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Turkey's Municipal Elections : A Political Game Changer?

BLOG - 12 April 2019

The municipal elections that took place on March 31 in Turkey are as significant as those of 1994, which took place 25 years ago. That year, the two most important cities of Turkey, Ankara and Istanbul, elected mayors from the Islamist precursor of Turkey’s ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party). Thus began the gradual political domination of the Islamist movement from the municipal level to the national, and the rise of a young politician, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The latter managed to get elected mayor of Istanbul by just a quarter of the votes cast because of the divides between center-right and center-left politics.
 
If those elections can, in retrospect, be considered the harbinger of the AKP era, the latest elections have the potential to initiate a new, post-AKP era. The major difference between then and now, of course, is that in 1994, the institutions of Turkey responsible for managing elections functioned adequately. The post-election developments of the past 12 days indicate that the High Electoral Board is now undermining its own already significantly shaken authority and legitimacy by the measures and decisions it has taken.

If those elections can, in retrospect, be considered the harbinger of the AKP era, the latest elections have the potential to initiate a new, post-AKP era.

So far, the Board broke its own rules in accepting the irregular, and at times badly argued for appeals demanding a recount of invalid votes that emanated from AKP in Istanbul and elsewhere. Yet it was unwilling to consider similar appeals when they came from the Kurdish party HDP in the Southeast. Even more alarmingly, the Board refused to share the document needed to formally take office with several HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) mayor-elects and council member-elects. The alleged reason was that they were expelled from their previous jobs by an emergency decree.

Nobody could explain why such a disqualification was not identified during the vetting process of the candidates for municipal offices. Furthermore, instead of repeating the elections, the Board declared the runners-up would take office.

Depending on how the artificial deadlock in Istanbul is overcome, Turkey will either gradually restore its electoral, and then democratic, credentials or a deep shadow will be cast on the legitimacy of the country’s increasingly authoritarian political order.

The dynamics of the elections

18 years ago, the country went to the polls under dire economic circumstances, which incidentally paved the way for AKP’s initial electoral victory in the general elections of 2002. After a campaign conducted under a barrage of scaremongering and intimidation on an unequal playing field, the Turkish electorate delivered a verdict that surprised both the nation and the world, thus showing that Turkey’s electoral politics were still standing. From another perspective, nearly half of the electorate’s opposition to the AKP-dominated state, which fought many lost battles in previous elections and referenda, finally got a chance to have their voices heard.
 
The painful pinch of the economic crisis - Turkey is officially in a recession, with inflation hovering around 20% annually and unemployment around 14% - certainly influenced voters’ preferences. Partially as a reaction to economic mismanagement, the most outward looking, productive and socially dynamic regions of the country voted for opposition candidates in municipal elections, and handed them the mayoralties of major cities, albeit not necessarily the majorities in city councils.

Arguably, based on these results, the decline of the ruling AKP has been confirmed, as has the dysfunctionality of the Presidential system, which was accepted in a highly controversial referendum in 2017 and inaugurated in the wake of last June’s twin Parliamentary and Presidential elections. After 25 years of steady rise and of consolidation of his power, President Erdoğan appeared weaker than his stream of electoral successes and the current political arrangements would suggest. With his magical influence dented, and despite the fact that he is still the country’s most popular politician, he is now highly constrained in his future choices by the ideological proclivities of his current political partner, the ultra-nationalist MHP (National Movement Party).

After 25 years of steady rise and of consolidation of his power, President Erdoğan appeared weaker than his stream of electoral successes and the current political arrangements would suggest.

In fact, the exodus of conservative votes from AKP to MHP in the conservative heartland of the country, as well as the absence of many AKP voters at the ballot box, is indicative of the disenchantment felt by the hitherto loyal base. Still, it is important to note that the base has not yet crossed over to opposition ranks in significant numbers.
 
The night of the elections, the AKP ended up controlling nine cities less than it had before the vote. It now holds the mayoralty in 39 of Turkey’s 81 municipalities. Despite its total control and domination over the media, unfair and unequal conditions for electoral competition, incessant vilification of the opposition, fear mongering based on a presumed existential threat to the country were the ruling coalition to lose, and massive spending, the opposition managed to prevail in major metropolitan centers. With Istanbul’s results still pending, the opposition won in six out of seven of Turkey’s largest cities. In Istanbul, the opposition CHP’s (Republican People’s Party) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu garnered 48.79% of the votes, edging out the AKP’s Binali Yıldırım, Turkey’s last Prime Minister and recently Speaker of the Parliament, by less than three-tenths of a percentage point.
 
Out of nearly nine million votes, the difference at this point of the recount approximately amounts to 15,000 votes. In addition to Ankara, which AKP already grudgingly conceded, the major cities that shifted to the opposition were İzmir, Adana, Antalya and Mersin. Except for Izmir, all these cities were under the rule of either AKP or MHP. Together, these cities, including Istanbul, represent 60% of Turkey’s population and about 62% of its GDP.
 
Istanbul, Turkey’s most populated city, produced 31% of the country’s GDP in 2017. It is not just Turkey’s premier commercial and business hub, but also the intellectual and creative center of the country, which hosts a socially and culturally diverse and vibrant population. As such, it is also an enormous fount of rent creation, patronage and clientelistic networks. The loss of Istanbul has profound ramifications that are however not limited to the loss of material power and resources. As a city that resisted to the establishment of a Presidential system in the referendum of 2017, Istanbul’s loss is politically and symbolically crucial as well.
 
Not only is Istanbul the city where the ascent of Mr. Erdoğan to supreme power was initiated, but as the capital of the Ottoman Empire, its electoral capture was the symbol of a conquest against the secular establishment in the Islamist imagination. Finally, it is also a given that, once the jewel of the crown of AKP power falls, along with the capital Ankara, the politics of the opposition and the chances of its return to power can be significantly increased.

The opposition’s victory in major metropolitan centers could not have been attained had it not been for the support of Kurdish voters who usually support the pro-Kurdish HDP, which abstained from fielding candidates in these cities.

The opposition’s victory in major metropolitan centers could not have been attained had it not been for the support of Kurdish voters who usually support the pro-Kurdish HDP, which abstained from fielding candidates in these cities. That and the appeal by the imprisoned former co-chairman of HDP Selahattin Demirtas, demanding that their supporters leave old complaints and the agonies of history aside, and support opposition candidates, helped deliver these cities to the opposition. Whereas the Kurds proved themselves to play a key role in the electoral process, the ability of the ruling coalition to muster around 51% of the vote involves that Turkish nationalism is well and alive too. Although it is difficult to calculate exactly how the votes compare to earlier elections, given that these elections were contested in many places by electoral alliances, most analysts suggest that its proclaimed 44% does not reflect the real level of support to the AKP. This is due to the peculiarities and complexities of the newly minted alliance system.

In fact, the party’s vote by itself may be closer to 40%, and perhaps below. It is important to note that there were not many crossover votes between the electoral blocks. Yet there were some between the so-called Public bloc of AKP and MHP, as the latter appears to have syphoned off votes from the former in the municipal council elections. This reinforces the earlier observation according to which Mr. Erdoğan is increasingly beholden to MHP’s leader Mr. Bahçeli. Moreover, the demographic breakdown of the votes suggests that the AKP is no longer commanding the support of the younger generations, and the secular trend of diminishing youth vote, which was first detected in the referendum of 2017, continues.

Despite the fact that major cities went to the opposition Nation alliance (consisting of CHP and the nationalist IYIP-the Good Party), and that the CHP made inroads to the Anatolian heartland, the electoral divides still remain by and large fixed. The country has three major sociological electoral blocks. The ethnically aware Kurds, conservative Anatolia, and the coastal regions, which are more open to the rest of the world, even if they are quite nationalistic at heart as well. These blocks are separated from one another by their preferences of lifestyles, ideology, relation to religion and their approach to the Kurdish problem. The parties have the support of committed, immutable electoral clusters.

This reality shows that, in the future, national election results will be determined by metropolitan centers, whose voters are defecting from the AKP, and where groups with pragmatic and therefore potentially shifting preferences are somewhat liberated from identity politics. It remains to be seen if the AKP’s most loyal supporters among the urban poor, who benefit from the charity economy that was created by the party, would shift their allegiance once the clientelist networks of major cities will be controlled by the opposition. The latter will likely continue to help them...

Finally, the elections also showed that a previously relatively unknown politician has entered the national political scene in full force. The CHP candidate for mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu, surprised most election observers with his disciplined campaigning, positive politics, calm demeanor, perseverance, ability to build coalitions and to pervade the previously impenetrable constituencies that remained loyal to the AKP. He has also managed the post-election hustle of counts and recounts in Istanbul calmly, yet with determination. He has kept in touch with various constituencies, stood his ground and tried to communicate the message that he is indeed the mayor-elect of Istanbul. Polls indicate that AKP voters do not share the hysterics of their party leadership and media hatch men, and do not favor another election.

Pending the decision of the High Electoral Board on Istanbul, Turkey is at a crossroads. One road will lead the country to a gradual restoration of electoral and democratic principles and processes, and potentially to a reshuffling of the electoral map. The other will lead to the further debasement, if not to the dangerous irrelevance, of the singularly important and legitimizing institution of Turkish democracy, the elections, and the sanctity of the ballot box. That path would be a dead end. Whether or not these elections - and particularly the loss of big patronage and rent churning machines like Istanbul and Ankara - will undermine the AKP’s electoral support remains to be seen, should the first path be taken.

Still, it is not imprudent to suggest that a new era has begun in Turkish politics - for better or for worse.
 

Copyright : BULENT KILIC / AFP

 

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