While the opposition hails the beginning of the end for Turkey’s ruling party, local election setbacks might actually be a blessing in disguise.
Just when you thought the ship was steadying, last weekend brought another tumultuous moment in Turkish politics. Local and mayoral elections that once again pitted a government-led conservative alliance against a more secular opposition have produced ballot box drama.
The headline is that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) saw its candidate lose in all three of Turkey’s largest cities: Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. It looks like a political earthquake, and that’s certainly how the opposition is portraying it. But look a little closer, and it’s not so straightforward.
Turkish democracy is alive
Firstly, it is worth emphasizing the fact that these election results have occurred at all. The Turkish opposition, and much foreign media, has long painted the AKP and President Erdogan as an authoritarian dictatorship destroying Turkish democracy. While the president’s populist tendencies, his alliance with far-right nationalists and the suppression of opposing voices — namely those of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) — are undeniable, this election is proof that what is happening in Turkey cannot be painted as another Middle Eastern dictatorship.
Erdogan is an energetic campaigner. He works for his votes, and he continues to claim legitimacy from the ballot box. As Yasin Aktay, a columnist in the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper, wrote in the prelude to the poll, “You know what kinds of elections are held [in most Arab countries] … the number of votes they desire are ordered and dictators get over 90 percent.” Not only have the Turkish local and mayoral elections not been rigged, but they have seen a reported turnout of some 85%. That’s very good by any democratic standard.
More importantly for the government, the election results are not as bad as they might appear from the headlines. First, take the big news: The AKP loses Turkey’s three biggest cities. The AKP never has a hope in Izmir, Turkey’s third city, since it is a west-coast bastion of opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) support. In that sense, it wasn’t lost, since the party never held it in the first place.
In the case of the mayoral race for Istanbul and Ankara, the two biggest cities, these are genuine defeats. Istanbul is particularly painful psychologically, since the AKP has held the city since Erdogan’s own election as mayor in 1994. The party fielded former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim as its candidate, and he lost by a wafer-thin margin. Plus, there is a dark old saying: He who controls Istanbul, controls Turkey.
Yet despite these foreboding signs, both Istanbul and Ankara were very tight races. Neither CHP candidate won by much, and there is still significant support for the AKP. What’s more, nationwide the AKP has taken the largest share of the vote once again. All this means that while it was a sobering night for the ruling party, it was not a total disaster.
The other key element in these election results is the context. The AKP came into these elections after 16 years in power. It is overseeing the first recession in a decade, a sliding lira and growing unemployment. It has been through a devastating regional conflict in Syria that has hugely affected Turkish internal politics.
Given the context, most observers would expect far worse for a ruling party. It could be argued that AKP support has held up remarkably well. However, that support has slipped in the all-important major urban and business areas, and that might not be a bad thing. Opposition has been building for a long time, and it has become increasingly vocal and extreme.
In a democracy, there is ultimately no better antidote to opposition anger and frustration than power. For the Turkish body politic as a whole, an opportunity for the opposition to exercise power in the major cities, and also confront the very real problems Turkey faces there, will only contribute to a nuancing of debate within Turkish politics.
An opportunity for the party
This moment of electoral turbulence is also, very possibly, an opportunity for the AKP to rejuvenate itself after so long in power. Not only does the result demonstrate to the world that — despite frequent portrayals to the contrary — Turkey is no China, Saudi Arabia or Egypt. In Turkey, the opposition can win if it can persuade. It also gives the AKP room to maneuver and perhaps change course.
The economic and political direction has brought a contraction of growth, a sliding currency and polarization — all things the AKP originally swept to power by reversing. As a historically pro-business party, it could take this as an opportunity to reform in the name of listening to business. President Erdogan has already said, “If there are any shortcomings, it is our duty to correct them.”
Not only do I predict that the AKP will come back stronger in the next elections than would be the case had it simply rigged the result, but it will come back stronger than it would have had the party won all three of Turkey’s biggest cities comfortably. Easy wins breed complacency. There will be no complacency now.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.