Did Erdogan win a popularity contest in Turkey's municipal elections?

Published in Turkey

By Afro-Middle East Centre

Although the 30 March municipal elections in Turkey were meant to elect mayors and municipal council members, they were viewed by many as a referendum on the popularity of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Earlier, in 2012, Erdogan had tried unsuccessfully to bring the elections forward by five months, to allow himself extra time to campaign for the presidential elections scheduled for August. However, with the AKP’s plans to transform Turkey into a presidential presidential system delayed, the municipal elections took on added significance.

Erdogan’s administration has had to deal with many challenges since protests in May 2013. The latest came from corruption charges against key governmental officials in December 2013, resulting in even some AKP members leaving the party and accusing its leaders of pressuring the judiciary to protect themselves. Erdogan instituted reforms to place the judiciary under the executive, and purged the police force. He described the corruption investigations as a ‘judicial coup’ and an ‘assassination attempt’. His explained the cases as a conspiracy by the followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish religio-political figure in self-imposed exile in the USA, and whose followers have placed themselves in strategic positions within the judiciary, police and intelligence services and various ministries. The crisis worsened, with corruption allegations against Erdogan’s son. The latest episode was the releasing of a secret conversation between top security officials and the foreign minister on YouTube. The government responded by banning YouTube and Twitter, seeing both as a means of organising against the state. With the AKP and Erdogan embattled in this way, the municipal elections were converted into a measure of their popularity.

With forty-five per cent of the votes cast in AKP’s favour, the election was clearly a victory for the party, but the popularity contest is not settled that easily. First, not only is the opposition crying foul due to electricity blackouts in some areas during the vote-counting, it is also challenging the results in many cities, including Ankara. In Yalova, for example, the mayoralty changed hands after a recount resulted in a difference of seven votes. Second, in the 2011 parliamentary elections the AKP secured nearly fifty per cent of the total votes while in the 2009 municipal elections, it obtained thirty-nine per cent of the votes. Which should be the baseline for comparing the AKP’s 2014 achievements? Further, what exactly is being compared? Is it a contest between AKP and opposition parties, or between Erdogan and Gulen, or is it a comparison between AKP 2014 and AKP 2001? Answering these questions is not easy, but they do highlight the naivety of offering glib interpretations of the results.

It is more useful to focus on issues that animated these elections than comparing them to anything else. Clearly, Erdogan is interpreting the results as a mandate to enforce his writ over Turkish society. His victory speech after the elections clearly indicated that, despite making repeated references to democracy, he was unable to separate the Turkish state from AKP’s performance and vendettas. Standing with ministers and his son who have been implicated in the corruption scandal, he warned the Gulen movement that he was about ‘enter their dens’ and would make them ‘pay the price’.

This does not augur well for the ‘Turkish model’ of democracy that has been touted as a solution to other countries in the region that were ruled by authoritarian regimes. Erdogan now seems to be using similar methods to those regimes, employing conspiracy-driven, anti-western rhetoric that casts domestic opposition as outsiders opposed to the Turkish nation. Apart from banning YouTube and Twitter, and reorganising the judiciary and the police, the AKP is contemplating a draconian bill that will increase the authority of the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT), giving it access to public and private banking, telephone and administrative records, and will forbid the justice system from interfering in intelligence operations. President Abdullah Gul, a co-founder of the AKP, has urged that the bill be revised before submission to parliament for passage. That largely depends on Erdogan. The party, which, according to opinion polls, will suffer a dip in approval ratings were it to lose his leadership, is beholden to him for its popularity. Although AKP insiders insist he will be their presidential candidate in August, there is speculation that the party might amend its by-laws to allow him to become prime minister for a fourth term. Considering his triumphalist speech, a reconsideration of the bill seems unlikely.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 09:37

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