The Turkish local elections offer a glimpse of the future

A woman walks past a banner for the upcoming local elections in Ankara, Turkey, March 27, 2019. Banner with pictures of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Devlet Bahceli, leader of Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), reads: "People's Alliance: The unity of common sense." REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RC14BCF5B7C0
Editor's note:

The results of the upcoming local elections in Turkey’s seven largest cities will serve as a microcosm for how Turks as a whole feel about President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the direction he has taken the country, writes Kemal Kirişci. This post originally appeared in The National Interest.

With another election looming in Turkey, what sort of outcome awaits the country?

This Sunday potentially fifty-seven million citizens of Turkey will go to the ballot box to elect mayors, mukhtars and members of local assemblies. The election comes after two presidential and three parliamentary elections, as well as a referendum. In the previous local elections in March 2014, the governing political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), won eighteen out of the thirty metropolitan mayors, including five of the seven largest ones (Ankara, Adana, Antalya, Bursa, Gaziantep, Istanbul and Izmir), and 45.6 percent of the overall votes. Will AKP achieve a similar performance this coming Sunday? More importantly, what kind of Turkey will emerge from these elections?

Local Elections or Another Referendum on Erdoğan

One immediate contrast between the upcoming local elections and the previous ones in 2014 is these primarily concern Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, now in his second term as president. This will be the first election since the country transitioned from a parliamentary system to one defined by a strong executive and a weak parliament with minimal checks and balances. Erdoğan’s promise that under the new system Turkey would be stronger and more prosperous will formally be put to a vote. Not surprisingly, he has dominated the campaign, rushing from one end of the country to another to turn the local elections into a referendum on his popularity. Further, the elections come at a time when the country is deeply polarized, with its economy mired in a deepening recession and Erdoğan’s AKP having seen its electoral base erode by seven points from November 2015 to June 2018. Erdoğan has sought to counteract this erosion by forming an alliance with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). His campaign has also sought to aggressively denigrate the opposition, composed of the People’s Republican Party (CHP) and Good (Iyi) Party, by associating them with nefarious external forces trying to weaken Turkey. He has also put the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a Kurdish political party, on the defensive by associating them with terrorism and the Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK).

The origins of Erdoğan’s alliance with MHP go back to the June 2015 national elections when AKP experienced its first defeat through the loss of its majority in the parliament and ability to govern Turkey independently. The failure of a coalition government to emerge, the collapse of the peace process between the government and the PKK, spiraling PKK and ISIS terrorism, and growing instability in Syria produced a climate receptive to Erdoğan’s nationalist narrative and promises of greater stability. The strategy paid off, as AKP won handsomely in the repeat elections of November 2015 while ideologically moving closer to MHP to expand its electoral base. The July 2016 coup attempt and the introduction of emergency rule helped cement not only Erdoğan’s authority, but also his emerging alliance with MHP when its leader Devlet Bahçeli called for a referendum on Erdoğan’s long-standing aspiration to transform Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. This aspiration was achieved in April 2017 when 51.4 percent of the electorate voted in support of the transition. It was again Bahçeli that enabled the new presidential and accompanying parliamentary elections to be brought forward to June 2018 from November 2019. It is generally recognized that it was support from MHP voters that enabled Erdoğan to clear the 50 percent threshold in the first round and become Turkey’s first head of its presidential system even though AKP saw its votes drop.

The emergence of the alliance in turn pushed CHP and Good Party, led by Meral Akşener, who along with some colleagues broke away from MHP, to seek their own alliance. Both sides seemed determined not to repeat the mistake made in June 2018 when their respective candidates ran on separate ballots and enabled Erdoğan to win the elections in the first round. For the local elections, both alliances are running with joint or shared candidates. With the lines drawn, all attention is now focused on the seven largest municipalities and the overall distribution of the votes to see whether Erdoğan will receive the popular support, and thus the political authority, to run the country uncontested until the next scheduled election in 2023.

Currently, AKP controls five and MHP one of the seven metropolitan governments, with some cities such as Ankara and Istanbul having been dominated by AKP mayors since 1994. Yet, AKP has always aspired to add to its hand by winning Izmir too. The importance of these cities for Erdoğan is evident in the prominence of the AKP candidates running for these posts. The former minister of the economy, Nihat Zeybekçi, is running as a candidate in Izmir, even though polling suggests that the city will likely remain in control of CHP. Ankara’s election pits the experienced AKP mayor of the Anatolian industrial city of Kayseri, Mehmet Özhaseki, against Mansur Yavaş, the joint candidate of CHP and Good Party. Yavaş, a former member of MHP, ran in the previous local election and lost by a small margin amidst accusations of foul play. As polling puts him marginally ahead of Özhaseki, Erdoğan has begun accusing him of tax evasion, among other charges. This string of accusations is as a sign that Yavaş is doing better than expected. In response, Erdoğan has increased the pitch of his campaign by threatening outright to make life miserable for Yavaş should he win. Istanbul, the undisputed jewel of AKP’s crown, where Erdoğan made his debut in politics as well as faced the greatest challenge to his rule in the Gezi Park protests of 2013, will see Erdoğan’s former prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, and CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoğlu, a soft-spoken but successful mayor of a subdistrict of Istanbul, compete for the top spot.

Which way will the electorate go?

The mood of the country is dramatically different than that at the time of the parliamentary elections in November 2015 or the referendum of 2017, when stability and ending terrorism were the public’s foremost concerns. Now, according to the Kadir Has University’s “Social and Political Trends in Turkey,” published in January 2019, economic concerns (comprised of “Unemployment” and “High level of cost of living”) are now seen by 44.7 percent as their main concern compared to 21.4 percent in 2015. Terrorism (including the Fetullah Terror Organization, considered to be the instigators of the 2016 coup attempt) as a primary concern has fallen from 41 percent and 46 percent in 2015 and 2017 respectively to 30 percent in 2018. This is unsurprising considering that the Turkish economy that has seen inflation rise from less than 10 percent in March 2014 to a peak of 25.24 percent in October 2018, forcing the government to introduce aggressive measures, including opening state-run fruits and vegetable stalls, to bring down run away prices. Erdoğan even coined the term “food terrorism” to account for these high prices. Similarly, rising unemployment from a low of less than 8 percent in early 2012 to 13.5 percent in December 2018 and a constantly deteriorating Turkish lira that dropped to a volatile 5.33 Turkish lira to the dollar (a rate heavily suppressed by government and central bank interventions) just ahead this year’s elections in contrast to 2.18 Turkish lira in March 2014 are yet further manifestations of economic distress. Economic volatility and concerns about the future have led to ever more savings to be held in U.S. dollars in Turkish banks. In response, Erdoğan has promised to punish what he calls speculators, indicating that he fears the electorate may well vote with its feet to voice its displeasure. After all, there is evidence for such a phenomenon. In 2009, when the AKP saw its vote share drop from 46 percent at the 2007 national elections to 38.9 percent in 2009 as Turkey’s GDP shrank 6.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008 in the wake of global financial crisis.

However, in a such a bitterly polarized country, party identification, partisanship, and continuity in voting patterns are likely to prevail over economic concerns. Erdoğan’s campaign message revolves around the survival of the country and his regime. His continued allegations that the opposition alliance is in a tacit coalition with the Kurdish HDP party, which he associates with PKK terrorism, are likely to further lessen the influence of economic concerns on his base. Because of this strategy, attracting the Kurdish voters who have traditionally been split between AKP and HDP will be difficult. Erdoğan has instead tried to hold on to conservative religious Kurdish support. Within a day of holding a huge rally in Istanbul, he rushed to the other end of the country to Ağrı and then Van, two predominantly Kurdish populated cities. Because HDP has chosen not to nominate candidates for many municipalities in Western parts of Turkey, some of its base is increasingly likely to vote for candidates of the opposing alliance, which infuriates Erdoğan and Bahçeli. How the approximately 8 percent to 10 percent of voters who remain “undecided” vote will be decisive.

The outcome of the elections will also be influenced by the control that Erdoğan enjoys over the media that prevents the opposition from airing its own perspective on a wide range of issues. This uneven playing field is not new and has been highlighted repeatedly by monitors from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). TRT, the state-owned media group financed by national taxes, was criticized for giving fifty-three hours of air time in February to the “People’s Alliance” and only six hours to the opposition alliance. Worse yet, HDP received only seven minutes of airtime consisting exclusively of propaganda against it. Further advantages are the massive state resources that Erdoğan has mobilized to support his party’s campaign and fiscal policies designed to conceal economic problems and distribute sweeteners.

Finally, concerns exist about how secure and free the ballot boxes will be. Turkish democracy has always had its problems, but a general recognition existed that Turkey ran reasonably free and fair elections. This began in 1950, when executive control over elections was relinquished, and lasted until approximately 2014. The current government has done away with the practice of ministers of justice, interior, and transportation resigning from their posts to oversee elections, a tradition that began in 1950, and has also rescinded the regulation that prevented unstamped ballots from being counted to prevent ballot box stuffing. These practices have been criticized widely for undermining the security of elections and the quality of Turkish democracy.

More of the Same

On Sunday, Turkey’s democracy will be tested yet again. As a former high-ranking Turkish official and a member of the Turkish Parliament described it privately, the loss of Ankara and Istanbul or any combination of three out of the seven metropolitan centers could weaken the hand of Erdoğan and AKP. Nevertheless, because these are local elections, it would be unrealistic to expect a major impact on national politics. But what happens in Istanbul will serve as a microcosm for Turkey as whole. Together with the overall results, Istanbul’s loss by AKP could illustrate the mood of the electorate and provide some energy for the opposition in the longer term. This of course would depend on whether the opposition, especially the CHP, can overcome its weaknesses and develop a promising political program.

It is doubtful that even if the governing alliance were to sweep all seven metropolitan centers and receive a decisive majority of the overall votes, it would be possible to expect much positive change overall. Yet, the country is in desperate need of a political vision and a policy program that can heal its wounds and promote liberal democracy, the rule of law, minority rights, and civil liberties, in addition to improving market conditions and repairing Turkey’s external relations with its immediate neighborhood and beyond. In short, the problems Turkey currently faces are too many to expect significant improvements to come from a series of local elections, no matter the domestic importance that Erdoğan has accorded them. Come Monday, Turkey seems destined for more of the same.