Saturday, April 5, 2014

Recap of Turkish Local Elections: the Winners and the Losers*

Vote counting in a poll station in Tuzluçayir - Ankara© 2014 - Piero Castellano

Last Sunday evening, from my home in Istanbul, I anxiously watched television exit polls to see if there would be any surprises concerning the Turkish local election results, even if I knew this would be unlikely. As ballot boxes started to open, it was clear there would be no major surprises. Turkish voters had once again given the AKP the strong lead they needed to declare victory, sweeping in most of the state's municipalities. [For background reading see following link

This was good news for the embattled Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who declared this election, as all other elections, a referendum on his performance. However, this time the stakes were much higher following last summer's Gezi Park protests, and the December 17 corruption probe, which linked him, his family, and government ministers, to massive corruption. In fact, he was subjected to a campaign, where numerous secret recordings emerged which revealed his shady business deals, and his continued meddling in the media. As a result, Erdogan struck back by banning both Twitter and Youtube, where these recordings were being shared. 

 People blocking policemen, elections officials inside of a school in
Seyranbaglari  - Ankara to prevent theft or destruction of ballots
 2014 - Piero Castellano
Overall, while some expected Erdogan would be punished for corruption, this did not happen and perhaps should not be a surprise. A few months before the elections, I was lucky to have taken part in a lecture by Professor Ali Akarca, an University of Illinois professor, who works on comparative voting patterns. According to Akarca, in local elections, the incumbent party loses on average of 5%  from the previous parliamentary elections, and often voters do not change their vote solely based on the fact if a politician is corrupt. In fact, just days before the election, in an interview with Bugun newspaper, Akarca explained that if AKP gets over 42%, it will be clear the corruption charges would not be the reason behind decline in support, and would be most likely related to one's economic state. 

The final results are as follows: Erdogan’s AKP party received between 43-45% of the vote; the main opposition CHP raked in between 26-28%, while the nationalist MHP received between 16-18%; finally, the Kurdish BDP consolidated their votes in the Southeastern Kurdish regions with a total between 4-5%. 

A look at the maps below will show that the distribution of municipalities did not radically change from 2009 to 2014. The interior remains overall conservative-voting overwhelmingly for the AKP; the coastal regions, which are noticeably more liberal, voting for the CHP. Also, the distribution of MHP municipalities remained overall the same. Lastly, and obvious , is the fact that the Kurdish party remains strictly confined to the Southeastern region.

2009 local elections (based on municipalities)

In 2009 Map Blue=DSP (closet to CHP), Dark Blue= BBP (Nationalist party that broke away from MHP)

2014 Elections (Hurriyet)

Yellow=AKP, Red=CHP, Maroon=MHP, Blue=BDP, Grey=Independent Kurdish

Of course, the million-dollar question is how much were these numbers altered due to election rigging/fraud. Just days before the election, Professor Erik Tillman of DePaul University predicted a AKP victory of between 42-45%, which would be due to numerous factors, including election fraud. According to Tillman, the "Erdogan government has demonstrated a willingness to subvert the rule of law to increase its power and get its way. Unless you truly believe that Erdogan considers elections to be too sacred to corrupt, then you would have to expect him to continue the same behavior." 

It seems that Tillman was not so far off, with numerous or reports coming in of election fraud; such claims, became more critical in cities like Turkey's capital, Ankara, where it seems highly reasonable that without election rigging, the four-time AKP incumbent Melih Gokcek of Ankara, would have lost to the CHP candidate Mansur Yavas. In a post-election blog, Tillman tackles the question of electoral fraud in Ankara, and also looks at the work of Professor Eric Meyersson, an economist at Stockholm School of Economics, whose post-election analysis of electoral fraud in Ankara went viral. 

In fact, as I write this, almost a week after the elections, more ballots have been found in trash bins in Ankara, and despite this, all attempts of a recount have been denied by its election board. A similar case also exists in Antalya, where a recount has been blocked. Interestingly enough, while the CHP is unsuccessful at getting recounts, the AKP, in one district (Agri), has received a total of 15 recounts. 

 TOMA water cannon attacks crowd who gathered outside the Election Board Offices on Mithatpasa cd - Ankara, as they take shelter in the nearby Social Security building  © 2014 - Piero Castellano

Despite the allegations of fraud however, it should made clear that these cases seemed not to have radically changed the overall picture of the Turkish electorate's "national will," and was an attempt to keep the AKP's comfortable lead. Nevertheless, future research will be necessary to reach any sound conclusions.

In short, the post-elections situation is as follows: the local Turkish elections only reconfirms the extreme polarization of the Turkish electorate and in some sense will lead to the "same-old." On one hand, Erdogan will continue to consolidate powers and silencing dissent at all costs, while large parts of the opposition forces will continue to fight for their rights, being met with large doses of teargas and bans. In other words, with presidential elections ahead in August, and parliamentary ones, perhaps being moved from 2015 to the summer as well, Turkey still has a rocky-road to some political calmness. For a more analysis on the elections, I recommend looking at Selim Sazak's piece: Turkey: Atop a Power-Keg.        

The Winner and the Losers: 


Recep Tayyip Erdogan: He undoubtedly has retained his power despite a huge onslaught of leaked tapes and consistent world criticism. In fact, while the secret recordings that were emerging were certainly damning, exposing wide-spread corruption, it seems that the sheer numbers of tapes being released backfired, overwhelming the electorate. It seems likely that if Erdogan decides to run for the presidency, he will easily succeed in winning if he is able to convince the BDP to support his bid. Of course, Erdogan will most likely only run for president if he succeeds in transferring powers to the president, in a "putinization" of the Turkish system.

Peace and Democratic Party (BDP):

The Kurdish party, which is voicing demands of autonomy in Southeastern Kurdish regions, could not have envisioned a better outcome. Just a look on the map will show that they have secured a clear geographical block on the map.  While it seems hard to imagine that they will be able to secure the release of the jailed PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, or receive limited autonomy, this too will be a continued demand. With presidential elections in the forecast, their vote will be crucial for an Erodgan victory. It is still too early to see if the peace process will be a winner or a loser, as I will explain below.   

Mansur Yavas: A former member of the MHP, Yavas switched to CHP, running as the mayoral candidate for Ankara. Due to election fraud, he will probably not serve as mayor, even though there is a strong chance that he is the actual winner. He has inspired many, showed leadership, and if he plays his cards correctly, he is in a key position to lead a coalition against the AKP's continued hegemony.  


National Will: In elections, every vote counts; in a civil society, voting is the highest form of participation. It is holy. By the election board blocking CHP's calls for a recount in such cities as Ankara, where serious claims have been made, it is clear that the greatest loser is the "milli irade," (national will).  By blocking a recount, it is clear that the national will only belongs to the victors, and the ones in power who can manipulate due process. Is justice for all too big of a demand?

CHP: Failing to reach 30% of the vote, its leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu will need to do some serious soul-searching. Only early parliamentary elections, which could come together with this summer's presidental elections, might save him; simply, due to the fact that a change in party leadership with so little time could do more damage than good. It seems likely that only a young dynamic leader will be able to bring this party to over 30% of the national vote.  

Mustafa Sarigul: While he carried out a good campaign as CHP candidate in Istanbul, it seems that CHP party members should get the message that if he attempts to get the leadership of the party, this will spell more loses for the CHP in the future. Sarigul is not the answer.

HDP: If the BDP thought that Sirri Sureyya Onder and Sebahat Tuncel would be able to create a left coalition that would offer a "third-way" in Istanbul, and other western regions of Turkey, they were flat wrong. I could be mistaken, but Onder's political career could be on the line; while, Tuncel seems that she will be able to survive this election failure. Placing their numbers aside, it just seems that they were not able to capture the imagination of potential voters, and even served keeping the AKP in power in such local municipalities as Beyoglu. 

Winner or loser? Too early to tell: 

The peace process: While the AKP has made serious steps at progressing Turkish-Kurdish reconciliation, through talks with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, this process could be a loser. Unfortunately, due to Erdogan's polarizing politics, the fate of the process seems tied to his success. If he runs for president, he most likely will not be able to secure 50% of the vote without the support of the BDP, which will come with some heavy demands. In other words, the process will continue to be tied to behind-closed-door political deals and not a reconciliation process between Turkish and Kurdish populations, which certainly could backfire.  

 *My special thanks to Piero Castellano, a photo-journalist who resides in Ankara for providing the photos! He can be followed on twitter at @pierocastellano