Johannesburg, South Africa.
Though the recently concluded nationwide elections in Turkey, on 30 March, were only meant to select mayors and municipal officials, they were effectively turned into a referendum on the popularity of prime minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). That the municipal elections would be crucial for Erdogan’s future plans for Turkey had been evident for a while. Earlier in 2012 Erdogan had tried, unsuccessfully, to bring the March elections forward by five months, in order to gauge his popularity and then allow himself some extra time to campaign for a run in the upcoming presidential elections in August. However, with his plans for constitutional changes leading to Turkey’s transformation into a presidential state thwarted, the municipal elections took on new significance.
Erdogan’s administration has had to deal with one challenge after another since the outbreak of Gezi Park protests in May 2013. The latest crisis besetting Erdogan developed out of the arrests and corruption cases that were initiated against key allies of the Turkish government in December 2013. It even led to members of the AKP splitting away from the party, criticising the AKP leadership for acting arrogantly and pressuring the judiciary to protect its own. Erdogan, for his part, other than pressing forward with legal reforms that would bring the judiciary under the control of the executive, and purging the police, described the investigation as a ‘judicial coup’ and an ‘assassination attempt’. His logic was to explain the graft probe as a conspiracy hatched and spearheaded by an alleged ‘state within a state’, that is the followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish-Muslim religious figure exiled in Pennsylvania, USA. The crisis, over three months old now, continued to get worse with corruption allegations being raised against Erdogan’s son, and private conversations between the country’s top security officials being released on YouTube. The Turkish government responded to this new tactic by banning YouTube and Twitter, seeing both as a means of organising against the Turkish state. These are some of the developments that provide the context for the 30 March municipal elections, in light of which Erdogan turned the elections into a measure of his (and AKP’s) popularity with the electorate.
The results, so far, indicate a voter turnout between 80% and 90%, with about 45% of the votes in favour of AKP. Although, on a quick glance, this looks like a clear and manifest approval for AKP, and it was quickly proclaimed as such by Erdogan, the popularity contest cannot be settled that easily. First of all, not only is the opposition calling foul play due to electricity black outs during the vote-counting, it is also challenging the particularly close contest in the capital city of Ankara and such claims are spreading to other cities in Turkey. In some municipalities, the election results have been so close that mayoralty changed hands after a recount detected the difference of a mere seven votes. However, even if we ignore these issues of foul play and recounts, a second problem plagues these statistics as a barometer of AKP or Erdogan’s popularity. In the last parliamentary elections in 2011, AKP secured nearly 50% of the total votes while in the previous local elections, in 2009, it managed to get 39% of the votes. Which of these two should serve as the baseline for comparing the AKP’s achievements in 2014? Additionally, what exactly is being compared here? Is this a match between AKP and the opposition political parties, or is this is a competition between Erdogan and Gulen, or is this a comparison between AKP in 2014 and AKP in 2001/2009/2011? Answering these questions is not an easy task, and would require a significantly longer discussion. However, minimally, they point to the naivety of offering any glib interpretations of the elections.
Therefore, it is better to focus on the issues that animated the elections this year, rather than analyse the elections diachronically. But even on this point, the significance of the elections is not clear. While some commentators think that the election results can point to the expected results in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, others disagree. Yet, prognostications aside, what is more obvious is that Erdogan is interpreting the results as a mandate to enforce his writ over the Turkish society. His speech, on the night after the elections, is a clear indication that, despite making abundant references to democracy, he cannot separate the health of the Turkish state from AKP’s performance and vendettas. Standing next to his ministers and son, implicated in the corruption scandal, he warned the Gulen movement that he was about ‘enter their dens’ and will make them ‘pay the price’.
This does not augur well for the Turkish model of democracy, which was supposedly meant to inspire other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East region to better governance. Instead, it is now Erdogan who is seemingly getting closer to the methods used by authoritarian regimes, like the current one in Egypt, in employing a conspiracy-driven anti-western political rhetoric that casts local opposition as outsiders and against the Turkish nation. And to make matters worse, his authoritarian tendencies are not only restricted to habits of speech. In addition to banning YouTube and Twitter, and reorganizing the judiciary and the police, the AKP has also been contemplating Turkey’s version of the Patriot Act. The bill that will allow an increase in the authority of the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT), giving it access to public and private banking, telephone and administrative records, also forbids the justice system from interfering in intelligence operations. The parliament is yet to consider the bill, but even Abdullah Gul, the current president and co-founder of AKP, has urged for the bill to be revised before it is presented to the parliament for approval as legislation. Whether this will happen or not, to a large extent, depends on the mood Erdogan is in. The party, which suffers from a dip in its approval ratings in the absence of his leadership, is not only beholden to him but is also likely to amend its by-laws to allow Erdogan to become the prime minister for a fourth time. Therefore, a reconsideration of this bill appears highly unlikely, and all the more so in light of his recent triumphalist speech.
In conclusion, Turkey’s municipal elections are not a good parameter to gain a nuanced measure of Erdogan or AKP’s popularity. However, judging on the basis of how their results have affected Erdogan, especially when considered in light of his recent tendencies towards increased authoritarianism, the results do not bode well for democracy in Turkey. This is not to say that Gulen and his followers are not on a personal mission against AKP or Erdogan. Instead, this is only to worry about the fragile state of democracy in Turkey, which, even if not threatened by a return of the generals, is looking increasingly beleaguered by none other than its longest serving democratically elected leader.
Omar Ali is a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa. He specializes in Middle Eastern politics and international affairs.