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Turkey’s Local Elections in Perspective

BY Ahmad Sas



Turkey’s Local Elections in Perspective

By Ahmad Sas – The result of the 31 March 2019 local elections in Turkey topped the headlines internationally. This attention demonstrating their significance for the political dynamics in Turkey and the position of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the country. Campaigning for his party and speaking for two months before the elections and at over 100 rallies around the country, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan considered these elections a matter of national survival. However, these elections have more to do with his party, which is widely is acknowledged as a conservative Islamist movement, inspired by the Muslim-Brotherhood ideology, centred on him as a cult of personality. The AKP plays a vital role in the wider Middle East, with international alliances connecting it to other Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated parties and governments. This network is one of the protagonists of an ongoing, large-scale, confrontation taking place between Islamists and anti-Islamists in the region. Meanwhile, in Turkey, over than 15 years of AKP government has shaped state identity by floating Islamism, which runs contrary to the secularism which Turkey was originally built on.

The AKP-led alliance experienced a meaningful setback in the March elections. Despite the party’s alliance taking an early lead obtaining 52% of the votes, it lost the country’s three main cities: Ankara, Izmir, and, Istanbul – ruled by AKP for two decades. These elections represented an evaluation of public support to the AKP and President Erdogan’s policies, as they were held after the enactment of a constitutional referendum in 2017, which transformed Turkey into an executive presidential system. For the AKP, winning these elections would have been the latest accomplishments that guaranteed total control on all political levels.

The aforementioned losses are considered a direct vote of no-confidence and a shift in the mood of voters in favour of opposition parties. The opposition suffered several organisational and ideological problems, along with crackdowns on its officials and supporters, following the failed coup in July 2016. AKP began a structural targeting of the opposition groups, focusing on the Gülen movement and its leader, Fethullah Gülen, who stands accused of orchestrating the coup by establishing a “deep state” from the movement loyal members. With the controls over the media, the state institutions, and the judiciary system, the Turkish government oppressed the opposition systematically, and governed under the “state of emergency” law for more than two years until late 2018. As result, more than 80,000 citizens were held under arbitrary detention, and around 200,000 government officials were sacked from their jobs, while the state legitimised its actions using the rhetoric of conspiracy and the war on terror.

These events caused painful setbacks for the opposition and forced them to reorganise and overcome differences. joining forces in May 2018 in within the framework of “Nation Alliance”, which comprises four main opposition parties, namely: The Republican People’s Party (CHP), Democrat Party (DP), the Good party (İYİ), the Felicity Party (SP). Alternatively, they faced the AKP-led “People’s Alliance,” with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in a cross-ideological frame-work created as a consequence of extreme political polarisation’s around the figure of Erdogan. Evaluating the results of the Turkish elections can be challenging due to government control over media as well as the political environment, including through repressive practices on political rivalries.

Voter turnout in these elections exceeded 80% (according to official numbers), which can be considered a positive sign of the public’s awareness of the importance of these elections. Yet, it is paramount to ask what kind of political influence would these opposition parties have on their regions, if policies are held hostage by the central government and President Erdogan? The question has yet to be answered.

The opposition was able to capitalise on the AKP’s domestic failures, and the economic situation was the main reason for AKP punishment at the ballot box: the increasing cost of living and rising unemployment drove the results. Turkey economy is trying to recover from the Lira crisis, which lost more than 30% of its value against the dollar (USD), due to concerns over an ongoing diplomatic dispute with the United States and doubts of the independence of the central bank. Moreover, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) suffered a 3% recession, in the worst performance of the last decade. Adding to the difficulty, the Syrian refugee crisis is considered an increasing burden on the economy and the cohesion of society. The opposition has consistently criticised the policy towards Syrian refugees. Turkey has been the main destination for Syrians and is now hosting more than 3.5 million refugees fleeing the civil war and government persecutions. The Turkish opposition used the Syrian refugee crisis to practice political pressure and gain voters through promises of repatriations and the withdrawal of Turkish citizenship from Syrian refugees who gained it. Such measures constitute the main political vision of the İYİ party led by, Meral Akşener, which is the second biggest party of the Nation Alliance. On the international level, also concerning Syria, the head of the Republican People’s party, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, showed more commitment to the idea of establishing communication channels with the Syrian regime and supports the efforts of Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad, to “preserve Syrian territorial integrity and stop the bloodshed”. This position, which contrasts President Erdogan’s strategy, has gained increased popularity among voters. Such pressure forced Erdogan to make the electoral promise to solve the Syrian crisis; a promise which is very difficult to keep.

Local elections have always been a reflection of governance popularity, and Turkey’s ability to project vibrancy democratic culture. Indeed, Erdoğan was a beneficiary of Turkey’s democratic processes- his 1994 victory in the mayor elections of Istanbul gave him an advantage in developing an ideological platform that has come to impact an entire generation. Now, this formal stronghold of Erdoğan punished him sharply. Despite the looming challenges, administering Istanbul and other major cities can constitute a momentous opportunity for the opposition to prove to the public that they can provide a stable replacement to the current regime.

The Euro-Gulf Information Centre is committed to monitor the events inside Turkey due to their relevance regionally and internationally. Turkey remains a pivotal actor in NATO—theoretically representing European security interest— and the wider middle east including the Levant and the Arab Gulf. Changes to Turkey’s leadership will deeply affect alliances in and behind the region and assessing turkey remains a key task for EGIC