Turkey's Local Elections: An Important Test For Erdogan
March 29, 2014
Turkish voters head to the polls on March 30 in local elections which have effectively been transformed into a test of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s support in the country. Facing continued fallout from last summer’s Gezi Park protests and the December 17 corruption investigations, which he has characterized as a coup attempt by his former political allies in the Gulen movement, Erdogan is looking to the elections to provide a strong response. To that end, he is aiming to at least match the 38.9 percent that his Justice and Development Party (JDP) won in the 2009 local elections while also extending the JDP’s mayoral incumbencies in Istanbul and Ankara.
The JDP has earned an increasing share of votes in the last three parliamentary elections, most recently gaining 49.9 percent in 2011. However, events over the past year have eroded the JDP’s appeal beyond its base. While Erdogan has solidified his support within the roughly one third of Turkey that has benefited most from the JDP’s social and economic policies, his harsh rhetoric has also cemented the opposition to him within another third of the electorate. The choice of the remaining third is likely to prove decisive. Many of them cast their ballot for the JDP in previous elections but may have become silently unhappy with Erdogan and the election will give them the opportunity to express their disaffection.
Two other key factors will help shape the election result. There are an estimated 2.5 million young people in Turkey who will be voting for the first time. They were more disillusioned by the harsh measures during the Gezi protests and the recent moves to ban Twitter and YouTube than other segments of society and therefore seem more disposed to vote against the JDP. The other factor will be the extent to which denial of support and tactical voting by members of the Gulen Movement will pull down the JDP percentage.
Nevertheless, the JDP is still expected to receive the highest percentage of overall votes on March 30. While Erdogan has declared that he would resign if they failed to do so, he also indicated a more serious criterion for success, namely the 38.9 percent the JDP got in the 2009 local elections. Significantly, he has been campaigning as hard as in these elections as in national elections.
Key Races to Watch
Attention will be focused on the races in Turkey’s major cities of Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Izmir has long been a stronghold of the Republican People’s Party (RPP) and while Erdogan once had ambitions of winning there - even tapping former transportation minister and one of his closest aides Binali Yildirim as candidate - the RPP seems very likely to hold on to Izmir. However, losing in Izmir would not be a disaster for Erdogan as he has understandably placed a much higher value on retaining Istanbul and Ankara.
Melih Gokcek is the JDP candidate in Ankara. He was first elected in 1994, the same year Erdogan became mayor of Istanbul. A controversial figure without strong personal appeal, Gokcek appears to be more vulnerable than in the 2009 elections. The JDP incumbent in Erdogan’s hometown of Istanbul is Kadir Topbas who has been mayor since 2004. Unlike Gokcek, Topbas is well-liked and has maintained a high approval rating for much of his tenure. Erdogan has personally campaigned heavily in both cities, and posters throughout Istanbul and Ankara prominently feature him rather than the JDP candidates, reinforcing the impression that the elections are really about him.
The main challengers in Ankara and Istanbul come from the RPP. In an effort to capitalize on growing discontent with Erdogan and the JDP, RPP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who himself ran for mayor in Istanbul in 2009, has pragmatically recruited candidates based on their wider appeal rather than ideological consistency. The RPP candidate in Ankara, Mansur Yavas, had actually run for mayor in 2009 as a candidate for the National Action Party (NAP) and, given the fact that the RPP and NAP combined to earn 58.6 percent of the vote to the 38.5 percent of Gokcek in the 2009 elections, Yavas has a strong chance of winning this time. The RPP’s candidate in Istanbul, Mustafa Sarigul had been expelled from the party in 2005, but was invited back as he was perceived to be the strongest possible RPP candidate against Topbas and it remains to be seen if he can defeat him.
If the JDP receives above 38.9 percent of the overall vote and maintains controls of both Istanbul and Ankara, this will undoubtedly be portrayed by Erdogan as a victory and as a mandate to move decisively, as he has warned repeatedly, against what he has characterized as ‘a parallel state within the state.’ On the other hand, if the JDP falls below the 2009 figure or loses Istanbul and/or Ankara, it will undoubtedly be portrayed by his opponents as a defeat, which will set in motion Erdogan’s political decline. However, as the voters’ choice is unlikely to satisfy either Erdogan or his opponents completely, it seems likely that the growing political tensions which characterized the pre-election period will continue after March 30 as the country prepares for presidential elections in August and national elections in June 2015.
Bulent Aliriza is director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.
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