Turkish local elections: One victor, many losers

The local elections were an important test for the ruling AKP after the December 2013 corruption scandal.

Turkish PM Erdogan was the clear winner of the local elections, writes Sezgin [AP]
Turkish PM Erdogan was the clear winner of the local elections, writes Sezgin [AP]

Turkish local elections are now over. The ruling party, Justice and Development Party (AKP), won about 45 percent of the votes cast, while the rest was divided across three major parties in the parliament. The results are hardly a surprise. As I said on these pages about two months ago, no one really expected that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party would lose or suffer a major blow.

These were mayoral elections. They had no direct impact on the allocation of seats in parliament, but they will shape in a number of ways the future of Turkish democracy in the coming months and weeks. Let’s analyse what the results mean, and what their potential impact may be on Turkish politics. 

Passing the test

First, and perhaps one of the most interesting outcomes of the elections, is that despite the recent corruption allegations, leaks and increasing authoritarianism of the prime minister, AKP’s voters did not penalise the party. On the contrary, they seem to have rewarded the prime minister by giving him the ticket he needed to run in the presidential elections in August. According to a recent poll, about 77 percent of Turks indicated that they believed the corruption allegations implicating the prime minister and his close circle. 

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Given that AKP enjoys the support of about 45 percent of the electorate, we may safely assume that there must be many AKP supporters among those who believe in the corruption charges – of course, that’s besides those who dismiss the charges as a “foreign conspiracy”.

Then the question we need to understand is why so many people continued to support a government which they considered “corrupt”? The mostly likely answer is, if I may speculate, that they did not consider the opposition parties any more trustworthy than the ruling party.

Also, many AKP supporters seem to subscribe to the prime minister’s increasingly polarising identity politics of “us vs them” discourse, and continue to support the AKP regardless of corruption charges and increasing authoritarianism with the fear that if the “other” comes to power, they would lose political, economic and ideological advantages they’ve come to enjoy under AKP rule since 2002. 

The opposition parties (eg, the Republican People’s Party – CHP, and the Nationalist Action Party – MHP) have lost against AKP in six local and national elections as well as two referenda since 2002. It has now become crystal clear that unless opposition parties undergo major political transformations, they will most likely continue to suffer many more electoral defeats against AKP. One way to interpret the results of recent elections is that the Turks do not seem to trust the opposition parties or believe that they could rule the country any better than AKP.

With that insight, both CHP and MHP leaderships must reflect on and draw lessons from their continuous failure if they ever want to become a viable government alternative. Perhaps people do not want to vote for opposition parties whose only function is to bash the government and cry foul without putting forth a credible plan or project addressing the country’s socio-economic and political ailments.  

Election results have once more reminded us that Turkey continues to remain as a deeply divided and polarised society along two main axes: secularists vs Islamists, Turkish nationalists vs Kurdish nationalists. In this respect, the results coming from the east and southeast Anatolian regions are particularly important. The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the political wing of PKK (armed Kurdish separatist movement), has reinforced its regional dominance by winning mayoralties in 10 provinces and further laid the groundwork for possible future autonomy in the Kurdish-populated areas.

Erdogan as president?

The elections have produced only one winner and that is the prime minister himself, not even his party. Since last year’s Gezi demonstrations, he has increasingly personalised politics in Turkey. Even though these elections were local elections in which normally names and personalities of mayoral candidates play a greater role than any other consideration (eg, party identification or ideology), these elections were not about who would collect the garbage in the city, but a referendum on the prime minister staying in power.

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Erdogan’s success came at the expense of his own party. Even in the eyes of AKP supporters, the party has now been increasingly associated with his name and personality. AKP is no longer viewed as a legitimate political party but an association or a cult of those who “worship” Erdogan even when he sins. This raises serious questions about the future of AKP, and its survival as a political power after Erdogan retires to Cankaya Palace as president this summer. 

With the support he garnered in these elections, he may soon declare his long-expected candidacy in the presidential elections scheduled for August. Even though he is widely expected to be elected as president, there is still a slight chance that another candidate may disrupt his presidential plans. If opposition parties repeat the collaboration they exhibited in Ankara’s electoral race (CHP fielded a former MHP mayoral candidate) in the presidential elections by fielding a strong candidate who can transcend traditional political cleavages and draw support from both AKP, and CHP/MHP constituents, the opposition may have a real chance of disrupting Erdogan’s presidential plans.

As said, elections produced only one victor and that was Erdogan. But there were many losers including opposition parties, the Gulenists (followers of the charismatic Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen), civil society organisations, etc. But the biggest loser of all was Turkish democracy. It is widely argued by many analysts of Turkish politics that in the past (especially between 2002-2010) AKP has served as an agent of democratisation. However, as these same analysts point out, AKP, and particularly the PM, have become increasingly authoritarian in recent years.

For instance, fundamental principles of democracy such as freedom of speech, rule of law, separation of powers, judicial independence, and democratic accountability have been repeatedly and systematically violated by Erdogan and his government, especially since Gezi demonstrations in May and June 2013. Against this background, by giving Erdogan the approval ratings he desired, these elections may have well put the last nail in the coffin of nascent Turkish democracy.

Unfortunately, the prime minister’s vindictive victory speech on election night has only fuelled the fears that the downward spiral of Turkish democracy would only deepen with new bans on freedom of speech, witch-hunts against “internal” enemies of the regime, and a possible invasion of Syria against which Erdogan declared a war during his victory speech.

Local elections were the first round of the long electoral season in Turkey. The second round is the presidential elections in August. Erdogan would not miss the opportunity to be the first popularly-elected president of Turkey – even though he has so far failed to turn Turkey’s parliamentary regime into a US-style presidential system by rewriting the constitution.

However, it is highly likely that Erdogan – if elected – would concentrate all executive powers in his hands (under the current constitution the president has limited and mostly ceremonial powers) by appointing a Medvedev-like puppet prime minister in his place and rule Turkey with an iron fist in the next five or 10 years.

If Erdogan becomes president, it is also very likely that AKP would call for early parliamentary elections in Fall 2014 – the third and last round of 2014 electoral season. As noted above, the future of AKP after Erdogan is not certain. Therefore, we have every reason to expect that the party leaders may want to capitalise on the gains of local and presidential elections and harness pro-Erdogan sympathies while his legacy is fresh by moving forward the parliamentary elections set for June 2015.

Yuksel Sezgin is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Maxwell School of Public Affairs, Syracuse University. 

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