On March 31, Turkey will hold local government elections, which will be the last national poll until 2023.
– The structural decline of the Turkish economy continues to undermine the government’s claim of superior economic management
– The opposition has an opportunity to leverage public disenchantment and may take back more control at local levels, particularly in the big cities like Ankara and Istanbul, establishing a power base to challenge the ruling party at the national level in three years’ time
– The president’s promise to again sack any elected officials from Kurdish affiliated parties may lead to violent confrontations in the country’s east
On 31 March, Turks will elect mayors in 1,397 municipalities, many more municipal council members in the cities and muhtars (village administrative officers) and members of elders’ councils in the villages. At the previous local elections in 2014, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won more than 45.5% of the vote.
In the past, the AKP’s electoral success has generally been underpinned by rapid economic growth. However, this year’s elections follow a continued period of economic downturn, marked by a declining Turkish lira, high inflation, rapidly rising food prices and very low growth estimates. Despite massive success in last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, Turkish economic performance has put the AKP on the defensive, particularly ahead of the March poll.
LIRA GOING DOWN, COST OF LIVING GOING UP
The Turkish economy, typified by strong economic growth based on domestic consumption, was due to overheat in 2018. This was partly because much of the growth was for years driven by spending on unproductive investments like real estate and financed through debt — often taken in foreign currencies, making the Turkish lira especially susceptible to a rapid fall.
However, it was US President Donald Trump’s decision in August 2018 to double the tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium products that precipitated the rapid decline of the lira, culminating in the currency losing 40% of its value from the beginning of that year. In January the prices of many key foodstuffs grew by as much as 30% from October last year. This led the government to blame unidentified foreign parties, labelling them ‘food terrorists’. The government also set up municipal stalls offering cheaper food, somewhat at odds with its long claimed pro-business credentials.
Following a series of interest rate hikes by Turkey’s central bank — a policy previously anathema to President Erdogan’s growth-at-all-costs economic approach — inflation has actually come down five points from a high of 25% in October 2018. The government also took measures to the looming economic crisis, such as increasing the minimum wage by more than a quarter, introducing a 10% discount on electricity and gas bills and pledging billions for social assistance projects. While this will no doubt help many, it is not the economic narrative that the voters have come to expect from the government.
KEMALISTS AND SOME NATIONALISTS – UNITED
This section has been corrected to reflect the current coalition.
The Nation Alliance, an opposition coalition consisting of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the nationalist Iyi Parti, is attempting to put the Government’s economic misfortunes at the forefront of its campaign. However, it has not been able to articulate a clear alternative to the government. The Nation Alliance has been brought together mostly by its opposition to the AKP but has not really offered an economic management alternative.
The CHP’s own leadership is also divided. Despite former presidential candidate Muharrem Ince’s relative success in establishing a national profile during last year’s election, the CHP continues to be firmly in the hands of his rival, party chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has led the party to successive defeats. Despite these fissures, the Nation Alliance is more united ahead of these elections. The CHP and the Iyi Parti have agreed to cooperate in 22 metropolitan districts and 27 provinces, while the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) — which is not part of the coalition — agreed not to run candidates in big cities like Ankara and Istanbul to strengthen the chances of CHP candidates.
While the People’s Alliance, consisting of the AKP and the Nationalist Party (MHP), disagree on many issues, the two appear to be united behind a banner of an expansionist foreign policy, developing economic relations with non-Western states, and fighting Kurdish separatism at home and abroad. Also, despite the fact that protest votes are more common at local elections, the power of incumbency provides a significant advantage. Having a People’s Alliance official means a better relationship with the president and hence, more support and attention from Ankara.
Pre-election polling has not been a key factor of this campaign, hampering any attempts at predicting results. However, public disenchantment with the government’s handling of the economy is significant and reflected even in the AKP’s own polling. This discontent is particularly strong in mayoral elections in Turkey’s largest cities, Ankara and Istanbul, which have been controlled by the AKP for around two decades but are home to significant CHP support. The CHP’s candidate for Ankara, Mansur Yavas — although subject to a last-minute indictment on charges of misconduct, fraud and forgery — recently claimed to be eight points ahead of his AKP rival.
THE SACKED MAYORS OF THE EAST – ROUND TWO
In July 2018, two years after a failed coup, Turkey lifted its state of emergency. However, imposed in the Kurdish-dominated east, the elections will continue to be held in an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty. Following the breakdown of the government’s negotiations with the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the 2016 coup attempt, Ankara dismissed around 100 mayors belonging to the Kurdish-dominated HDP and its regional affiliate, the Democratic Regions’ Party (DBP), for allegedly supporting the PKK. Many of the mayors and thousands of party members were arrested. The president has warned he will repeat these actions if these parties win offices in March. In a show of force, the government arrested a number of candidates for the local elections from both parties in January.
THE OPPOSITION TO REMAIN A FACTOR
Although the People’s Alliance will probably win most of the positions, the Nation Alliance has a good chance of increasing the areas under its control, especially in the large cities. President Erdogan’s decision to continue to show footage from the recent Christchurch terror attacks — despite New Zealand’s requests not do so — and his accompanying rhetoric linking the terrorist to Australian and New Zealand’s annual commemoration of the Gallipoli campaign, is not indicative of a confident government. A substantial loss of power by the government could pave the way for the eventual formation of a conservative alternative to the AKP. Former senior AKP leaders Abdullah Gul, Ahmet Davutoglu and Ali Babacan continue to be linked to such proposals but have not yet taken any active steps to build such an alternative.
Due to the tensions in the Kurdish-dominated east and allegations of vote manipulation, there are reasonable prospects of violence erupting in the lead up of the vote or over contested results. Although the president is likely to emerge from the vote relatively unscathed, the results may impose some limitations on his domination of Turkish politics, paving the way for future challenges.
Alex is the Middle East and North Africa team’s point-man for politics and security in the Levant and Turkey.