05 May 2019

Local elections in Turkey / Who he wins Istanbul wins Turkey

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Image source: Mediafax

In Turkey, each elections round becomes a referendum • A political warning for the next four years • An electoral campaign for “national survival” • Spokesperson’s message • What’s next?

In Turkey, each elections round comes with a referendum

… not just a day or two ago, but since 1994, when the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, won his first mandate as mayor of Istanbul and entered the national political scene. His new political orientation, which promotes the Islamic values in a state that was declared as a secular one by the founder of modern Turkey, as well as the chosen economic model, a market economy to support the big projects, has produced strong internal changes, has raised large adhesions and disputes as well. As Erdogan has raised his political profile in Turkey, each electoral consultation has become personalized, one to measure the public’s trust following the direction line promoted by mayor Erdogan, by prime-minister Erdogan, and today, by Turkey’s president, Erdogan. Hence, these local elections, which took place on Sunday, 31th of March, only one year after assuming the presidential mandate with enlarged authority, according to the constitutional amendments approved in 2018, were all about the local representation, but also about a confidence vote in president’s policies. It is the last chance, until the next elections, in 2023, for Turkish voters to send a message to their leader. According to the results, still partial as we write this, the message is not the one expected to Ak Saray / the White Palace, the presidential palace from Ankara.

An electoral campaign for “national survival”

Because the last years have registered some quite dramatic changes for the Turkish economy, with a record inflation, but also an increasing dole, the electoral messages of the People’s Coalition (composed of Justice and Development Party, of president Erdogan, and the Nationalist Movement Party, led by Devlet Bahceli) have been directed towards nationalist topics, accusing the opposition for making pacts with “terrorists”, presenting the elections as a decisive moment for “country’s survival”. The main candidates of the opposition were accused for actions made before the elections and were also threatened- the most eloquent example is the winner of the elections in Ankara, Mansur Yavas – that their mandate invalidation is possible, such a measure being previously made by the Turkish authorities.

The opposition, firstly composed by the Nation Coalition (People’s Republican Party, led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, together with Good Party, founded by MeralHYPERLINK "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meral_Ak%C5%9Fener" HYPERLINK "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meral_Ak%C5%9Fener"Akşener) responded by criticizing the government for the economic measures with negative impact on country’s development, for the discretionary use of public funds and for the increased corruption.

In a country wherein the media is 95% controlled by the executive, opposition’s message started with a handicap, however, cooled down by the everyday reality of some economic problems, which are felt especially by the urban voters. The electoral measures directly took by the president, to counter the lack of agricultural products in the big cities (only in Ankara and Istanbul have been created 150 ad-hoc markets, with low prices for basic products), could not eliminate the idea, recorded also by the Western media, that “onion’s price” would count in the electoral arithmetic.

The president has gained some advantage in the electoral campaign with the use of videos recorded during the terrorist attack from Christchurch, New Zeeland, and with references to the Gallipoli victory, from 1915 - the one which, afterwards, has allowed Kemal Ataturk’s ascension - to show that there is an anti-Muslim feeling and, implicitly, an anti-Turkish one, in some states, a move which has definitely attracted negative international reactions.

A political warning for the next four years

The following elections will take place in four years. Hereof, Turkish electorate’s vote was full of symbolism, one to keep politicians focused on citizens’ problems for this long period. If that worked out, will be seen in the period to come. However, while we are writing this down, contested votes, or the null ones, are still counted, and results show that the opposition had achieved important advantages, especially when it comes to political symbolistic, with victories in country’s big cities, meanwhile the power has maintained its percentages gained last year, at the parlamentarian elections. Opposition’s victories in Ankara and Istanbul (where votes are still being counted) could be cancelled by the executive, through administrative measures, but these victories have already proved that the political system in Turkey still follows the rules of the democratic game. If these measures will not emerge, and the victory in Istanbul, of Ekrem Imamoglu, will be confirmed, the loser being a former prime-minister of the country, Binali Yıldırım, the opposition will have a great start for the future elections, even if they will have to wait for four more years. Erdogan could also win something from it, because he will be able to smash the internal and, especially, the international critics against his regime’s authoritarianism. If…

Hence, we have the following electoral evolutions and results:

  • they have proved that the electoral alliances work perfectly, especially for the opposition. Following the model implemented by Erdogan, who needed an alliance to get, in the first tour, 50% of the votes, at last year’s presidential elections, the opposition acted united, especially in the big cities, to support the single candidates and win in places, where Erdogan’s party had the power for decades, mostly in Ankara’s case;
  • Mansur Yavas’s victory in Ankara interrupts a 25 years period of local governance of the party in command and it is also important because Ankara, the second city of the country, is the heart of Anatolia, the region wherefrom president Erdogan’s voters are coming. Indeed, Yavas will not have an easy start in the new position, wherefore he runs for the third time, being already prosecuted in court;
  • People’s Republican Party has reconquered its known electoral area, the regions from the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, getting the control, together with its coalition partner, the Good Party, within a large series of important provinces like Adana, Antalya, Mersin, Izmir, Muğla, Çanakkale, Tekirdağ and Edirne. In Izmir, party’s traditional fief, there was a 20% votes’ difference, although the power has dislocated, in the local electoral campaign, a former minister. There are 20 provinces (of 80) conquered by this party, 7 more than the previous local elections.
  • People’s Kurdish Democratic Party remained strong in South-East Turkey, even if its results were not good in an area wherein votes are mostly following ethnical criteria. Its electoral strategy had two elements:
  • easing opposition’s victory in the big cities from West of the country, by not enlisting its own candidates in the campaign. The Kurdish electorate from Ankara and Istanbul proved to be decisive for opposition’s victories;
  • getting the victory with its own candidates in the provinces with mostly Kurdish population. They have recorded also some failures in provinces wherein former Kurdish mayors were overthrown by authorities, and some of those designated by the administrative have proved, with executive’s support, that they can solve the local problems better;
  • the cooperation between the opposition and the main party of the Kurdish minority was not explicit, especially considering that the subdivision represented by the Good Party is a nationalist one, as it happens also in the ruling alliance, where the Nationalist Movement Party values its title. The Kurdish politicians have chosen the smallest threat for their community, the electoral alliance being purely circumstantial. It also did not stop the People’s Coalition, which is in command, from calling on the voters to vote for the “national survival” and from accusing the Nation’s Coalition for cooperating with “terrorists”.

The alarming electoral messages have invoked, also, the “foreign powers”, which are acting against the Turkish state, its unity and borders. Two decades of such rhetoric seem, however, to have been enough for an important percentage from the Turkish electorate, especially that in country’s less developed regions, and this seems to be the message sent by the Turkish electorate to the current leaders of the country.

What’s next?

For now, votes’ counting continues. Thanks to appeals made by the Justice and Development Party, in Istanbul votes are still being counted. And not just that. According to the president of the Supreme Electoral Council, Judge Sadi Guven, the results from 30 cities, 51 provinces’ capitals and 922 districts were disputed. The analysis of these disputes, votes’ counting or not, will postpone the announcement of the final results to 11th of April.

Freed by the electoral campaign pressure, wherein he made a true shutdown, with electoral meetings on each day, president Erdogan could decide on taking the necessary austerity measures to decrease inflation, but also to reduce the tensions with the Western partners, firstly with the US. The two issues are interconnected, being proved by the sudden decrease of the Turkish lira, after Pentagon’s announcement on suspending the provision of some military equipment of Turkey’s procurement contract of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The moment for this announcement is probably a coincidence, but we cannot think of a coincidence when, because of the foreign investors distrusts, especially the Western ones, the investments that come from abroad are less and less. And the foreign trust cannot be earned  back if, after the appeals made by the Justice and Development Party, some of opposition’s candidates, declared or initially prefigured as elections’ winners, will lose this opposition.

Even if this will not happen, the elected ones, from the opposition, will soon find out how cohabitation with a president who does not like losses looks like.

And there is also Syria. Across an electoral meeting from Istanbul, president Erdogan stated: “We will solve Syria’s problem (the operation against the Kurdish forces from North of Syria) on the field, if possible, not at the table (negotiation table). It will be the first task after the elections”.

As  the Turkish president’s spokesperson, Ibrahim HYPERLINK "https://twitter.com/ikalin1"KHYPERLINK "https://twitter.com/ikalin1"alin, was stating an a Twitter post, 2023 is still far away, and those predicting the beginning of Erdogan’s end, are deeply wrong: “The party won 44,3% of the votes, and the coalition 51,6%. Erdogan’s mandate ends in 2023. No other elections till then. Some are giving us, again, the story about the beginning of Erdogan’s end. They never learn their lesson.” And Kalin continued: “Stop presenting your own wishes as facts and analyzes”.

The analysis ends here.

Now a fact: the number of Twitter supporters of Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate of the opposition in Istanbul, was, one day before the elections, 380.000. After two days, it surpassed 1 million.

But also a comeback to 1994, when the effective president, Erdogan, then 40 years old, was wining the local elections in Istanbul, with 25,19% of the votes, a total of 973.704. Indeed, in a different electoral system. Ekrem Imamoglu, probably Istanbul’s future mayor, has, now, 49 years old, had 4.159.650 votes, 28.000 more than the candidate supported by Erdogan, 48.79% of the total percentage, comparing to 48.51%. There were HYPERLINK "http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/ball-in-election-boards-court-on-istanbul-vote-dispute-142350"still 0,25% left to be counted.

Maybe this is the reason why, in the visit made at the Anitkabir / the Mausoleum of the Turkish State’s Founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Imamoglu has signed himself, in the book of honor, as Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Mayor / İstanbul Büyükşehir Belediye Başkanı.

Who he wins Istanbul, wins Turkey. And, until the next elections, there are only four years left.