Turkey held nationwide local elections on 31 March. The ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) won more that 50 percent of votes overall, but lost control in the capital, Ankara, and in the nation’s commercial centre, Istanbul. AKP is contesting both sets of results.
Two conclusions can be drawn from these events. First, democracy in Turkey – weakened and impaired though it has been over the past few years – is not yet dead. Even with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s allies controlling the vast majority of mainstream media outlets, opposition parties are still able to function, to challenge the government, and to win.
Secondly the president, a past-master at winning votes and recently endowed with sweeping executive power, is still subject to the inexorable laws of economics. While Turkey’s economy flourished, as it did for years, Erdogan’s popularity soared; but with inflation currently running at around 20 percent and food prices at a 20-year high, public discontent has spread, even among the AKP's conservative voter base.
The main opposition party is the CHP (the Republican People’s Party). In Istanbul the race for mayor descended into a neck and neck gallop to the winning post, and the final result gave CHP candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, a lead of 28,000 votes out of the more than 8 million votes cast. Bayram Senocak, the AKP's top official in Istanbul, immediately submitted an objection to the results, citing voting irregularities.
In Ankara, CHP candidate Mansur Yavas received over 50 percent of the votes cast. Hakan Han Ozcan, AKP's chairman in the capital, told reporters they were also filing an appeal.
Istanbul and Ankara were not alone in swinging to the opposition: The AKP and its allies also lost the cities of Adana, Antalya and Mersin, as well as a number of Anatolian provinces. Meanwhile the CHP successfully defended its strongholds on the Aegean coast, including Turkey's third-largest city of Izmir.
These results are undoubtedly a setback for Erdogan, and they may induce him to extend even further the enormous range of powers he already possesses, but which have proved insufficient to guarantee electoral success. The fact is that he is not yet comfortably assured in the position of supreme power he has managed to acquire – it was only in June 2018 that the complex series of political manoeuvres that have led him to that position came into effect. In short, he is still consolidating his political victory, and it is unfortunate for him that the economy has turned against him.
Local elections in March 2014 were the key to unlocking Erdogan’s ambitions. He had already served as prime minister for his statutory three terms but, with his AK Party supreme in the elections, he carried through a change in the constitution that allowed him to remain in office. From that position of power he was able to stand for president. He won that election, but at the time the presidency was a largely ceremonial position with no political power. In the June 2015 general elections, however, the AKP made the creation of an executive presidency central to its campaign promises.
The plan was to enhance the presidential role to a nearly all-powerful position as head of government and head of state, as well as head of the ruling party. The office of the prime minister would disappear, while the supremo president would have the power to appoint cabinet ministers and more than half the members of the nation’s highest judicial body. The president would also have the power to dissolve the national assembly and impose states of emergency.
The timetable for accomplishing all this envisaged its passage through parliament by the end of 2016, to be endorsed or rejected by a popular referendum a few months later. However the result of the referendum seemed far from certain. Erdogan had been bedevilled for years by the followers of Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric living in the US, who had become his fiercest opponent. Popular support in Turkey was spread evenly between them.
Then came the confusing sequence of events of 15 July 2016, amounting to what was apparently a failed coup against the government by political opponents able to mobilize the military. Whatever the truth behind it, Erdogan’s reaction was to institute retribution of unprecedented severity on people in all walks of life suspected of opposing the regime. More than 110,000 people were arrested including nearly 11,000 police officers, 7,500 members of the military, and 2,500 prosecutors and judges. 179 media outlets were shut down, and some 2700 journalists dismissed.
Nine months later, in April 2017, the referendum on the constitutional changes took place. The result – a narrow 51 percent in favour and 49 percent against – confirmed the suspicions of those unconvinced about the nature of the coup the previous July. Erdogan might well have lost the referendum, and with it his bid for supreme power, had there not been a strong reason to remove opposition voices and to rally Turkish opinion against rebels in the military seeking to overthrow the government.
It was only in June 2018 that Erdogan was re-elected and assumed the hard fought for role of Executive President. He has won supreme power, but has he lost the widespread popularity that once sustained his rise to that position?
Defeat in Ankara is bad enough, since Erdogan's AKP had held power in the capital for a quarter century. But defeat in Turkey's largest city, Istanbul, has certainly hit Erdogan particularly hard, for it was as Istanbul’s mayor that he began his meteoric rise to power in the 1990s. He is on the record as saying: "whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey.” Now – subject to appeal – his political opponents, the CHP have gained it.
Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 April 2019: