Local election results confirmed that Turkey is going through a belated, yet organic democratic transition. In absence of Turkish military’s looming shadow, the liberals and social democrats are learning to own the process rather than merely follow.
By Dr. Ulas Doga Eralp
According to the unofficial results, the pro-Islamist AKP in Turkey has scored around 44% at the local elections that took place over the weekend. This could easily be interpreted as the beginning of a long decline after 12 years in government. Many among Turkey’s democratic opposition hoped for a clear defeat for the AKP. However the election results indicate that the decline will be much slower and painful. There are a number of reasons for the slow pace of political change in Turkey.
Lack of a viable alternative
Over the years, the AKP has managed to build a functioning social security infrastructure along with an efficient and mostly free healthcare system. The lower middle class Turks who try to make ends meet, naturally are scared of a change that they fear could threaten their meager benefits. Many find employment opportunities through patron-client networks in the city governments. In the possibility of a change of government, those who maintain such positions are scared of losing their jobs. Similarly the recent tape leaks about a corruption scandal including his son, Bilal Erdogan and Reza Sarrap, an Iranian businessman did not make any significant impact on the choices of the lower middle class masses in Turkey. Many either chose to ignore or simply not believe the graft allegations.
Promises of Stability and Pro-Sunni stance in Syria
Erdogan is a great manipulator; over the years he mastered the technique of public polarization to his benefit. In the wake of the Gezi protests Erdogan has managed to portray the Gezi protestors as vagabonds and consolidated his base with the promise of keeping the public order. Furthermore, the developments in Arab Spring countries – especially the instability in Syria and Erdogan’s tough pro-Sunni stance in the conflict – allowed him to receive support from the conservative voters in central Anatolia. Risk averse voters chose to gather around Erdogan against any looming uncertainty.
Future direction of Turkish Democracy
Local elections’ results are the start of a steady and long decline for the AKP. Compared to an earlier vote in 2011 where AKP received 50% of the general vote, there is a 6-7% drop in the overall votes. This is a considerable decline considering that Erdogan banned Twitter and Youtube and introduced strict control over the mass media. Still 56% of the general electorate voted against the AKP. This itself indicates the limits of authoritarianism in Turkey. Another outcome is that polarization politics are not a winner in Turkey. Risk averse voters prefer stability, but do not buy into polarization politics.
There is a growing disenchantment towards government institutions including the judiciary and official news agency. There was a great discrepancy between the results announced by the government controlled official Anadolu News Agency and Cihan News Agency, that is close to the Gulen movement. There was a lot of noise among twitter users on election results throughout the night, especially in the very tight race in Ankara and Istanbul. The activists protected the ballot boxes from police and other government officials in order to prevent election rigging. 56% of the population have lost their trust in state institutions. This is a clear crisis of political legitimacy. Next two years will be very critical for Turkish politics as Erdogan will prepare to run for presidency. AKP without Erdogan is bound to lose even more votes as the coalition of conservatives under the party banner will continue to crumble. It would, therefore, not be wrong to expect further turmoil in Turkey.
Consolidation of the Kurdish Vote
Kurds also consolidated their votes in the eastern and southeastern provinces. This region has developed into a powerhouse for a pro-autonomy Kurdish political movement. The southeast provinces of Turkey operate in their own political reality. It should not be surprise to anyone if the Kurdish political movement pushes for autonomy more vocally in the coming two years. This of course will very much depend on the continuation of the peace talks.
Overall, local election results confirmed that Turkey is going through a belated, yet organic democratic transition. The AKP government will continue to step up its authoritarianism while the civic opposition will continue organizing across different urban areas. In absence of Turkish military’s looming shadow, the liberals and social democrats are learning to own the process rather than merely follow.
Dr. Ulas Doga Eralp is a scholar and practitioner of international conflict, human rights, development and democratization. He has a PhD from the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University, and currently works as a Professorial Lecturer at the International Peace and Conflict Resolution Program of the School of International Service (SIS) at American University in Washington, DC.