Turkey’s Democratic Future in Suspense

Turkey’s local elections were hotly contested, taking place amid a controversial official ban on YouTube and Twitter. What was it that made these elections somewhat less local than usual?

Turkey’s local elections were hotly contested, taking place amid a controversial official ban on YouTube and Twitter. The interest of the international media, in the corridors of the European Union and in the United States, was remarkable. This global concern is surprising indeed considering that this was, after all, an election for mayors and city councils. How can we explain this heightened interest? And what was it that made these elections somewhat less local than usual?

To answer these questions, a look back is in order. Turkey has been experiencing a state of exception since the events of May and June 2013, when hundred of thousands gathered in Istanbul’s Taksim Square to protest the closure of Gezi Park and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s political, economic and cultural policies. It was in these days that the slogan “Tahrir is Taksim” entered Turkey’s political lexicon. The uncompromising reaction of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo
ğan and the heavy use of police force propelled a symbolic moment—one that tainted the government’s narrative of conservative democracy, economic development and regional leadership. Nothing has been the same since.

These tensions were compounded in December, when two investigations into corruption and political favoritism by Istanbul prosecutors implicated the prime minister’s inner circle. If Gezi came to symbolize a break in Turkey’s image as a global player, the December inquiries mark the end of the AKP’s coalition with its most important ally: the Hizmet movement. Headed by Fethullah Gülen, the Pennsylvania-based cleric, this international network boasts strong educational, economic and trade institutions globally. Some members of the Hizmet movement are now being held responsible for the investigations and the leaking of evidence against the AKP’s key political and economic players.

The AKP government and the prime minister failed to see such an attack coming and were slow to respond. When they did, they made a strategic error. Instead of facing the allegations, letting justice run its course, the government intervened in the judicial process, re-staffed the body in charge of the appointment and disciplinary control of judges and prosecutors, re-appointed several thousand policemen, judges and prosecutors. Coming close to a suspension of the rule of law and the separation of powers, the government sought to control the public debate on the graft allegations with stern measures ranging from direct intervention in the editorial policies of independent media outlets to the banning of YouTube and Twitter. Particularly the latter bans did not only dismay the country’s more than 12 million Twitter users, including the President and most leading AKP figures; they also triggered considerable concern among Turkey’s Western allies, as well as the EU. Twitter, after all, is banned only in very few and very undemocratic countries. Until the Constitutional Court lifted the ban on April 2, Belarus was the only other country in Europe without Twitter.

The prime minister’s electoral strategy was to treat these the local elections as a referendum on his personal achievements and the AKP’s future, with the August presidential elections in mind. Using deeply polarizing language, Erdo
ğan depicted the elections as part of a national struggle against the “parallel state”—a euphemism for the Hizmet network, which he accuses of being behind the investigations and leaks. To Erdoğan, the Gulenists—once allies and supporters of the AKP—are now internal enemies.

The opposition parties and their leaders, instead of running a campaign based on their values and visions for the future took Erdo
ğan’s bait and allowed the local elections to become power struggle between the prime minister and everybody else. This elevated the local elections effectively into a national affair, yet one with local consequences.

Election day on March 30 began under these tense conditions, and resulted in a remarkable election victory for a prime minister, vindicating a government that only a fortnight ago appeared to be on the way out. Even though the High Election Council has not yet announced all official results, estimates suggest that the AKP has won close to 45 percent of the vote and the two most significant metropolitan councils of Istanbul and Ankara. The AKP indeed emerged as the only political party that is represented in all regions of the country. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) stayed at around 28 percent nation-wide and failed to mount a serious challenge to the ruling party outside its traditional strongholds in Turkey’s western provinces and middle-class districts in major cities. The right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) improved its vote slightly to around 14 percent and won a number of metropolitan municipalities like Mersin and Adana, as well as in the interior Aegean. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party held most municipalities in the Southeast with around 6 percent of the national vote.

Prime Minister Erdo
ğan delivered a fiery post-election talk from the balcony of the AKP headquarters in Ankara. But was this really the resounding election victory he described? The answer depends on the benchmark you choose.

Compared to the previous local elections, the ruling party has indeed improved its representation across the country, which is no small feat, considering the public protests against AKP mayors’ local policies and the massive campaign against the prime minister. Yet, if one discusses these elections in the context of the Erdo
ğan campaign as national referendum on his policies, the results appear in a different light. Compared to the 2011 general elections, the party has lost at least 5 percent and more than 2 million voters. In this reading, the AKP’s hold on power has been dented and a downward trend has set in.

Whether this is wishful thinking of the opposition parties or a sociological fact remains to be seen. But there is another challenge to the ruling party that demands scrutiny. The elections took place among allegations of vote rigging and manipulation, rarely encountered in Turkey’s democratic history. Electricity outages in a number of voting offices did not help either. In several cities, including in Ankara where AKP and CHP votes went head to head, opposition parties have filed complaints and requested recounts. A number of cities have gone to the CHP as a result, while a CHP request for recount in metropolitan Ankara has been refused by the High Election Council. Two conclusions can be made from this contestation. First, it has laid bare deficits in terms of the training of election officials as well as the selection process of the supervisors of polling stations, who tend to be sympathetic to the government. Secondly, it has brought to the fore the long-term effects of the urban protests of 2013. More than 30,000 independent observers followed the elections for the movement Oy ve Ötesi (votes and beyond) and played a key role in exposing attempted election fraud or in subverting it. This is an indicator that the protesting youth of Taksim Square has made inroads into politics, if from an unexpected angle.

Even if these elections were held as a referendum for Erdo
ğan, above all the impact will be local. With significant regional variations, there have been changes worth noting. The pro-Kurdish BDP, for instance, fielded women as mayors or co-mayors for almost all its municipalities. The mayor of metropolitan Diyarbakir, the political capital of the Kurdish movement, will be a woman. In the town of Mardin, a Syriac Christian will act as co-mayor. In the Kurdish provinces, women will have a much larger say in urban politics from now on. But also outside Kurdistan, women have been elected into office as mayor or metropolitan mayor. In a district of Konya, the first female mayor wearing a headscarf was elected, suggesting that Turkey’s long-standing conflict over hijab is gradually subsiding. Finally, Turkey and Istanbul’s district council of Beşiktaş has now its first openly gay politician, Sedef Çakmak, who was supported by a large network of LGBT activists. This development is noteworthy, particularly when considering the general turn towards social conservatism under the AKP. Whether these new faces in Turkey’s politics will be able to provide spaces of democratic politics in an increasingly authoritarian context remains to be seen.

How these elections will affect national politics is yet another burning question. Suffice to say, the prime minister and his party have won. But they have not won high enough to be reassured about Erdo
ğan’s future election as president. Neither have they received enough votes to emerge victorious from the 2015 general elections and change the constitution in favor of a presidential democracy. And this remains Erdoğan’s goal for the near future: To centralize all power in his hands and run the country from the presidential palace. Politics will therefore remain tense, while some bans continue, and others are challenged. Turkey’s democratic future remains in suspense.

Kerem Öktem is a research fellow at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, and currently a Mercator-IPC visiting fellow at Sabancı University Istanbul.