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Opinion: Turkey’s local elections are an important barometer | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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TOPSHOTS People throw up fake euro notes during a demonstration against Turkey’s prime minister in Ankara March 1, 2014. Close to 600 protesters took to the streets in the Turkish capital to protest against the corruption and bribery allegations roiling Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. Some demonstrators were seen handing out fake euros in […]

Turkey is facing three successive elections: municipal, presidential and parliamentary. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) will fight to keep hold of power, while opposition parties will fight to dislodge the ruling party, even at the cost of a minority government and the restoration of the tense atmosphere that existed in the early 2000s.

In the days after the municipal elections scheduled for March 30, 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the prime minister, will have to make a choice. If his AKP secures a strong election victory over its opponents in the municipal elections, he could choose to run for president in the August 2014 elections, the first direct presidential elections in Turkish history. Or he could call for early parliamentary elections next year in an attempt to restore what he has lost in terms of power and influence, particularly if the AKP does not have a strong showing in March’s municipal polls.

If Erdoğan is greeted with failure on March 30, he will immediately pursue the scenario that entails amending the AKP bylaws which limit the tenure of its political leadership—whether in parliament or government—to three successive terms. This is an obstacle that Erdoğan himself placed in his own path in the name of inter-party democracy, development, and granting the AKP youth the opportunity to assume leadership positions.

The forthcoming days will doubtlessly be full of surprises for Turkey.

Only a few will go to the polls in Turkey to cast their votes in the municipal elections. Despite this, Turkey’s political parties will be fixated on snatching victory over the other side.

In these three elections, the rivalry will be between competing ideologies, rather than capabilities, qualifications or electoral promises. In fact, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s electoral campaigning throughout Turkey’s cities, his discourse, his manner of handling issues, and the general public’s reaction to him all reflect the ideological division within the political arena today, no matter how those in government or the opposition try to conceal it.

We will also soon understand whether Fethullah Gülen’s group will be easy prey for Erdoğan and the AKP. We will see whether the AKP will be able to isolate this group easily, particularly in light of the long decades of work undertaken by the Gülen movement and the vast network of relations it has built inside and outside of Turkey. Will Erdoğan be able to defeat Gülen’s followers, or will they teach the prime minister a lesson, playing their political cards and entering into alliances with opposition parties?

In April 2014, Turkey will enter a new political debate as it deals with the results of the local elections. The announcement of the official election results, including voter turnout and the total number of votes, will likely not be enough for any one side to claim victory. Parties will point to the number of cities they won, or the number of total votes they received. Istanbul’s voters are likely to opt for the AKP, whereas İzmir will most likely vote for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). However, the real competition will be in the capital, Ankara, which for years has fallen squarely into the AKP camp. But the CHP, with its Right-wing nationalist background, has launched a strong bid to retake the capital city from Erdoğan and his party.

One important thing to mention is that these municipal elections will be held across thirty major Turkish cities, which make up eighty percent of vote. For the AKP, success means winning at least 40 percent of the vote—compared to the 39 percent it won in the 2009 local elections. For the opposition, however, the standard of success is how they benefit and use a number of major issues, not least the Gezi Park protests, the government corruption scandal, the AKP’s foreign policy retreat, and its amendments of four laws that concern the country’s social, cultural and security strength. The two sides are aware that the forthcoming period represents an unprecedented opportunity, and so they are moving full speed ahead to try and take advantage of this.

Many Turkish voters seem to have already made up their mind and are just waiting for election day to see how the rest of the country voted. At this point, only an extremely serious political or security event will have any effect on electoral calculations. But does the Gülen’s movement have any other surprises up its sleeve to knock Erdoğan off his game as the elections approach? That is the question.

Another concern that will shift into a real impasse for Erdoğan and his party is the share of the vote secured by the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and its ability to use a strong local election showing as a political and constitutional bargaining chip with Erdoğan over the Kurdish issue and the fate of Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader Abdullah Öcalan, who remains imprisoned on İmralı Island.

In any case, the corruption accusations first made against Erdoğan and his party two months ago have dispelled his dream of remaining in power in the long term under the pretext that there is no political alternative and based on the self-acclaimed accomplishments he secured for Turkey, both at home and abroad.

All the talk today is about Erdoğan, who reportedly sleeps for only four hours a night and spends the rest of his time preparing the AKP for the forthcoming local elections. Erdoğan is insisting on viewing the municipal elections as the decisive word on whether the AKP will secure another ten years in power or whether he will stand for the presidency in six months.

Will the prime minister—having expressed shock at the magnitude and gravity of the alleged plot against him—be able to unify the AKP and then successfully mobilize the Turkish street against a conspiracy that he says does not just target him personally, but all of Turkey?

Since 2002, Erdoğan’s model of leadership and administration has been viewed as a successful example of governance. This is why he is urging those concerned about their country’s interests and fate to back him and his party when they head to the polls in March, saying that this would teach the so-called deep state and its foreign backers a lesson.

The February 7, 2012, crisis when the Istanbul Special Prosecutor ordered intelligence chief Hakan Fidan to give testimony as a suspect in a terrorist investigation paved the way for the bigger December 17, 2013, explosion: the corruption probe that initiated the break between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen. This new status quo will define the political fate of the Turkish prime minister. However, what is practically out of the question is to imagine Erdoğan taking the opportunity to simply withdraw silently from political life.

Erdoğan is now facing one of two options, with the particulars to be decided by the results of the municipal elections. If his party secures an overwhelming victory, it will encourage him to prepare to present himself as a presidential candidate to succeed Abdullah Gül in August 2014. However, should the opposition strike a strong blow against the AKP then we could expect Erdoğan to pursue the Samson Option, announcing early parliamentary elections before the expected date of mid-2015.