BACKGROUND: The Justice and development party had aimed at securing between 45 and 50 percent of the votes in the local elections. Such a result would have given the AKP, which received 47 percent of the votes in the general elections in 2007, the boost it needed for going ahead with the constitutional changes it had been preparing, notably making the closure of political parties more difficult. The opposition had on the other hand feared that such a result would usher in a one party state, as the AKP had already began to display authoritarian inclinations, not least in its dealings with the media.
The electoral outcome did not represent any disaster for the AKP, which still remains the leading party by a wide margin. It received 38.5 percent of the votes, distancing the main opposition center left Republican people’s party, CHP, which secured 23 percent. Yet, the AKP’s result fell well short of the expectations, and the party lost several municipalities. All three opposition parties – the CHP, the Nationalist Action party (MHP) and the Democratic society party (DTP), which is the political voice of Kurdish nationalism – experienced an increase in their votes and in the number of municipalities carried. The Felicity Party, the Islamic conservative challenger to the AKP, notably succeeded in breaching the psychologically important barrier of 5 percent, a showing that indicates that the party may stand a real chance of crossing the 10 percent barrier to parliament in the next general election. The DTP carried most of the municipalities in the southeast, establishing itself as the dominant political force in the Kurdish region.
The outcome of the election created disillusionment in the AKP. However, those within the party who have become wary of the Prime Minister’s one-man-show are in fact pleased with a result that could to a certain degree cut down Recep Tayyip Erdogan to size, without undermining the AKP’s grip on power. Although the AKP met with its first electoral setback, the warning delivered by the electorate to the ruling party was not of a magnitude that would legitimize any call for early elections.
However, Erdogan did not hide his disappointment in the announcement he made on election night. He admitted that he found it incomprehensible that the AKP had lost Antalya, a major city on the Mediterranean coast and the heart of tourism in Turkey, despite his 28 visits there and despite the investments made there by the government.
IMPLICATIONS: Above all, the local elections have contributed to defusing some of the tensions that have poisoned Turkish political life for the past years. Obviously, these tensions have not disappeared. But in the event of another overwhelming AKP victory, they would inevitably have been further exacerbated, as the AKP would have concluded that it had received the sanction of a vast majority of the electorate for the implementation of a conservative, Islamic political agenda. That in turn could once again have brought about a confrontation between the government and military circles.
Another factor that has contributed to a certain calming of the ideological tension has been the campaign tactics of the opposition Republican people’s party. The theme of secularism was absent from the CHP’s campaign. Indeed, the word secularism was hardly uttered at all by party leader Deniz Baykal or by the candidates of the party. The CHP chose to focus on issues such as corruption and the mismanagement in the municipalities. When ideological themes were introduced by CHP candidates, they were of invariably conservative nature; in one particular case a CHP candidate promised to open more Koran schools in his city. But it was primarily the focus on the corruption issue that paid off for the CHP. Significantly, it enabled the party to make inroads in the suburban, conservative working class areas of Istanbul that have been strongholds of the AKP. The relative success of the CHP was due to Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the new star of the party and of Turkish politics, who although ultimately unsuccessful in his bid to unseat AKP mayor Kadir Topbas in Istanbul won a respectable 38 percent of the votes.
Another party that increased its votes is the MHP. Especially in the western cities which have experienced significant Kurdish migration, MHP did well, a sign of rising ethnic tensions. In central Anatolia, MHP became the second party after the AKP. In the Southeast, the Kurdish nationalist DTP scored important victories. DTP increased its votes in Diyarbakir, and succeeded in winning Van, Siirt and Igdir, where the AKP had won five years ago. The AKP has lost much of its attraction in the Kurdish Southeast as it has come to be identified with Turkish nationalism.
The AKP’s share of the votes fell across the country. A superficial look at the electoral map would lead to the conclusion that the party has got stuck in central Anatolia, with the coastal areas lost to the CHP and the Southeast to the Kurdish nationalists. Yet, the AKP still remains the only party that is present in all parts of Turkey and which draws support from a wide range of social and ethnic groups. Despite its relative success, the CHP is for instance totally absent in the Southeast. The inroads made by the CHP in Istanbul’s conservative suburbs are not inconsequential; but neither do they represent a shift of a kind that would justify any exaggerated hopes for the future prospects of the center-left.
Indeed, the elections are a new reminder of the strength of the combined religious and nationalistic right. In the 1991, elections the total votes of the combination of the Welfare Party, MHP and Nation Party was 17 percent. In 2009 the combination of the parties that represent this tradition of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis – the AKP, MHP, the Felicity Party and the Grand Unity Party (BBP) – were supported by around 62 percent of the electorate.
CONCLUSIONS: The result of the local elections represents a clear warning to the AKP. The voters expressed certain dissatisfaction above all with the style of leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His confrontational style and authoritarian tendencies have begun to put the public off. It is also safe to assume that the AKP lost votes as the Prime Minister did not seem to take the economic crisis – the dramatic effects of which are now increasingly being felt – seriously enough.
Two different narratives could be applied to the March 29 elections: On the one hand, they are easily interpreted as a sign that Turkey is returning to “normalcy” after nearly seven years during which the AKP had been the unchallenged political force of the country. Even though the successes of the opposition were, with a few exceptions, largely marginal, the opposition parties did manage to shed their image as eternal losers. Above all, the AKP has lost its aura of invincibility. In that light, the prospects of Turkish democracy would seem to look better than they did before March 29.
Yet a more sociological interpretation of the election would temper such optimism. Ethnic nationalism is on the rise, with the Southeast in the grip of Kurdish nationalism and with Turkish nationalism acquiring new strength in the Western parts of the country. And perhaps most significantly, the electoral map reveals the marginalization of the Western-oriented secular middle class. The liberals have become confined to the coastal line. From a secularist perspective, there is little comfort to be gained from the respectable showing of the CHP along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. The conservative right – whether in the shape of the AKP or of the MHP – is strongly present even in those parts of the country where the CHP has succeeded in winning. However, the opposite is nowhere to be found: the center left, and even the secular center-right, is non-existent in the conservative Anatolian heartland. Islamic conservatism may have suffered an electoral setback, but sociologically it is still ascendant.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".