On March 30, Turkey will hold local elections which will serve as a prelude to presidential elections in the summer and parliamentary elections which are currently scheduled for next year. They come at a very sensitive time for the country: lauded until recently as a paradigm of political and economic stability in the Middle East, Turkey is reeling from a major corruption scandal that is threatening to undermine its main institutions and to drive investors away—perhaps also undermining other emerging markets. In addition, the policies of the current government have polarized Turkish society, as attested to by the widespread protests in Istanbul and other major cities this summer, and upcoming local elections are widely seen as a crucial vote of confidence in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one that may chart the near future of the country.
A Referendum on Erdogan
Paradoxically, the most important players to observe in these elections are not the parties whose candidates will be running against each other, of which there are four: the ruling moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), the left-leaning secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), the right-wing (often described as far right) Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). But while it is true that several races—especially in Istanbul, Ankara and the Kurdish areas—will be significant for Turkish politics, the main challenge for the prime minister currently comes from some of his own former close allies and supporters.
Erdogan, who has won sweeping election victories three times in a row and has been in power since 2002—making him the most popular politician since the secular republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk—is prohibited from running for a fourth term by the internal rules of his own party. He has two options to stay in power: he could either try to change the rules, or he could switch places with the president, who is also a founding member of the AKP, and increase the powers of the presidency by passing a new constitution. While both of these would come at a price, most of his efforts in the last few years have arguably gone toward the latter goal.
He is facing some major obstacles, however. He recently got into a bitter fight with a rival Islamist movement which was for many years his close ally against the once-powerful military—and whose members are firmly embedded in most state institutions as well as the ruling party. Erdogan accused the Hizmet (“Service”) movement, headed by the charismatic US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, of orchestrating a major corruption probe that started on December 17 and toppled four government ministers as well as some of his other key allies. His government proceeded to purge hundreds of high-ranking police officers and prosecutors, blocking further waves of arrests and calling into question the independence of the judiciary; in turn, this spooked investors whose flight from the country triggered a sharp drop in the value of the Turkish lira and threatened to undermine the economy.
Gulen’s movement is not represented by a political party, and though there has been a lot of speculation whether or not he would support one of the opposition parties—such as the CHP—most analysts believe that his influence with voters is fairly minor (estimates range between one and six percent, certainly not enough to singlehandedly cause a major upset). On the other hand, his power within the ruling party is believed to be considerable. All eyes are therefore on Turkish President Abdullah Gul, whose prerogatives as head of state are largely ceremonial, but who could turn out to be a dangerous opponent for Erdogan should he decide to do so. His relationship with Gulen is unclear (in the past, he has made a point of visiting international schools run by Gulen while on official trips abroad, though this in itself proves little), his popularity is growing, and he has tried to market himself as the responsible adult in Turkey. There is a significant possibility that he may run against Erdogan in the presidential elections—or even challenge him over the leadership of AKP—and amid all the turmoil that has gripped Turkish politics, the local elections will be a key test for Erdogan’s power that may seal his political fate.
The opposition parties are bitterly divided in their ideology, and individually they lag far behind the AKP in polls throughout much of the country. However, the AKP has strongly antagonized them all in recent months, and there is a chance they may unite to achieve an upset in some of the key races, particularly if there is a run-off between an AKP candidate and a challenger. The races in Istanbul and Ankara, in particular, carry a special symbolic significance, and there is a saying in Turkey that who wins Istanbul will go on to win Turkey. Erdogan himself was the mayor of Istanbul before becoming a prime minister, and losing Istanbul—or even the significant parts of Istanbul that are currently controlled by the AKP—would be a major psychological blow to him and his party that would increase discontent with his leadership. Conversely, a decisive victory would provide him with the much needed political capital to cement his grip on power.
Issues to Watch
As a result of this complex situation, three main topics of national importance are expected to trump local issues in these elections. One is the economy—over the past decade or so, Turkey has experienced steady growth and unprecedented prosperity. Erdogan has claimed most of the credit for this and owes much of his popularity to it. But now the economy is under pressure: to stem the seeming free fall of the lira last month, itself a major threat since many Turkish businesses have taken on significant amounts of foreign-denominated debt (to the tune of $170 billion last November, according to data cited by Bloomberg), the Turkish central bank was forced to sharply increase its interest rates. This, however, threatens to slow growth and pass the burden onto a similarly highly-indebted electorate (according to al-Monitor, total credit card debt in the country last December was $45 billion, with $14 billion of it in nonperforming loans). To avert a crisis, the prime minister has been talking about an “out of the ordinary” package for the economy without specifying further—we can expect surprises in the run-up to the election.
Another big issue is the rolling back of civil liberties and perceived attacks on the separation of powers in Turkey, which critics say gravely threatens the country’s democracy. From purging prosecutors and police officers investigating the government to clamping down on internet and the media (for a second year in a row, Turkey was the “the world’s leading jailer of journalists” last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists) to restricting the sale of alcohol, numerous policies recently implemented by Erdogan have raised major concerns with citizens and observers alike. One thing to watch for is how Gul responds to these policies—the government recently passed a highly controversial internet bill through parliament, for example, and it is now up to the president, who has spoken out in favor of unrestrained access to the internet in the past, to sign it into law or to veto it.
The third issue is the peace process with the Kurds, which Erdogan has been pushing for the past couple of years but which has contributed to the rift between him and Gulen—as well as others in Turkey, particularly among the nationalist camp. The prime minister has been walking a fine line, with Kurds accusing him of stalling and nationalists rallying against him, but so far he has been able to keep the process going. The talks could be expected to influence the vote mostly in the country’s southeast, where the majority of Kurds live, but they have major national and transnational implications as well—a breakthrough, for example, would increase investor confidence and could facilitate oil transfers from Iraqi Kurdistan that would help bring down Turkey’s soaring energy bill. It would also lessen the negative effects of the civil war in neighboring Syria, where an autonomous Kurdish region is taking shape next to the Turkish border.
It remains to be seen which way these issues will tilt the local elections, but one thing is certain: the result will reverberate loudly not only across Turkey, but internationally as well.