Turkey’s Local Elections: A Victory for Erdogan?

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Voters in Turkey went to the ballot box last Sunday to decide local elections. The overwhelming success of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was seen locally as an endorsement of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, by extension, his attacks on what he calls the “shadow state” – a reference to the followers of the Gulen Movement, who Erdogan blames for the corruption charges that rattled his administration. The results came as a surprise to many observers, who expected the AKP to have lost support after the corruption scandal and subsequent clampdown on the judiciary, police, and social media over the last few months. It appears, however, that Turkish voters have chosen based on the government’s economic record rather than its on corruption and transparency.

The question in everybody’s mind continues to remain how Mr. Erdogan managed to win again given his all out assault on the judiciary and other state institutions. For many observers, the answer lies in the improving economic conditions of segments of society that were previously disenfranchised by the other political parties. In an op-ed for the Hurriyet Daily News, Barcin Yinanc, for example begins by asking: “Why, after all these corruption charges, listening to humiliating video recordings, the crisis in Syria, the possibility of seeing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan released from jail, have people still voted for the Justice and Development Party (AKP)?….Basically, the AKP voters…said…: ‘For years, we have been under represented in this country. Turkey’s former ruling elites, the republican, secularist, Kemalist elites looked down on us; they ignored us. The AKP is one of us. Not only did the AKP improve our economic situation, it made us feel we are also important in this country.’”

Today’s Zaman’s Lale Kemal makes a similar point, although she also points out the lack of a well-developed democratic culture in the country: “The simple answer to this question perhaps is an absence of a democratic culture in the country as a result of which it has been producing weak political parties. This weakness in democratic culture also sustains the deep divide between fierce secularists, so-called democrats and elites, and the rest of society, the majority of whom have been looked down on as if they were second-class citizens….What those voters, while casting their votes for the AK Party on Sunday, had in mind was the relatively good economic performance of the government and its social policies, including easy access to health care, which millions of average Turks can now benefit from. These voters are also mostly the ones who are treated as second-class citizens by those so-called elites in the country.”

Gulten Ustuntag, meanwhile, warns that voting in favor of economic stability is not the same think as voting in favor of the ruling party and Mr. Erdogan’s tactics: “As the government battles a sweeping corruption scandal that has implicated Erdogan and his close associates, it seems that an ongoing graft investigation had no bearing on the electorate and their political choices, demonstrating that people voted in favor of political and economic stability….In the meantime, the forecast for the economy does not seem very bright and is likely to usher in a sharp change in electoral tendencies in the next period….Political commentators agree voters are concerned by economic stability, which political tension could damage in the medium term. Kalaycioglu emphasizes that Erdogan’s ‘victim’ rhetoric helps mobilize public sympathy for him.”

However, for supporters of Mr. Erdogan, the electoral outcome was an important achievement for democracy in the country. For example, Nagehan Alçı writes in an op-ed for the Daily Sabah that “The March 30 local elections will be written into the annals of Turkey’s history of democracy in golden letters. By receiving approximately 46 percent of the votes, the AK Party expressed an important message. What was that message?…What the military did with tanks and guns, the parallel structure tried to do with insidious cassettes and spying. Competition at the ballot box was not between political parties but between the AK Party and Pennsylvania. As such, Sunday’s elections were a first in Turkish political history. However, the public saw through this trickery and 46 percent support for the AK Party demonstrates the victory of the public protecting its will.”

Similarly, Taha Kilinc suggests that Turkey’s electoral experience will serve as a positive example for the rest of the region: “People who had attempted to shape politics for the sake of their interests and crushed after the local elections did not understand Turkish and the Middle Eastern people. They believed they could easily transform Turkey into chaos similar to the Egyptian coup or the bloodshed in Syria….Turkey’s recent poll adventure and democracy fight are inspiring desperate and weary Middle East people. No one has the right to destroy this hope and inspiration.”

The concern now is whether the prime minister’s victory might be a pyrrhic one. After all, as the Peninsula editorial argues, the victory has come at a great cost to Mr. Erdogan’s personal image both at home and abroad: “Local elections in Turkey today will determine how the electorate sees Erdogan’s controversial steps. Shutting down Twitter and YouTube has shown a side of Erdogan that he shouldn’t have revealed ahead of the elections today. After last year’s Gezi Park protests and the resulting upheaval, he has portrayed an image of a leader who will do anything to have his way. Sometimes, his actions have smacked of desperation. After shuttering Twitter, he should have never closed YouTube. Turkey’s image of a liberal nation has taken a severe beating after Erdogan’s clampdown against social media. Turkey is no China.”

There is another danger that can befall Mr. Erdogan, who, as Al Arabiya’s Mahir Zeynalov puts it, could find himself fall a victim of his own success: “Erdogan has won three general and three local elections since 2002 and in each of these polls, his party could increase its votes. The increase in votes also made Erdogan more authoritarian, making it clear that the consolidated democracy he promised will no longer function in Turkey….The more powerful he feels, the more mistakes he will make to prepare his own end. Revolutionary leaders, from Napoleon to Hitler, were their own worst enemy and failed as a result of their tremendous power….As he is bracing to introduce harsher policies to jail critics, curb freedoms and end Turkey’s democracy, his supporters will realize that they voted for a deeply anti-democratic leader, whose actions cannot be reconciled with Islamic principles.”

With the local elections behind him and unable to run for another term as prime minister, observers have begun discussing openly the likelihood of a presidential run for Mr. Erdogan. That is, at least, Ali Aslan Kilic’s suggestion in a recent op-ed on the pages of Today’s Zaman: “Based on the tallied results from the March 30 local elections in favor of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), analysts agree that the possibility of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan running for president has increased, although him obtaining an absolute majority is not guaranteed. According to MetroPOLL Strategic and Social Research Center President Ozer Sencar and political analyst and a former minister Gurcan Dagdaş, in order to guarantee the absolute majority Erdogan needs to form an agreement with the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).”

The National’s Justin Vela believes a presidential run is a near certainty especially given the margin of victory in last Sunday’s elections: “He is likely to interpret the results of Sunday’s elections as a tacit approval of his rule and a signal to run for president in August. The presidency in Turkey holds less power than the prime minister, but Mr Erdogan’s popularity with the masses and loyalists within the AKP will likely allow him to set the political agenda….Optimists might hope that success in Sunday’s polls would push Mr Erdogan to reset his policies. But, with two more elections looming, this is unlikely. Already, members of the opposition fear that Mr Erdogan will use the months before the presidential vote to unleash a new crackdown on dissent.”

Leaving aside speculation about the future, there are still lingering questions about what the elections mean in terms of political stability in the country. Characterizing Sunday’s elections as ‘unpromising’ for the country’s future, Hurriyet Daily News’ Mustafa Akyol argues that this most recent electoral outcome “could initiate an even darker era in Turkish political history….You can read this as meaning more bans on the Internet, more pressure on the media, and perhaps even political arrests and trials….What Turkey needs is a fundamentally new approach to politics, which favors transparency over secrecy, trust over paranoia, and consensus over confrontation. Right now, unfortunately, this is only sounds like a distant dream.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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