On March 30, Turkey will head to the polls for local elections cast as a referendum on the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and a key test of Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s continued legitimacy.
Prime Minister Erdoğan and the AKP have ruled Turkey since a watershed electoral victory in 2002. The party mobilized a broad alliance of religious and social conservatives, a newly emergent Anatolian middle class, and liberal Turks frustrated with the previous government to become the country’s first and only popular, broad-based national party. The AKP oversaw a decade of strong economic growth, began important reforms to move Turkey towards E.U. membership, and softened the Turkish state’s harsh stance towards minority groups. The AKP also built a potent political machine based on the award of patronage and government contracts to business leaders in exchange for financial support and positive coverage from media arms affiliated with those business leaders.
But Erdoğan and the AKP have had a tough few years, rocked by corruption allegations, public protests, a worsening macroeconomic picture, and criticism of the Prime Minister’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies. In May, Turkey was rocked by the Gezi Park protests and subsequent police crackdown on protesters and critical media voices. The draconian police response to the protests alienated many urban and middle-class Turks and drew international condemnation. Then, in December, a series of corruption investigations were made public in dramatic fashion following pre-dawn raids on several AKP stalwarts. Media coverage of the cases has been stoked by regularly leaked recordings of Erdoğan and his confidantes discussing bribes, kickbacks, and the use of the judiciary to punish political rivals. While nominally a local election, the March 30 vote will be the first expression of the popular will in the wake of these upheavals and has taken on huge political significance.
The AKP say the corruption investigations are politically motivated, orchestrated by followers of exiled religious leader Fethullah Gülen in the police and the judiciary, and denounce the cases as an attempted coup. The cases threaten the party’s decade long hegemony and have prompted a strong backlash, including the passage of controversial laws granting greater parliamentary authority over the appointment of judges and prosecutors and a new law tightening government control over the Internet. The AKP’s ban on Twitter, and most recently YouTube, is the latest of these attempts to control information linked to the scandal.
The stakes are high. The corruption allegations against the Prime Minister’s family and close associates mean that he might face trial if he loses the immunity provided by his office. Additionally, the new laws increasing government leverage over the judiciary and the internet have strengthened the already potent tools of the state. As Dr. Gokhan Bacik, associate professor of International Relations at Ipek University, said at a roundtable event at the Center for American Progress this month, “these are not laws you hand down to your opposition.” The fact that Prime Minister Erdoğan cannot afford to lose creates a dangerous situation.
Despite the precarious state of Turkish politics and the excesses of the AKP, it is likely the party will avoid a serious defeat at the polls. The main opposition CHP has sought to widen its appeal, but Turkey still lacks an opposition party capable of mobilizing a broad base of voters at the national scale.
The AKP received 38.8 percent of all votes cast in the last local elections in 2009 and close to 50 percent in the more recent 2011 general election. Recent opinion polls — reliable polling is difficult in Turkey — have shown the party’s overall favorability down to 42.3 percent, the lowest in three years. The Republican People’s Party, or CHP, has seen general favorability rise to 29.8 percent, while the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) on the extreme right has risen to 18.7 percent. There also remains a large pool of undecided voters, but turnout is expected to be high.
Because the elections have been cast as a referendum by both sides, almost any result will spark a fight to interpret the popular will in advance of Turkey’s first-ever direct presidential election in August of 2014. Any result higher than the 38 percent earned by the AKP in the last local election will be portrayed as a victory and vindication of the Prime Minister. Likewise, a result of less than 38 percent for the AKP will represent a defeat, emboldening dissenters within the AKP. A CHP upset in Istanbul would also vastly elevate their candidate, Mustafa Sarıgül, at the national level — presenting the first personality with the popularity to challenge Erdoğan. An AKP loss in Istanbul would also be a crushing blow to the party’s patronage system. As Henri Barkey, a leading Turkey analyst, puts it, “Istanbul is to the AKP what oil is to Saudi Arabia — it is not just politics, it is also the source of all their rents and resources, through property deals and construction contracts.”
With the stakes so high, both major parties have warned of the risk of electoral fraud, and the CHP has said it will deploy as many as 500,000 observers. Electoral fraud of any meaningful scale would likely spark massive street protests in major cities. This worst-case scenario could provoke a violent crackdown from the authorities. While such an outcome remains unlikely, it would require a thorough reevaluation of bilateral relations by the United States and European countries. Turkey is at a turning point — watch this space.
(Read more about Turkey in turmoil from Werz and Hoffman in an issue brief released on Thursday.)