Turkey elections: Democratic chance or authoritarian restoration?

The Turkish local elections brought a tarnished victory for the ruling AKP.

The Turkish opposition has demanded vote recounting in Ankara and Antalya [AFP]

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has won Turkey’s local elections with 45 percent of the vote. In a defiant speech on election night, the Prime Minister announced his victory from the balcony of the party headquarters and declared his opponents – the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) as well as the Hizmet movement of Fethullah Gulen and the protestors of Taksim Square – as failures.

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Considering the massive attack Erdogan and his inner circle of power have faced from these actors during the election campaign, this is indeed a success. Yet how sustainable a success it is and what it means for Turkey’s place in the world and for its future as a democratic country is yet unclear.

No landslide, but a solid AKP victory

On the night of March 30, the ruling party did indeed gain its best result so far in a local election. Not only did the party defend the two most important metropolitan seats of Istanbul and Ankara, it also won a number of CHP-ruled cities and districts.

Crucially, the AKP emerged as the only political party, which is represented in councils all over the country, from the Kurdish provinces to the western shores. It did however fail to take the Izmir metropolitan area, as well as Antakya, a city bordering Syria. In both cities, the party ran with former government ministers of great repute. In Antakya it lost because of the increasingly precarious security situation and the growing tensions between locals and Syrian refugees. Izmir has been a stronghold of the main opposition party CHP, which fared relatively well in the west of the country and posed a serious challenge to the incumbent AKP mayors of Istanbul and Ankara.

Istanbul’s election outcomes are in fact a case study of the degree of political polarisation the country has been experiencing lately. With more than 10 million voters, this is a city that matters nation-wide. The AKP got close to 50 percent, followed by the CHP with 40 percent. Yet the votes are distributed very unevenly. All established middle-class and coastal districts elected CHP mayors, with shares of up to 76 percent. In Besiktas, Turkey’s first openly gay politician, LGBT activist Sedef Cakmak will serve as council member. The historical peninsula, immigrant neighbourhoods and the periphery voted predominantly for the AKP.

The nationalist MHP lost considerably in Istanbul, but it did win a number of important cities like Mersin and Adana, where resentment over industrial stagnation and strife between Turks and Kurdish migrants – most of them fled the Southeast during the conflict in the 1990s – has been building up over the years. MHP mayors also took some towns in the Aegean interior, which used to be leaning towards the CHP. In all these cities, ethnic tensions may rise.

Finally, the pro-Kurdish BDP managed to hold on to its mayoral seats in the Kurdish region and to stop the gradual rise of AKP votes there. The BDP election strategy was based on a quota for female candidates and thereby significantly raised the share of women in local government. The goal to become a party with nation-wide representation, however, did not materialise, despite a coalition with smaller parties of the socialist left and parts of the Gezi protest movement.

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Depending on the angle, one could indeed suggest that all other parties have lost: The CHP failed to reach out beyond its traditional strongholds, and attracted almost no votes at all in the Kurdish region. The MHP failed to increase its votes, and the BDP failed to overcome its identity as an ethnic Kurdish party. The Hizmet movement, strongly represented in the administration, the judiciary and the economy, has also failed in the sense that its support for opposition parties has not created the anti-government front, which it had hoped to build. Yet, has the AKP won enough to claim that its credibility is now restored?

Contestation and challenges

The credibility of the prime minister and his party has indeed suffered gravely since the Gezi protests of May and June 2013, when the government responded to hundreds of thousands of protesters with brutal police force. It has taken more blows with a series of graft investigations launched by Istanbul courts in December last year, allegedly instigated by the Hizmet movement.

To quash the evidence emanating from the investigations, the prime minister unleashed a whirlwind of measures that have put the very foundations of Turkey’s democracy at risk: Thousands of judges, prosecutors and policemen were withdrawn from active duty, the already feeble independence of the judiciary was suspended and the media was reigned in through government censorship and manipulation. When Twitter and Youtube were banned by administrative order only a few days before the elections, Turkey’s international standing took a heavy blow, whose medium-term effects we are yet to see. For now, it is evident that the country’s bid for EU membership as well as its place in the Western security alliance is in jeopardy.

Considering that election day came amid the rapid erosion of the rule of law and the fiercely polarising rhetoric of Erdogan, who left no doubt that this was a struggle for the survival of the nation if not himself, allegations of vote-rigging and manipulation in favour of the AKP are not surprising. Thanks to more than 30,000 independent elections observers – many of them mobilised through the Gezi events – many such attempts have been documented and some have been averted.

Opposition parties have requested recounting of ballots in hotly contested seats like Ankara and Antalya, as well as in many districts, where the AKP and CHP went head to head. The election boards in those two cities rejected the requests, but CHP is expected to take its case to the Supreme Election Board. In some Kurdish towns on the Syrian border, dismay at alleged vote-rigging – probably heightened by frustration at Turkey’s Syria policy and its support for Jabhat al-Nusra against Syrian Kurdish forces – has resulted in heavy clashes with the police.

The picture emerging from the local elections is hence not the one the prime minister would have wanted: Fought as a referendum for him and his party, at the cost of local concerns, he received 45 percent of the vote. If this had been the presidential election scheduled for August, for which he plans to run, it would have meant a failure to win the first round.

The bans on Youtube and Twitter – both of which have now been lifted after a decision of the Constitutional Court heavily criticised by the government – and the questions over the fairness of the elections are stains that will not be taken easily by Turkey’s Western allies and even less so by the 55 percent which did not vote in favour of Erdogan. Turkey’s government will continue to face internal and external criticism and much will depend on whether it will go down the route of authoritarian restoration or whether it will be able to use this window of opportunity to return to a less polarising and more inclusive form of democratic politics.

Kerem Oktem is a research fellow at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford and currently a Mercator-IPC visiting fellow at Sabanci University Istanbul. He writes on Turkey’s domestic politics and foreign policy and on urban protest in the Middle East and Southeast Europe.