Turkey: The road to a democratic future

The upcoming local elections on March 30 will be a defining moment in Turkish democratic history.

Both the AKP and the opposition are fully aware of the potential repercussions of a defeat, writes Yildirim [EPA]

The local elections on March 30 will possibly be one of the most defining moments of Turkish democracy. Ideologies or party platforms will largely be irrelevant. In 1961, the Turkish electorate voted for the Justice Party, making a statement in favour of the democratic process and in protest of military intervention a year before.

In 1983, Turgut Ozal was the choice of the electorate not because of the appeal of his party platform but because he represented civilian democracy vis-a-vis the candidates handpicked by the military government. In 2007, the incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP (Justice and Development Party) scored a resounding electoral victory with 47 percent of the votes cast from a broad ideological spectrum.

The electorate had spoken loud and clear: Extra-democratic interventions were not welcome, as evidenced by the presidential elections a few months earlier. Similarly, the upcoming elections will not feature a pageantry of ideologies, platforms, or projects. Rather, they will feature a fundamental choice between democratic ideals and accountability on one hand, and democratic dictatorship and corruption on the other.

What’s at stake for the AKP?

In the wake of the rampant corruption allegations publicised on December 17, the AKP was quick to highlight its legitimacy and freedom from corruption when it received 50 percent of the votes. The party leadership utilised their virtual control over all state institutions to thwart two investigation attempts by state prosecutors. Hundreds of prosecutors were reassigned, thousands of police officers were reshuffled, and several pieces of legislation were passed to ensure that investigations could not proceed and the judicial branch was subordinated to the executive branch. In effect, the AKP ensured that the pursuit of judicial accountability was a dead end.

Simultaneously, Erdogan consistently stuck to his narrative about this whole episode being part of a grand conspiracy against him and his party. The party’s electoral popularity, as evidenced by public opinion polls until December 17, provided him with an egress: the local elections on March 30. If the AKP could maintain 40-50 percent support by winning major cities like Istanbul and Ankara, the party could boast that they are “cleared” of the corruption charges because the people continued to support the party.  

If the AKP can maintain its support level in the 40-50 percent range by winning major cities like Istanbul and Ankara, the party could boast that they are ‘cleared’ of the corruption charges because the people continued to support the party…

What’s at stake for the opposition?

The opposition is betting on the same calculation. It has become sufficiently evident that judicial accountability will not materialise unless the AKP is brought to its senses. The AKP’s infatuation with its successive electoral victories and popularity has created an aura of invincibility and infallibility. It is this feeling of invincibility that must be brought down first, if judicial accountability is to materialise at all. Hence, the opposition’s primary goal is to hold the AKP democratically accountable. Yet, chronically weak opposition parties like the center-left CHP (Republican People’s Party) and the nationalist MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) offer little hope in the way of taking on the seemingly invincible AKP.

The opposition has devised an original solution to this apparent conundrum: strategic voting. Voters in each locality would support the strongest non-AKP candidate in the hope of defeating the AKP in most municipalities. For example, latest polls indicate that opposition groups are rallying behind CHP’s candidates in Istanbul and Ankara (two strongholds for Islamic parties since 1994), where the possibility of losing both cities is significant in other major cities like Erzurum and Adana, opposition groups are rallying behind the MHP in order to protest the AKP. This strategy aims to achieve two goals.

Firstly, it will drive votes away from the AKP, essentially beating the party in its own (electoral popularity) game. Secondly, the party will suffer as many losses as possible in the number of municipalities won, which is another measure of success in local elections. In view of the fact that a sizeable proportion of the corruption allegations concerns zoning, construction, and public projects, cutting AKP’s municipal control in major cities is an essential step for the opposition. Some recent polls suggest that AKP might not see 30 percent, a major defeat for a party whose popularity hovered around 50 percent until a few months ago.

Powerful media empire

Neither of these goals is a small feat. Erdogan has built a powerful media empire in recent years. Functioning like an expansive propaganda machine, such media control (along with Erdogan’s direct intervention into the editorial policies of major independent television and newspaper media) allows the AKP to shape the public opinion, especially among conservative voters. An electoral win despite Erdogan’s media control will be a remarkable achievement for the opposition and a major setback for AKP’s future prospects. The opposition diligently uses Twitter and other social media to devise strategy and counter AKP-controlled media.

Specifically, the AKP stands to lose on three grounds with an electoral defeat on March 30. Firstly, Erdogan and his party will lose a key argument in their self-defence, i.e. the electorate will decide on the veracity of the corruption allegations.

Secondly, many AKP legislators who have no part in corruption schemes are currently on the fence; they are extremely unhappy with the state of the party but are awaiting a solid confirmation of the party’s poor standing within the electorate. If the party suffers a significant loss, some suggest, these legislators will leave the party [TU] shortly after the elections. The number could be as high as 100, effectively ending AKP’s parliamentary majority. Such a loss would inevitably pave the way for the removal of the party from the government and lead to judicial accountability.

Finally, the outcome of the March 30 elections will provide strong indicators about Erdogan’s or the incumbent President Abdullah Gul’s prospects. A defeat in local elections would essentially rule out another president from the AKP.

Turkish democracy generally has a good reputation for not being subject to electoral manipulation, vote buying, or vote rigging. However, recent reports indicate that this election might be different. Feeling the heat, the AKP might be tempted to sway the result. According to such reports, voters are offered cash for their votes, election officials are bribed for manipulating results, and dead people or those abroad are registered as voters.

The fact that the number of printed ballots is nearly three times higher than the number of registered voters raises eyebrows. Currently, many civil society organisations volunteer to monitor ballot boxes. Similarly, opposition parties who will have their own observers verify the transmission of results from each district to the High Election Commission’s database. This will prevent manipulation as the votes are transferred from local districts to the centre.

The March 30 elections will define the soul of the Turkish political system for years, and possibly decades, to come. These local elections will be more consequential than the presidential election in August 2014 or the parliamentary elections in 2015. And, both the AKP and the opposition are fully aware of the potential repercussions of a defeat.

A Kadir Yildirim is an assistant professor at Furman University. His main research interests include economic liberalisation, democratisation, political Islam, politics of the Middle East and Turkish politics.