Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party AKP rode to another resounding victory in nationwide municipal elections yesterday as voters said they don’t care about Internet censorship, corruption allegations or his authoritarian rule. AKP candidates won in most metropolitan centres including Istanbul and capital city Ankara, which was a nail-biter. Erdogan promised new action against “the traitors” and outside forces. The Turkish pound took a beating as speculators wary of continuing one-party rule in Turkey betted against the currency. Several women were elected mayors.
Opposition’s expectations of a big upset against the Prime Minister did not materialise yesterday as his AKP candidates captured 46-percent of the national vote and 50 of the 81 major municipalities throughout the country. Although main opposition parties CHP and MHP both gained about 2-percent over the 2011 general elections at AKP’s expense this did not translate into more than 21 mayoralties. The Kurdish separatist BDP won 9 municipalities in the southeast including the city of Diyarbakir where a female BDP member of Parliament was elected mayor. The western port of Izmir, Turkey’s 3rd largest city, remains a stronghold of the opposition where CHP won by a landslide.
Today Turkey remains a country polarised along the Islamist-secularist divide especially in big cities, where the secular and fragmented opposition don’t have much strength except in some of the coastal areas. Unlike Canada or the United States losing party leaders in Turkey rarely have to face leadership reviews by their own parties since the Turkish political tradition treats them the same way it treats old office furniture, antiques that cannot be dispensed with even if they are useless. Nobody expects, therefore, that neither the left-of-centre CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu nor the ultra-nationalist MHP leader Devlet Bahceli will retire any time soon even after losing the general elections to come in 2015.
Although the ruling AKP is Islamist-based, the party’s strength appears to be in attracting other voters that care about bread-and-butter issues. Prime Minister Erdogan built a reputation as a down-to-earth, pragmatic and able manager when he was the mayor of Istanbul. The country has been riding on a construction boom he created on the footsteps of a financial crisis it had plunged into during a CHP-MHP coalition government. Nobody believes that the ideology-driven opposition parties have the experience or the capability to manage the economy and put bread on the table for the average Turk and business people. “But who else is there to vote for but AKP?” is a rhetorical question I’ve heard too many times. Like other elections held since 2002 this was also a vote for the economy and jobs.
One big surprise of the election was that religious voters didn’t buy the reported alliance between official opposition CHP and Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen, nor did they buy CHP leader’s and candidates’ pretensions to piety. Mustafa Sarigul, CHP’s Istanbul candidate, made it a point to go to the mosque on camera for prayers during his campaign. Leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu declared to be fervently in favour of covered up women in public positions, which most secular Turks consider a prostitution of founding father Ataturk’s principles. Similarly, the ultra nationalists had shot themselves in the foot and destroyed their own credibility two decades ago when they took to the mosque. These ploys obviously did not have any effect on the outcome of the election while revealing that opposition parties are confused about what they really stand for and unable to reinvent themselves in the face of a relentless and skillful competitor.
While this means that the U.S.-based Mr. Gulen may not be the powerful remote influencer of public opinion as he was believed to be, it doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t be able to shift at least some of the AKP vote if he entered Turkish politics directly. This is presently a remote possibility since the prime minister has accused him of treason in no uncertain terms. With his track record of having built a worldwide organisation that is said to be worth $2 billion, he would be a rival to contend with on both the economic and political fronts. As Prime Minister Erdogan referred to action against traitors and outside forces in his victory speech, however, he will not allow any dissent or rivalry to his authority. The purge of Gulenists that started last December will probably continue at an accelerated rate. The opposition can only hope that he will not see this election as a mandate to restrict their freedoms any further.
Mr. Erdogan is expected to run for presidency next August and fashion his presidency after Russian leader Vladimir Putin, collecting executive power in his office with a subservient Prime Minister. Putin was the first foreign leader to congratulate his election victory yesterday.