic crisis that has seen inflation hit 20 percent and left one in 10 workers unemployed.
“Early elections will take place depending on whether Erdogan accepts these messages,” Hos said.
A worsening economic situation could amplify pressure for snap polls before 2023, according to Ufuk Soylemez, who served as finance minister in the 1990s. “If this economic trend continues, they will be forced to hold early elections,” he said.
“Early elections aren’t planned, they’re usually forced due to circumstances. It is too early to say definitely, but it isn’t out of the question.”
However, many point to Erdogan’s election night comments in which he stressed the need for an election-free period to stabilise the country. Ziver Ozdemir, AK Party MP for the eastern city of Batman, emphasised that the party and the MHP had won more than 50 percent of votes on Sunday.
“In 17 years of AK Party rule, we have had 15 elections and we came out as the leading party in all of those elections,” he said. “The people are still behind Erdogan, our party and our coalition. We still have, with the support of the MHP, the majority in parliament to put into force laws for the good of the people and we still hold the power to solve these problems.”
Can, the newspaper columnist, said that while the chances of early elections in the short-term seemed low, the local polls had damaged Erdogan’s democratic mandate. “These election results haven’t provided him with the energy that will carry him for the next four years,” he said.
Despite the setbacks, AK Party victories at the district-level and in-roads against the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in the southeast allowed Erdogan to claim some degree of victory.
“One of the reasons we have been in power for such a long time is that we have always listened to the voice of the people and never closed our ears,” said Ozdemir when asked about potential policy changes.
“As you can see in the past, we make changes accordingly and so we might change our policies according to the demands of the people. We might make corrections both in international relations, domestic issues and the economy. If there are mistakes, they are ours, not those of the people.”
However, Soylemez, the ex-finance minister, said there was an urgent need to overhaul senior government positions soon.
“The ministries and cabinet need to be revised and new people chosen through meritocracy rather than partisanship or personal relationships,” he said in a reference to Berat Albayrak, the finance minister and Erdogan’s son-in-law.
It has also been suggested that the government could step in to appoint trustee mayors in cities it has lost, as it did with HDP mayors from 2016 after accusing them of links to terrorism.
However, Hos warned that any moves seen as undemocratic, particularly in major cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, could harm the centralised system built by Erdogan.
“If such an intervention takes place, there will be not only early elections, it will also be the end of the presidential system,” he said. “Erdogan would leave together with his system.”