Turkish democracy isn’t dead – municipal election takeaways

By Corey Ray

WASHINGTON — Turkish municipal elections, which concluded on March 31, issued a stunning rebuke to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and to President Erdoğan. It appears that the AKP has lost Istanbul, where Erdoğan served as mayor, and Ankara, Turkey’s capital city. Election results demonstrate that turnout continues to be above 80 percent in Turkey and that elections continue to be competitive and relevant. Although Erdoğan declared that the elections were a matter of “national survival,” the Turkish public was more incensed over pocketbook issues like high inflation and recession. Here are a few takeaways:

1) Turkish opposition (and Turkish politics) sees new life

While commentators frequently frame Turkish political developments through a zero-sum lens of how events affect Erdogan and the AKP, the lack of opposition unity and ineffectual opposition parties have hindered Turkey’s health as a democracy and allowed the AKP to portray itself as the only party with the capacity to govern. Indeed, Turkish voters opposed to the AKP range from hardline nationalists, traditional secularists to liberals and leftist Kurdish-majority blocs who all have little overlap with which to work together. The elections demonstrated a revived opposition, however. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) triumphed in taking major cities from the AKP such as Istanbul and Ankara and is a continuation of the party’s partial revival since the Justice March and the exciting presidential run by Muharrem Ince. Turkey’s largest opposition seems to be finding its “mojo” again. The CHP will now likely hold Turkey’s three largest cities (with the addition of the city of Izmir) and most important economic centers. As the largest opposition party, a revived CHP is critical for those hoping to unseat the AKP in coming years. The party will need to govern major cities effectively and inclusively. Most critically, however, they cannot succumb to corruption and scandal if they want to provide a real alternative to the AKP at the national level.

2) The MHP transition from kingmaker to electoral crutch

The ruling AKP has previously secured an alliance with the far-right National Movement Party (MHP) and continues to rely on them to maintain slim overall majorities. MHP voters have been critical to Erdoğan’s agenda in transforming Turkey into a presidential system and have partly driven the government’s increasingly nationalist policies. While commentary often focuses on the AKP’s monopolization of political control, the political reality is that the era of the AKP commanding ever-rising vote shares has given way to perpetual reliance on the MHP to shore up lagging AKP votes. Should this continue, the MHP’s far-right influence will continue to be felt across policy and the bureaucracy. Erdoğan, therefore, will be incentivized to shift course in the coming year to attract wayward former AKP voters that are not satisfied with simple appeals to religious and national identity in the face of economic tumult.

3) Kurdish swing voters

It seems ancient history that the AKP rose to power partly owing to religious and liberal Kurdish voters optimistic about a less ethnically-defined Turkish identity. That same AKP further led the “Kurdish Opening” that saw violence drop while Kurdish cultural expression flourished. One surprising result from the elections was the rising AKP vote share in southeastern Turkey in some Kurdish-majority provinces. The fact that many HDP officials were imprisoned does not sufficiently explain the AKP’s increased vote share in Kurdish regions. Promises of economic development and the religiosity of many Kurdish voters drive support for the AKP which had dwindled in 2014. The Kurdish Question is already contentious in Turkey and the presence of the YPG, a sister organization to the PKK in Syria, does not bode well for a renewed revival of peace talks with the PKK in Turkey. But Erdoğan could tap into a future pool of voters in the southeast should he deliver stability and economic development while toning down nationalist appeals after the election losses.

Likewise, it was the HDP’s decision to refrain from fielding candidates in major cities like Istanbul that allowed the CHP to consolidate opposition voters and make unprecedented gains. This is rare in Turkish opposition politics as splintering and infighting has typically prevented meaningful cooperation. Thus, the Kurdish electorate has emerged as a new critical bloc which could enable further opposition momentum if the CHP caters to HDP voters’ interests to maintain these gains. The CHP will need to balance the need to maintain HDP cooperation and the nationalist wings of its own party and alliance partners in the Iyi (Good) Party.

Conclusion

Evidently, Turkish elections and democracy are still relevant despite its trend towards centralization of political power. Moreover, both Turkey and the AKP should benefit in the long term from stronger, more competent opposition. However, Turkey does remain  a presidential republic. Therefore, the opposition will need to formulate a coalition to attract new voters in order to gain a national majority which they have been unable to muster so far despite impressive gains in major cities.

Corey Ray is an M.A. candidate concentrating in Middle East studies and international economics at Johns Hopkins SAIS focused on Turkey’s regional energy and security issues.


Provinces changing hands in 2019 local elections
Photo credits: Bianet