The defeat of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in municipal elections in Turkish capital Ankara and financial hub Istanbul has led to speculation of the beginning of the end for the ruling party after decades of success.
Experts say the success of opposition candidates in the elections indicate growing discontent among the Turkish people with economic mismanagement. The defeat of the ruling party is being seen by most observers as a referendum on the government’s performance. Turkey’s economy fell into recession in March after years of enviable growth. The unemployment rate is now over 10pc, and is as much as 30 percent among young people. In 2018, the value of the Turkish lira fell 28pc. Inflation is at 20 percent. The opposition says democratic ideals have eroded in the country under Erdogan’s rule. The results also signal that the opposition could mount a serious challenge to him in the next presidential election, in 2023.
According to the New York Times, just when it seemed that democracy was all but dead in Turkey, voters delivered a sharp electoral rebuke to their authoritarian president. “Mr. Erdogan was not on the ballot, and his party still controls Parliament, but the vote was the worst election defeat of his nearly two decades in office. And while he won re-election last year, a 2017 referendum that only narrowly gave him new authority over the legislature and judiciary presaged his weakening support. Opposition candidates in the municipal races capitalized on growing discontent with his repression and economic mismanagement,” the newspaper said in its editorial. The president’s main rival, the Republican People’s Party, and its allies promised political change, job creation, better education and improved social services. Opposition members carefully monitored vote tallies and even slept on sacks of counted ballots to ensure they are not tampered with by Erdogan loyalists. “Over the years, Mr Erdogan has manipulated the system to accrue sweeping executive powers, control the army and crack down on civil liberties. His cronies largely control the media, but Turkey still jails more journalists than any other nation. The president inserted himself directly into the local election process, handpicking a longtime ally, Binali Yildirim, to run for mayor of Istanbul and choosing a former minister to run for mayor of Ankara. Their losses could deprive the president of a vast patronage apparatus that has bolstered his rule. Appearing at as many as eight political rallies a day, Erdogan waged an aggressively negative campaign, accusing the opposition of criminality or terrorism, threatening lawsuits and fueling nationalist anger,” the New York Times noted.
The Washington Post accused the Turkish president of resorting to his usual tactics to win elections but still failed. “He cast some of his ruling party’s opponents as traitors. He screened the horrific video of the massacres at two mosques in New Zealand. And he stirred angry nationalism from city to city in a bid to distract voters frustrated by the country’s faltering economy. But this time it didn’t work. The next days will test Erdogan’s ability to stomach defeat,” the newspaper said in an article. “The loss of Istanbul would be an especially harsh blow to the president,” wrote The Washington Post’s Kareem Fahim. Erdogan rose to national prominence as the city’s mayor from 1994 to 1998. The city has since served as a source of wealth and prestige for his party and a showcase — with its sprinting construction, megaprojects — for his broader ideological vision. But amid a grim economic downturn, which has seen the country’s currency, the lira, lose a third of its value against the dollar, Erdogan could no longer hang his hat on the prosperity ushered in during an earlier period of his rule. And his divisive populism failed to secure enough nationalist support among urban voters.
“The loss of Turkey’s major cities has also shattered Erdogan’s image as an invincible politician,” wrote Gonul Tol, a Turkey scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. She added that the election delivered “a huge blow to the clientelistic network Erdogan has built over the last 25 years.” At the same time, the election was the latest sign of a more-galvanised opposition overcoming years of division and dysfunction. The deflating outcome for Erdogan adds to his mounting woes. Abroad, he is engaged in a new squabble with the United States over Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile defence system. At home, he faces mounting calls to enact deep economic reforms. “It’s a terrible result for Erdogan,” Berk Esen, an assistant professor of international relations at Ankara’s Bilkent University noted. “There’s an economic crisis, there’s an international crisis due to an ongoing standoff with the US. At the same time, there is an electoral defeat that shows his international partners and domestic opponents that he’s quite vulnerable.”
Observers are looking to see how President Erdogan will react to the loss of Istanbul and Ankara, after years of sustained electoral success, the Aljazeera noted. “It would be more appropriate to call it a milestone on the road leading to the end,” it quoted Kemal Can, a veteran newspaper columnist. Like many other commentators, he identified Turkey’s stuttering economy as the issue that had alienated many voters after years of booming growth and prosperity. “This being a local election, the voting base of the ruling party wanted to give a lesson to the rulers.” Others suggested the AK Party’s campaign, which saw senior figures characterise the opposition as supporters of terrorism, may have estranged some of the electorate. “The government used harsh language against everyone who was against them,” Can said. “This language was not welcomed even by some of their own supporters. The opposition successfully managed not to be dragged into this fight and left the ruling party alone in the tension they created.”
On the other hand, a leading Turkish newspaper noted the election had demonstrated that Turkey was indeed a consolidated democracy capable of overcoming challenges through electoral processes. “It also revealed the meaninglessness of the charge of authoritarianism,” the Daily Sabah said in an article. It also accused the opposition of manipulating the election, which is hard to believe because the government is usually accused of it for being in power and state machinery at its disposal.
Observers see the election results as a desire for change in Turkey. They say voters have issued a warning to the government over an economic crisis that has seen inflation hit 20pc and left one in 10 workers unemployed. Early elections are also possible, but policy change within the government and a ministerial reshuffle look imminent.