The outcome of Turkey’s local elections has surprised many analysts and frustrated the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which had dominated the Turkish media and benefited from massive state resources for its campaign. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s speech on election night was one marked by cautious optimism and not celebratory joy, which was unusual in recent Turkish history. “We will see how they rule. By drawing from our mistakes in this election, we will continue on our path,” declared Erdoğan about the victorious opposition, adding that addressing the economic problems will be the first task of the Turkish government.
The AKP had an electoral alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) against an electoral alliance of the opposition, including the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Good Party (iYi). For the first time in 25 years, Turkey’s capital Ankara will be shifting hands as the AKP-MHP alliance has lost most of Turkey’s largest metropolitan areas and industrial power houses including Izmir, Adana, Mersin, and Antalya. In Istanbul, the biggest prize of all because of its symbolic and financial importance, a bitter fight is still underway. According to the Turkish High Election Board, the opposition candidate has received almost 30,000 more votes to win the ticket. Nevertheless, the AKP filed objections in all districts by requesting a recount and has placed dozens of banners in public squares to declare victory for the AKP candidate. Erdoğan claimed that there was “an element of robbery” and “theft at the ballot box” in Istanbul’s elections, accusing the opposition of plotting “organized crimes.”
Local Elections in Turkish Politics
In Turkey, unlike most western countries, the results of municipal elections may have significant impact on shaping nationwide trends. Perhaps the best example is the rise of Erdoğan himself, who first entered the Turkish political realm after being elected as mayor of Istanbul in 1994. Erdoğan’s party at the time—the Welfare Party, led by Necmettin Erbakan—reached out to the urban poor and lower-middle class not only in Istanbul but also in Ankara and other cities. Going beyond their traditional small Islamist constituency was a factor that energized the Welfare Party; it was successful in its grassroots mobilization and in building trust across identity politics lines, and it came to power by forming a coalition in 1996. The Welfare Party’s slogans were all about economic justice and anti-corruption, quite similar to those of Turkish opposition parties today. In this regard, the local municipalities played a critical role in improving the everyday life of the urban lower-middle class, bringing visible and effective change with a personal touch—this is when most established parties were associated with a too-centralized, out-of-touch, sluggish, and arrogantly secularist state bureaucracy. Based on these transformative experiences, the cadres of Welfare’s offshoot, the AKP, learned to reach out to liberals, Kurds, and the center-left in AKP’s initial years—a stark difference from today’s popular perception of the state-centric AKP. Thus, ruling over major urban municipalities, Turkish opposition parties will have a critical opportunity to prove themselves to larger networks in the years ahead. In Erdoğan’s own words, “whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey.” This is perhaps why the ruling AKP appealed the election results in Istanbul and Ankara, both of which were won by the opposition. In fact, the High Election Board (YSK) has ordered a recount in seven districts in Istanbul.
Most importantly, losing big city municipalities would mean losing commercial powerhouses for the ruling party. One of the reasons behind Erdoğan’s enduring success has been the large patronage networks and clientelist financial structure that offers highly lucrative contracts to cronies, including the media sector. As the engine of the nation’s economy, Istanbul provides massive economic output—almost a third of Turkey’s GDP—and the Istanbul municipality in particular is the city’s largest employer and biggest economic actor. In Istanbul and beyond, municipality-supported urban construction projects have been a distinct imprint of the AKP, providing abundant financial and symbolic revenue. Moreover, the municipalities have rewarded AKP-friendly religious and civil-society foundations financially, and thus, created more channels for the party to influence its conservative constituency. Understanding the challenges ahead, the government is now preparing draft legislation that would suggest transferring responsibility for larger contracts from city municipalities to the presidential office in Ankara.
Aside from the aforementioned reasons, this particular round of municipal elections was overemphasized by President Erdoğan, who presented the elections as a “matter of survival” for the Turkish state. Such weighty framing may have mobilized Erdoğan’s supporters as he wished; and yet, the opposition’s victory in local municipalities is now interpreted as a strong public warning to Erdoğan and the AKP.
There are several takeaways from the election results. Some of the significant ones are highlighted below.
- The AKP’s loss of major cities illustrates the significance of economic conditions in voting patterns, especially in industrial centers where residents experience the acute effects of the economic recession.
The stagnation of the Turkish economy has been the trend over the past few years. For the first time since the AKP came to power in 2002, the fragility of the Turkish lira, rising inflation rates (up to 20 percent), and increasing unemployment were expressed through the ballot box. In fact, Erdoğan’s post-election speech was an indication of such understanding. He promised to make addressing Turkish economic troubles a priority. Deepening financial problems may harm the AKP’s popularity and fortunes; therefore, it is reasonable to expect the Turkish government’s renewed attention to focus on structural reforms. Erdoğan’s dilemma, however, is a hard one: structural reforms will entail heavy prices on the masses, who are used to receiving government subsidies or some form of social services under AKP rule. Such reforms, if genuinely implemented, are most likely to result in inviting the International Monetary Fund’s help and requiring Erdoğan’s retreat from populist policies—at a time when he perhaps needs them most.
- The electoral gains of the Good Party (iYi), a center-right party that poses challenges to both the MHP and AKP, may encourage other hopeful candidates to enter the political scene to fill the vacuum in the center-right.
Beyond an electoral coalition, the AKP-MHP alliance in the Turkish parliament has become the backbone of a “new Turkey” since the derailment of the Kurdish peace process in July 2015. The two parties clearly need each other’s support. On the one hand, Erdoğan needs the MHP’s support to pass the presidential bills in parliament because the AKP does not hold a majority there. Unlike the previous parliamentary system, Turkey’s new presidential system may be locked, or lose legitimacy, without the ruling party’s majoritarian influence. On the other hand, the MHP has benefited from sharing the government’s vast resources and its Turkish nationalist cadres, thus helping it to wield more power in the state bureaucracy. Such symbiotic relations, however, have led to growing criticism of Erdoğan, especially among the circles of old AKP leaders. Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former Finance Minister Ali Babacan previously hinted at their willingness to challenge Erdoğan by forming a new political party. According to Turkish media reports, the elections’ outcome has now convinced the Davutoğlu-Babacan circles of the importance of moving forward in forming a new party and announcing it in the next few weeks. If new center-right parties emerge in Turkish politics, they may accelerate the divorce between the AKP and MHP because the primary criticism by such competitors will be AKP’s increasing anti-Western Turkish nationalist stance—which is an outcome of MHP influence. If public support for pursuing pragmatic economic policies gains traction and trumps the ideological Turkish nationalist discourse, such calls may well be a game changer in the next election cycle.
- Turkey’s main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), pursued an inclusive, pragmatic, and winning strategy—an experiment that may change the fortunes of the Turkish left.
The CHP has been under attack for a long time for being too ideological and rigid at the expense of the AKP’s pragmatism and religious discourse. Perceived as Atatürk’s old party, the CHP is very attractive to some Turks yet too distant for others. Its divisive secularist tone has made the party aloof to the conservative majority in Turkey and the party’s elitism has alienated most liberals, working-class leftists, and Kurds. Unlike the previous elections, however, the CHP has run an inclusive campaign by forming a tacit alliance with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) as well as nominating a not well-known politician, Ekrem Imamoğlu, for Istanbul. As Turkey’s largest number of Kurds live in Istanbul, the HDP’s support for Imamoğlu was indeed a kingmaker move. If pragmatism prevails over ideology in the CHP’s future, it may be a refreshing beginning for the Turkish left.
- The AKP-MHP alliance celebrates the electoral outcome in Turkey’s Kurdish-populated eastern provinces, claiming it is a public confirmation of state-appointed mayors. However, local dynamics are very complex and the areas are under heavy security.
While losing votes in western Turkey’s industrial belt, the AKP has increased its share of votes in the east. Pro-government media commentators were quick to emphasize that Kurds provided a vote of confidence for the AKP’s recent policies in the region, which included removal of many elected pro-Kurdish HDP mayors due to their alleged “terrorism” charges and appointment of state trustees to replace them. Voting under extreme state pressure and military curfews, however, has always been a complicated problem in Turkey’s Kurdish provinces during the past three decades. In Sirnak, for example, where AKP votes typically range between 15 to 30 percent, the AKP won by a wide margin, receiving more than 60 percent. The HDP filed many complaints of fraud in various cities to invoke Turkish electoral authorities; however, under extreme securitization of the region, such requests would barely result in anything concrete. Moreover, patronage relations through municipalities and local social services are a most common tool—used by both the AKP and the pro-Kurdish party—in the region. Thus, the municipal elections are not the best indicators of Kurdish public opinion regarding the AKP-MHP targeting campaign of pro-Kurdish politicians. In fact, it may not be surprising to witness massive support for many imprisoned Kurdish politicians in the general elections.
Regional and Global Implications
To give confidence to international markets, President Erdoğan is keen to emphasize that Turkey will not have any elections until 2023 and the new presidential system still retains its popular support. Yet, the tone of pro-government media—which described the outcome as “a coup” against Erdoğan—indicates how mass perception is quite different and anxiety among the AKP constituency is growing. For the first time, election results have revealed the economic fragility of the ruling party and the shaky foundations of the presidential system.
On April 10, the Turkish government will reveal the new economic package Erdogan demanded in the wake of the elections. The impact of this new package in the global marketplace, however, can only be evaluated in combination with Ankara’s turbulent relations with Washington. Only a day after the Turkish elections, the Pentagon announced its suspension of the F-35 fighter jet deal with Turkey. US officials have long emphasized that Turkey’s $2.5 billion purchase of Russian S-400 systems cannot be compatible with NATO systems; in addition, they assert that Turkey should not violate NATO regulations by pursuing this purchase from Russia. The issue has also become a flashpoint in discussions in Washington about Turkey’s long-term goals and strategic shift to Russia. The US Department of State made it clear that next week’s NATO ministerial meeting will focus on the issue, and if Turkey insists on the S-400s, not only will this jeopardize the F-35 deal but also other future arms transfers. In addition, economic sanctions may follow.
Although using economic sanctions was not in Washington’s typical toolkit for relations with Turkey, the Trump Administration’s unusual experiment in summer 2018 created a precedent. Because of Rev. Andrew Brunson’s case, the ensuing US sanctions caused a rapid drop in the value of the Turkish lira and shook Turkey’s fragile economic structure, convincing Erdoğan to reevaluate policies. As a pragmatic politician, Erdoğan may choose to thaw the ice with the United States and ensure global markets’ confidence in Turkey. The current dynamics in northern Syria, however, will present challenges to Erdoğan’s future policy decisions. US support for the Syrian Kurds and Turkey’s strategic engagement with Russia for the Idlib region give an upper hand to Moscow; therefore, retreating from the S-400 deal will not be an easy task. Erdoğan’s third option may be to buy the S-400 systems but not implement them on the ground, although it is unclear if this would satisfy either Washington or Moscow. Erdoğan is in Moscow this week for his third meeting with Putin so far this year and to celebrate the Turkey-Russia cross-cultural year.
Erdoğan’s post-election economic reform package will also be closely analyzed by most European countries, who are by far Turkey’s biggest trade partners. The technical details of the financial reform promises, however, may not ease the ongoing tensions between Turkey and the European Union. Unlike the United States, the EU has been making the connection between Turkey’s derailing economy and the country’s downward slide in human rights and media freedoms—and most importantly, in the loss of an independent judiciary. To help in saving the Turkish economy, therefore, European investors will press Erdoğan not only to address the technical finance structures but also to make a renewed commitment to the rule of law in Turkey.