Yesterday, local elections were held in Turkey and there certainly were a few surprises, showing Prime Minister Erdogan that his popularity has its limits. Certainly, the religiously conservative ruling AK party (AKP) has seen its greatest challenge since coming to power in the national elections of 2002. In comparison to the local election of 2004, when they received 42% of the vote, and to the national elections of 2007, when they boosted their support to 47%, their current victory of 39 % shows that their support for the first time has substantially decreased.
Even with the AKP’s huge victory, both the ideologically secular Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP-People’s Republican Party) and the ethnically Kurdish Demokrat Tomplusal Partisi (DTP-Social Democratic Party) demonstrated a great amount of momentum and threatened Erdogan’s hegemony, even if limited. Furthermore, the far-right wing Milli Hareket Partisi (MHP-National Action Party) has once again proven their ability to be a major-minor player, and their capability at capturing the AKP conservative base.
Now, someone not familiar to Turkish politics must be thinking why these elections are to some extent a watershed. First of all, over the last few months leading-up to the elections, Erdogan on numerous occasions made it clear this was some type of referendum on him and his party’s performance; moreover, many analysts suggested that any number under 40% would be sending a strong message to the ruling party. In addition, just days before the election, some polls placed Erdogan’s victory at over 50%. Therefore, when Erdogan held a press conference, even before all the polls had been counted, he reflected on the need to see where the party went wrong. This was not the same Erdogan who we are use to seeing. Tired from intensive campaigning, he was soft spoken with signs of defeat in his voice.
The CHP gains were impressive. They took the city of Antalya gaining almost 15% more votes than the previous local elections, and this despite the AKP’s major investments in the region. Izmir, CHP’s only major metropolis strong hold got even stronger climbing more than 6% and receiving more than 53% of the vote. Even if CHP did not take Istanbul or Ankara, they made serious headway, gaining almost 8% in Istanbul*, and capturing more of the local municipalities. While the AKP retained their base in Istanbul, in Ankara, they dropped a staggering 16%, with the CHP climbing almost 19%. This cannot be overlooked; the days of the secular republic’s capital returning to the hands of a secular party do not seem so far off if these elections are a sign of future sentiments.
One true winner in these elections was the DTP. A party made up mostly of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens in the Southeastern region of the Republic, and one that supports the expansion of Kurdish rights, made sweeping gains despite the AKP’s and Erdogan’s desperate attempts not only to retain their hold but also to do the unthinkable: to take the DTP’s stronghold of Diyarbakir. This attempt failed radically. They lost Van and Siirt; with other regional cities overwhelmingly voting for the DTP. Needless to say, the Diyarbakir “prize” went to the DTP, with over 65% of the vote, showing that Erdogan’s polemic of him wanting to “take” this city was a complete illusion. In Tunceli, where the AKP embarked on “appliance-politics,” passing out washing machines and other appliances in return for votes, the DTP remained in power. Lastly, the city of Igdir, home to a majority Turkish conservative right-wing constituency, will now be ruled by the opposing party, the DTP, with the two conservative AKP and MHP splitting the vote.
Lastly, the MHP, made especially nice gains, taking numerous municipalities such as Adana, which they won after gaining over 20% in popularity since the last municipal elections, and with the AKP losing 10% of their base support. Other gains were made in Balikesir, where they stomped out both the AKP and the CHP, gaining more than 31% since the previous elections. Further, they were able to retain previous strongholds such as the Anatolian city of Kastamonu.
Now, what are the lessons to be learned from all of this data? Clearly, Erdogan has seriously lost out by claiming that these elections were a referendum of sorts. He himself will need to ask why in the cities where the AKP invested in infrastructure and development, the people switched their votes. What are the implications of a strong DTP have concerning the ongoing Kurdish issue? How will the strengthening of the CHP and MHP, both nationalist in outlook, affect Turkey’s foreign policy. In the next few days, I will address some of these issues. For now, it is clear that democracy has punished a prime minister who until yesterday thought he was invincible.
March 30, 2009
* This gain is even without the Sisli local municipality, a stronghold of CHP whose mayor, M. Sarigul, broke away as the result of an internal spat with CHP leader Deniz Baykal.