Analysis

Summary: Elections are always a serious business in Turkey and the local elections that just took place were no exception. The electorate gave a stern warning to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and notably Prime Minister Erdogan, who ran an energetic but harsh, angry, and polarizing campaign. In light of the election results, the question before Turkey is what course the AKP will take, or to be more precise, how the Prime Minister will interpret the results and how he will respond.

The electorate’s tune-up
by Soli Ozel* March 31, 2009
Elections are always a serious business in Turkey and the local elections that took place Sunday were no exception. The elections were held to elect mayors and city councils on separate tickets, meaning support for a candidate or their party can and does show variance throughout the country. The electorate gave a stern warning to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and notably to Prime Minister Erdogan, who ran an energetic but harsh, angry, and polarizing campaign that was reciprocated by his adversaries. One major beneficiary of the elections was the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which increased both the percentage of the vote it received and the number of municipalities it holds. The voters also brought the Islamist Felicity Party (SP) back to lfe, which is under new, robust leadership. The Kurdish Nationalist Party (DTP), whose relation to the terrorist organization PKK is similar to that of Sinn Fein and the IRA, claimed its natural terrain back from the AKP. In the general elections of 2007, AKP had done exceptionally well in the predominantly Kurdish Southeast. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) slightly improved its position, but once again showed it could not become a valid challenger to the AKP as a national party. However, some of its candidates and local organizations, notably in Istanbul and Izmir, showed that the party still had the opportunity to revitalize itself if its current septuagenarian politburo would finally go into long-overdue retirement. With more than 80 percent participation nationwide, according to unofficial results, the AKP received 39% of the vote for city councils. CHP got 23%, MHP 16%, DTP 5.6%, and SP 5.2%. In several metropolitan centers, CHP’s support was well above the national average for the party. Like the nationalist MHP, it had no presence whatsoever in the southeast, just as the DTP had no showing in Central, Northern, and Western Turkey. AKP had a net loss of 12 city municipalities. Prior to the elections the Prime Minister specifically targeted certain cities and districts that had symbolic importance, such as Diyarbakır in the Southeast, Izmir on the Aegean coast, and Eskisehir in Central Anatolia. Not only did he fail to win these munici-

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Soli Ozel teaches at Istanbul Bilgi University’s Department of International Relations and Political Science and is a foreign editor of Haberturk. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).
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Analysis

palities, but, with the exception of the city of Trabzon in the north, in many of them his party lost by a landslide. Furthermore, the AKP lost two metropolitan municipalities along the Mediterranean coast as well. checks and balances These results call for further detailed analysis, but a preliminary evaluation reveals important messages. There were few individuals in the punditocracy who expected what turned out to be a row for the AKP. Prior to the election, the debate was over whether the party would receive 40-45 percent of the vote, 45-50 percent or even above 50 percent. For some, there was concern that another landslide victory for the ruling party would hurt Turkish democracy by skewing the balance of power. Only one pollster called the election almost exactly right. The electorate did not give the AKP the kind of monopolistic power that it sought. The political system and the political dynamics of Turkey showed that the necessary checks and balances against overwhelming power and the threat of electoral authoritarianism are in the electoral system. Even if Turkey’s institutional mechanisms for checks and balances are still weak, the electorate rises to the occasion. Last but not least on the issue of systemic checks and balances: this election was held with no military shadow cast over it. It was thoroughly a civilian affair that, inter alia, showed how interventions by the military and the judiciary in the electoral process have backfired, notably in 2007. The normalization of Turkish politics and its detoxification from military tutelage are to be celebrated. The economic crisis certainly underpinned the results. Turkish manufacturing suffered immensely in the last few months as both domestic and foreign markets crashed. Unemployment registered steep increases as elsewhere in the world. In major industrial cities, the AKP vote dropped precipitously, even if not enough to cost it the mayor’s office. The financial system, cured of its ills during Turkey’s economic crisis of 2001, held its own but a general sense that the management of the economy had no ownership also hurt the AKP. The Prime Minister’s callousness about the crisis,

“The electorate did not give the AKP the kind of monopolistic power that it sought. The political system and the political dynamics of Turkey showed that the necessary checks and balances against overwhelming power and the threat of electoral authoritarianism are in the electoral system.”
his denial that this was a serious matter that demanded full, undivided, and competent attention, and his propensity to blame or accuse everyone for the economic pains in the country, cost him dearly. In many cities, particularly in coastal regions and the Southeast, the electorate displayed a strong political and ideological position. It was telling that the Prime Minister was shocked and angry that his party lost the resort city of Antalya that he personally visited 26 times. In the Kurdish city of Tunceli, where the governor helped distribute white goods to villages that did not have electricity, the AKP lost handsomely. In short, the elections showed the limits of relying on material services or electoral bribes to win in politically conscious regions. In the coastal provinces, the voters defended their lifestyles that they, rightly or wrongly, believed were being threatened by AKP’s religious conservatism. In the Southeast, despite aid, investment, and the launching of Kurdish TV, citizens rejected politics that denied the identity (thus political) dimension of the Kurdish problem. They clearly punished the AKP for adopting a harsh nationalist tone toward those who spoke the language of identity politics and for getting closer to the military.

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Analysis

The identity vote worked in another way as well. Part of MHP’s rise can be explained by the reaction in the conservative-nationalist heartland to the developments on the Kurdish issue. This was particularly evident in mid-Western cities close to the Aegean coast where both Kurdish migration and the number of fallen soldiers in the war against the PKK create a fertile environment for ethnic tension. Devil in the details Whereas the picture in the aggregate is indeed a celebration of Turkish democracy, the details are more sobering. The electoral map’s divisions also suggest a divided, almost ghettoized country. The AKP is the sole national party. All other parties are confined to specific geographical areas and reflect the political-ideological stances of their constituents. The electorate itself is fragmented and the fact that only one party, the AKP, has a presence across the country is telling. In these elections the broad coalition of classes and ideologies that the AKP brought together has been broken, in no small part because of the arrogance of power the ruling party’s managers and the Prime Minister displayed. The modern middle classes defected both because of the economic crisis and lifestyle concerns. Some of the nationalists went to MHP and some of the religiously conservative turned toward SP. The Kurds of the Southeast, after having supported the AKP overwhelmingly in 2007, turned toward the Kurdish nationalist DTP. The AKP’s advantage until these elections was that it could bring these disparate groups together and allow them to have a dialogue in its organization or mediate between these different constituencies. The AKP was able to do this because of its early commitment to the democratization program framed by the EU accession process. The diminishing attention given to democratization, the stalling of the reform process and the carelessness in lifestyle matters finally dismantled the coalition. Arguably the AKP itself was not fully cognizant of how important a genuine democratization process was in its success and consequently it totally mismanaged its phenomenal victory of 2007.

This political fragmentation must be transcended. The only cure for it is a genuine program of democratization. All parties will have to commit themselves to such a program. It is quite evident that, even though the ruling party is losing ground, the opposition does not offer a viable alternative to the general electorate. Undoubtedly, the opposition will have to clarify its positions on many issues and come up with a program that would be attractive for diverse constituencies. Still, the first shot will have to come from the ruling party. In light of the electoral results, the question before Turkey is what course the AKP will take, or, to be more precise, how will the Prime Minister interpret the results and how will he respond. If he can reignite the reformist spirit, he will have done his party and the country a lot of good. We are likely to learn the answer when the anticipated cabinet shuffle takes place next week.

Soli Ozel, Lecturer, Bilgi University; Columnist, Sabah
Soli Ozel teaches at Istanbul Bilgi University’s Department of International Relations and Political Science. He is foreign editor for Haberturk and is senior advisor to the chairman of the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association. Additionally, he is the editor of TUSIAD’s magazine Private View.

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