Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Second-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments over the next quarter.
Pocketbooks and the Kurds are likely to be foremost on most voters' minds when Turkey heads to municipal polls on March 31 for an election that will provide a barometer of the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) support. In 2014, the last time voters elected mayors in Turkey, the AKP captured over 40 percent of the vote, finishing well ahead of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which scored about a quarter of the votes, as well as the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). Five years on, these parties — along with some new formations — are jostling for more representation at the local level, and the political stakes are higher than ever as the parties battle over the country's plummeting economy and the government's security-first approach to the Kurdish issue. Profoundly popular with about half the population — if detested just as much by the other half, albeit for wildly differing reasons — AKP leader and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan today sits atop a powerful state apparatus. But while the March 31 elections won't challenge Erdogan's stranglehold on power, they will provide a rare, legal test of his party's actual popular legitimacy. With that in mind, the election is the AKP's to lose.
Turkey's municipal elections on March 31 will test the Justice and Development Party's strength two years after it won its bid to overhaul the government system. But the pressing economic concerns in Turkey, and the ruling party's controversial means of managing them, are at the forefront of voters' minds and could yield some surprising results that force the ruling government to adjust some of its behavior.
Reason to Be Pleased
The AKP has turned into an election machine, winning vote after vote, and its current strength and degree of popularity suggest these coming elections will be no different. While its challengers typically cater to just a segment of Turkey's population, the AKP is the only party to enjoy support from nearly all demographic groups in the country. Ahead of last year's general elections, the AKP shored up its nationalist and conservative base by entering into the People's Alliance with the MHP. The parties are cooperating again this time round, running a campaign fueled by the economic populism and nationalist policies that have become the government's bread and butter.
Arrayed against the AKP and the MHP is the Nation's Alliance, featuring the secular CHP and the Good Party, a far-right splinter from the MHP. Together, they are calling for an end to corruption and dramatic economic structural reform, while also flying the flag of Turkish nationalism. But the opposition parties, particularly the CHP, have faced disarray in recent weeks, providing easy fodder to the AKP and MHP to attack the opposition as unorganized. The mainstream media (which almost wholly promotes the AKP's views) have published numerous reports about a rash of resignations within the CHP, portraying the party — Turkey's oldest — as unconfident and plagued by disagreements within itself. Disorganized or not, the CHP has proved incapable of breaking the psychological barrier of 25 percent support in three decades; given such a situation, it is likely to remain confined to its western coastal strongholds on March 31 as well.
Beyond its popular support, the AKP also has a near-complete control over the country's institutions — thanks in part to a constitutional referendum in 2017 that endowed Erdogan with greatly enhanced powers — meaning it is well-placed to skirt legal lines to grab a victory where necessary. The coup attempt in 2016 also gave the AKP-led government the opportunity to use states of emergency to shape policy and institutions in its favor. Since 2016, it has been working to sideline the HDP, accusing the party of acting in the interests the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). In 2018 alone, authorities arrested 15 sitting or former HDP members of parliament, appointed trustees to 94 of 97 municipalities won by the HDP's forerunner in 2014, arrested 50 mayors and detained more than 2,000 HDP members. Such policies are sure to win support from the sizable number of Turkish voters who virulently oppose the PKK, but their effect on HDP voters will become clear only on March 31, as many could give the polls a pass due to fears of intimidation.
Beyond its popular support, the AKP also has a near-complete control over Turkey's institutions.
At the same time, the government appears to be taking other action to ensure success in Kurdish areas, including rolling out some small-scale economic development programs in the southeast. Last month, the HDP accused authorities of registering fictitious voters at addresses in the pro-Kurdish party's heartland, Southeast Anatolia — including 1,108 voters in a single apartment in Hakkari. In addition, the resumption of violence between the Turkish state and the PKK in 2015 has forced many people in heavily pro-HDP areas to migrate west; in their place have come large numbers of security forces. And ahead of the elections, Erdogan vowed to reappoint trustees if the HDP won the municipalities on March 31 again — a threat that could convince some of the Kurdish party's voters to avoid the polls.
The Fly in the Ointment
For the AKP, the main worry is the country's economic fragility. Worsening indicators like unemployment belie the government's messages that a nascent economic rebalancing program is proving to be a success. In fact, in the last month alone, 211,000 people have lost their jobs, according to Sozcu, an opposition newspaper. Meanwhile, the cost of food has gone up 30 percent year on year; fruits and vegetables have gone up a whopping 60 percent. A volatile lira value, high inflation, rising costs of living and extreme levels of corporate debt have all contributed to a sense of economic instability in Turkey. As a result, there are fewer jobs on offer in construction, coal and agriculture — all sectors that are critical in the Anatolian heartland, the AKP's stronghold.
For the AKP, this is a bad mix just before polls. The party came to power in 2002 based on fresh ideas to turn around the economy, which had fallen into a slump in the volatile 1990s. Now, however, the government's ideas about how to manage the volatility appear stale. In response to skyrocketing prices for fruits and vegetables, the government established local sales points offering produce at a reduced price. The mobile greengrocers have proven a hit with local residents (around 300 tons of vegetables have flown off the shelves in just two weeks), but the opposition has declared the move a populist stunt that is economically unfeasible. Indeed, one former CHP lawmaker calculated that the government is losing around 200,000 liras ($38,000) a day in selling produce at a discount. Whatever the case, the sales points' appearance reflects the government's fears about the political impact of allowing market forces to take their course on the eve of an election.
And though the AKP has painted the CHP as staid and unfit to govern, the latter is making efforts to renew itself in key battlegrounds, including the biggest one, the mayoralty of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. The CHP or one of its antecedents hasn't been in charge of Turkey's largest city since 1994 — when it lost Istanbul to none other than Erdogan — but it is hoping that the fresh-faced Ekrem Imamoglu can capture the metropolis from former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.
Strong though the AKP is, Turkey's economic woes could detract from its support, while the AKP's campaign of intimidation against the HDP could galvanize the latter's supporters to get out and vote despite the obstacles. A dip in support for the AKP would represent a wake-up call to the Turkish government, as it would indicate that the party is losing some of its popular appeal despite the many political changes it pushed for. But such a scenario could also precipitate a harsh response from Erdogan. For one, the AKP could solidify its nationalist turn, thereby scuttling chances for any return to a Kurdish peace process in the near term. What's more, a dent in the AKP's popularity could spur additional crackdowns against the AKP's enemies, including alleged members of the Gulen movement, whom the government accuses of leading the July 2016 coup attempt.
Turkey's enduring economic fragility is creating deeper divisions (to say nothing of the government's decision to abandon a peace process with the PKK in favor of a military solution to the Kurdish issue), meaning the factor that has propelled the AKP to victory in countless elections — its ability to manage the economy — is losing its luster. Accordingly, opposition parties will continue to chip away at the AKP's legitimacy by playing on the economic anxiety that is plaguing Turks. It won't be enough to dislodge the AKP as the victors of the March 31 election, but their efforts might be enough to rain on the ruling party's parade.