The meaning of last Turkish local elections from two Turkish perspectives

Last Turkish local elections of 30th March ended up with a renewed victory for the AKP party which gained around 48% expressed suffrages. This result took the international public opinion by surprise, if considering the past dramatic events characterizing Turkish political landscape which primarily concerned the Prime Minister and his party: firstly, the government’s crackdown of the protests in Taksim Square of last summer; then, the breakout of the corruption scandals in December 201i3; afterwards, the shutdown of social platforms such as Twitter and You Tube at the very elections’ eve. If confronting these with the elections results, some questions naturally arise.

How can we explain the AKP’s electoral success? What last results will immediately mean for Turkish political system? Do these administrative elections constitute a prelude to what will happen on next presidential elections of this summer? In order to answer these questions, we interviewed two Turkish scholars and personalities: Kerim Balci, editor in Chief at ‘Turkish Review’, and Oğuzhan Goksel, PhD candidate on Turkish Politics and Political Economy at Durham University. Briefly, what emerged from the opinions that those two people shared with us is the necessity of contextualizing the above-mentioned events into Turkey’s political, cultural, economic and social system.

Primarily, we all must understand that the majority of Turkish people seem predisposed to accept a definition of democracy implying a strong, steady and charismatic leadership. In fact, as Kerim Balci explained: “The success belongs to Erdoğan, not to his party AKP. Turkish people are inclined towards powerful leaders and Erdoğan managed to give a signal of strength and determination. Neither one of the three opposition parties had similar level of leadership charisma. […] It is true that CHP couldn’t present a meaningful opposition and it is passing through a leadership crisis. I believe that for the first time in Turkish history all state organs worked for the success of a single political party”. Moreover, contrarily to those interpreting the AKP’ s victory as a signal of people’s favor towards the traditionalist and Islamist right, Mr. Balci replies that “the cleavage between traditional right and left was not definitive, because MHP, the nationalist party is a right wing party also”. Thus the failure of CHP and MHP can be summarily explained not only basing on their own weaknesses and lack of popular ‘appeal’, but, also owing to their incapacity of granting an economic prosperity as that granted by the AKP during his ruling. In fact, Erdoğan and his party managed to recover successfully the economy from the deep crisis that Turkey went through during the nineties. “The performance of Turkish economy over the last 12 years has not been remarkable if compared with other developing economies of the era such as China, Brazil and India (Turkish GDP growth rate being approximately 5 percent in this period)”- Goksel explains – “However, if it is compared with the dismal performance of the coalition governments of the 1990s, the one-party rule of the AKP can be argued to be largely positive as it has brought economic stability. Under the AKP, Turkey has not experienced an economic crisis, kept the inflation relatively low (around 7-10 percent) and prevented unemployment rate from rising. Many Turkish voters still remember how the economy was mismanaged under coalition governments in the previous decade, resulting in massive economic crises every two to three years. Many Turkish voters seem to prioritize economic concerns over other critical issues such as the ever-increasing reduction of political liberties by the government (i.e. the recent ban on social media platforms such as YouTube and Twitter)”.

Thus, having clarified this first main macro-point concerning the reasons behind the AKP’S last electoral success, we tried to figure out whether it, as many argued, would represent the anticipation of Erdoğan’s victory on next presidential elections. Having regard to this issue, even if Erdoğan is expected to be running for presidential elections, this is not 100% sure yet. Secondly, as Mr. Goksel remarks ‘it could be misleading to rely on data from the 30th March 2014 election to comment on forthcoming presidential elections. First of all, Turkey has never held presidential elections before. Thus, we do not yet know how the voters would behave in such an occasion. Secondly, we should not forget that the 30th March election was for municipalities. Many people vote on the basis of the performance and programs of specific mayors, rather than party loyalty in such elections.  However, in case of his victory, he should change the Constitution in a presidential sense in order to preserve his leverage on the party and on Turkey as well”. Otherwise, another perspective, presented by Mr. Balci, would be the election of a “puppet Prime Minister”.

However, if not willing to go too much ahead with time, it would be appropriate to reflect on the immediate consequences of the consultations at stake on Turkish political landscape. In particular, we have been wondering how credible and extensive would Erdoğan’s promise of revenge against ‘internal traitors’ be. In brief, would his renewed success stop or foster, instead, his crusade against the opposition and the Gülensits? Would his autocratic and conspiracy-obsessed attire increase political polarization? As Mr. Balci stated,  “Many people were expecting that, after winning the elections, Erdoğan would adopt a more moderate discourse and stop demonizing segments of the society. He didn’t do so. He continues to accuse a ‘parallel state’ and its agents within the state system. Whoever does not do what he wants is accused to be an agent of the parallel state. Apparently, he will use the same polarizing discourse during the presidential elections. But there is a limit to what people will believe. At some point the public will start questioning why this parallel state is demonized continuously and not revealed and punished legally. The polarization is no longer between right and left, or religious and secular, but between dictatorial inclinations of Erdoğan and resistance of the opposition parties and the civil society”.

Francesca Azzarà

Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)

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