It’s hard to imagine the outcome of Turkey’s local elections, scheduled for March 31, generating any real suspense. The result again is likely to favor the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan despite the deepening economic crisis that has enveloped Turkey, mainly in the form of private sector debt and rising consumer price inflation, presently hovering above 20 percent.
Turkey’s political elites across party lines are fixated on the elections. While the AKP is seeking alluring candidates to maintain its control of large cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, opposition parties — particularly the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) — are squabbling over choosing their nominees for the multiple mayoralties that will be up for grabs next spring and are not focused on devising a grand strategy to unseat the AKP from local power. Parties and elites alike covet local offices because local government administration is extremely profitable for mayors and provincial/city council members who gain prime positions to authorize public procurements and zoning and building licenses — all optimum means for self-enrichment. It is this last consideration that has many would-be candidates scrambling to net a nomination.
A Vulnerable Ruling Party
Since assuming power in 2002, the AKP has never looked weaker or less confident. By itself, the party is polling in the low 30 percent in opinion surveys, which is perilously low for an incumbent party heading into local elections. When paired as an alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), led by Devlet Bahceli, the AKP-MHP coalition jointly polls in the high 40s. The Erdogan-Bahceli alliance helped Erdogan clinch this summer’s presidential elections. In return for supporting Erdogan’s presidency, the MHP has initially secured for itself access to policy determination, mainly in the form of continued hawkish policies aimed at dealing with the Kurdish question. In the upcoming local elections, the MHP is seeking to build on this venture by winning mayoralties of large provinces such as Mersin and Osmaniye that the AKP will not contest. In return, the MHP will not challenge the AKP in cities such as Istanbul and Ankara.
An opposition party ordinarily would try to capitalize on the precarious situation the incumbent government is in, but these are not ordinary times. And it is not clear how the CHP will present itself as a credible governing alternative to the AKP. Between 2002 and 2010, the CHP, under the chairmanship of Deniz Baykal, branded itself as the “guarantee of secularism.” Under Baykal’s successor, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the CHP began orientating itself as the guardian of the rule of law and democratic governance, until it decided to abandon this position for no discernable reason. Under Bulent Ecevit in the mid-1970s, the CHP emerged as a forceful champion of Turkey’s working masses and social democratic governance. Particularly since 2015, the party has mutated into a club of elites in which the various deputy party chairs seemingly spend all their energies on self-promotion and turf protection. The party leadership appears impervious and dismissive of constructive criticism from scholars, strategists and rank-and-file party members.
Added to this development, the Kurdish movement, despite having the majority of its party leadership and mayors imprisoned, is the one variable that could give the Erdogan-Bahceli alliance something to worry about. Since the coup attempt of 2016, scores of Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) mayors have been forcibly removed from their positions for allegedly supporting terrorism and replaced by Erdogan appointees. Kurdish voters in southeastern Turkey are highly likely to vote for the HDP and could deal a serious blow to the AKP in one large region of the country.
An Election Down Memory Lane?
Even if the CHP were to propose a platform that inspired enough voters to seriously challenge the AKP, we must remember that Turkey is not a functioning democracy. One of the first signs of electoral impropriety surfaced during the 2014 local elections, when Mansur Yavas, the CHP’s mayoral candidate in Ankara, was dubiously denied victory over the AKP's Melih Gokcek. Such possibilities of tampering are a bad omen for democratic elections in Turkey and stoke concerns that the incumbent will be unwilling to hand over the keys of cities such as Istanbul, Ankara and Bursa to opponents. For the AKP, there is too much at stake if major provinces are lost to the opposition — be it the CHP or HDP. Not only would such a defeat upset the AKP’s spoils distribution mechanisms, but it also would further expose the party’s corrupt local governance practices — not to mention the demoralizing effect it would have on the AKP. As such, it’s reasonable to expect that the AKP will take a no-holds-barred approach to 2019 to keep local governments under the roof of the AKP-MHP alliance.
In the meantime, Turkish voters will be forced to suffer the opposition’s petty disputes, such as whether the CHP’s former presidential hopeful, Muharrem Ince, will secure the Istanbul mayoral nomination ahead of Gursel Tekin or another faceless party official. Voters also will be made to wonder whether Kilicdaroglu will help devise a national electoral strategy or take another bizarrely timed foreign trip as he did recently. All this comes at a time when the AKP and Erdogan are finding it more difficult to promise voters anything more than another round of mega construction projects such as roads and airports. They are also finding it a challenge to nominate mayoral candidates who have name recognition and/or who are not visibly corrupt. The choice of former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim for Istanbul is a clear example: Not only does Yildirim have a reputation as a terrible public speaker, but his family is also mired in corruption scandals. All told, Turkey has again entered a new electoral cycle, with familiar processes and factors at play. If we’re watching Turkey do the same thing over and over again, why would anyone expect a different result?
This contributor perspective has been adjusted for clarity.