Electoral Democracy Won in Turkey, but What is Next for Erdoğan?

Kemal Kirişci

On Sunday, more than 90 percent of the Turkish electorate, almost 46 million voters, went to the ballot box to elect their mayors and local council members. The candidates of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) received around 45 percent of the overall votes and succeeded in holding on to two of the three highly contested mayoralities in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir. In Ankara the race was very tight and AKP prevailed by only a few thousand votes. In contrast, AKP won handily in Istanbul, achieved a decisive win, by more than 8 percentage points. In the longtime stronghold of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Izmir, AKP lost the mayoral race by more than 15 points despite fielding a successful minister as a candidate.

After months of bitter contestation that saw a string of anti-government protests, leaked videos and audio recordings as well as a major corruption scandal and the banning of Twitter and YouTube the election was also seen as a referendum for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s premiership. Contrary to many speculations, Erdoğan emerged triumphant and Sunday night confidently declared his party’s victory well before actual counting was completed. The local elections came as the first step in an eighteen-month long election cycle that will see direct presidential elections in August followed by parliamentary ones scheduled for early in the summer of 2015. What enabled Erdoğan to achieve such a result a head of these crucial elections and what will be his next move?

A number of factors played a role in this outcome. First, Erdoğan succeeded in convincing his support base that these protests and corruption allegations were basically domestic and foreign conspiracies to undermine Turkey’s success especially economic success. Secondly, he also was able to mount a convincing campaign against a former political ally Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish preacher based in Pennsylvania and head of a powerful religious, economic and educational movement presenting him and his movement. He presented him as a major conspirator that had infiltrated the Turkish state apparatus to the detriment of national interest and security. Thirdly, his traditional base of support across the country has continued to see him and AKP as delivering respectable levels of economic performance, public service and stability especially compared to the rest of the neighborhood surrounding Turkey. Lastly, CHP, even though it improved its performance from 24 to 28 percent compared to the previous local elections in 2009, as the main opposition party failed to put up a convincing challenge to AKP. Actually in many localities outside western cities and a number of major urban centers it received less than 10 percent of the votes. In some provinces especially in the conservative center and eastern parts of the country its level of support fell to levels even lower than just one per cent. This was in stark contrast to AKP’s solid presence all across the country.

This picture is likely to have two important consequences with respect to Erdoğan’s next move. Firstly, after long months of speculation it is highly likely that he is going to put himself forward as a candidate for the presidential elections in August this year. The new president will be elected by a popular vote and Erdoğan will need to receive 50 percent of the votes to avoid going into a second round of voting. The fact that he has kept channels of communication open with Kurdish nationalist politicians and remains committed to addressing the grievances of the Kurdish minority in Turkey makes it quite plausible that he will receive a good part of the Kurdish votes. The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) received a solid six percent of the votes on Sunday increasing the number of major cities under its control as well as its lead in southeastern and eastern Turkey. The two votes together, at least theoretically, could give him a comfortable lead.

Secondly, it would be unrealistic to expect that Erdoğan is going to modify his majoritarian understanding of democracy as well as his confrontationist and polarizing policies of late. If his victory speech is anything to go by he promised to pursue his opponents, especially Gülenists, into “their dens and crush them” while making it abundantly clear that he did not take opposition parties seriously. It is highly unlikely that he will allow any semblance of a pluralist democracy that had characterized his first two terms of office to return. He clearly does not feel that he needs the votes of those sections of the electorate that care for liberal democratic values. Furthermore, he expressed great confidence in his conception of democracy when he loudly announced that the “democracy that the West is longing for already exists with us.”

Nevertheless Erdoğan is going to have to thread a fine line. As much as Turkey’s economy may have been performing better than any country in Turkey’s neighborhood and most European Union (EU) member countries, it is an economy that faces major challenges. It chronically runs a major current accounts deficit and is highly dependent on energy imports. The economy has to perform reasonably well to be able to finance these imports and the accompanying trade deficit as well as add new jobs to address chronic unemployment in the country. Critical to such a performance is political stability and the image of the country. The significance of the former is probably best captured by the fact that the Turkish currency and stock exchange quickly recovered a lot of its lost value immediately after the local elections were completed. Clearly, the “market” read the decisive victory of AKP and the absence during the counting of the votes of any major irregularities, contrary to speculations, very positively. However, a persistent majoritarian view of democracy that disregards minority rights and freedoms risks engendering unrest similar to Gezi Park protests. This could tarnish Turkey’s image as a place to do business in an otherwise troublesome neighborhood. This image could be further undermined if the rule of law continues to be disregarded too.

Similar observations with respect to Turkey’s image can also be made in relation to Turkish foreign policy. One very striking aspect of Erdoğan’s victory speech was the manner in which he stressed that “Syria is at war with us.” The Twitter ban had come when an audio recording of a conversation mid-March among top Turkish officials discussing possible military intervention in Syria was leaked to the public. Such an intervention would clearly embroil Turkey in a quagmire from which it may not have an exit strategy. It is not difficult to see the adverse effects that such a situation would have on Turkey’s stability and security let alone its economy. Furthermore, what is interesting is Erdoğan’s total silence with respect to Turkey’s relations with the EU. Leading EU personalities have publicly expressed their discomfort with his authoritarian ways. This comes at a time when Turkey’s economic relations with the EU in relation to the rest of the world have been expanding in real and proportional terms. In 2013, the growth of Turkish exports to the EU increased more than the average of Turkey’s exports to the rest of the world. The instability around Turkey is clearly edging Turkish business towards the relative security and stability of the EU. The crisis in Ukraine is likely to sustain this new trend. As much as Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, might have been the first foreign leader to congratulate Erdoğan for his electoral performance, it is unlikely that Turkey’s relations with Russia is going to be the factor to ensure Turkey’s image as a place to do business with.

In the midst of an unstable neighborhood, the Turkish electorate went out to cast their vote with a turnout rate that would make many EU countries envious. The election, at least so far, appears to have been held without major irregularities although some results including the one in Ankara is being challenged. In any event, the electorate voted decisively in support of stability and continuity. The expectation being that Erdoğan would continue to deliver economic growth and public services if he wants to emerge triumphant from the presidential elections in August. However, time will tell whether he will risk achieving this performance with a bit more of his majoritarian view of democracy and confrontationist style of late, or choose a softer and more inclusive style better suited to a liberal democracy. His presidential ambitions may still depend on which one of the two approaches he chooses to adopt. Turkey clearly is a healthy electoral democracy, but will its economy be able to prosper without upgrading its democracy to a liberal one?