This article was published in Ahval News on April 6, 2019.
Turkish electorate show yellow card to the ruling party
Turkey’s March 31 local elections may be the beginning of a sea change in domestic policy.
All the major parties claim they emerged the winner of the polls, and they all are genuinely entitled to do so, because, depending on the standpoint, there is something for everyone to be proud of.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in cooperation with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), campaigned on a narrative that Turkey’s survival was at stake because of the support extended by Western countries to the Kurdish cause, especially by the United States. The government bloc thereby demonised the main opposition party for cooperating with the pro-Kurdish party. The opposition alliance responded by saying the polls were not a question of the survival of Turkey, but of the ruling party. The results of the elections indicate that the electorate, at least the so-called “white Turks” – the educated elite, urban intellectuals and secularists – did not believe the government narrative.
Volumes could be written analysing the outcome of the elections. But an important point is that despite uneven competition during the election campaign and innumerable restrictions, the electorate was able to show the ruling party a yellow card.
Another important outcome is that the municipalities of the country’s two largest constituencies – Istanbul and Ankara – changed hands from the ruling party to the main opposition party, pending confirmation by the electoral board. Since 1994, these two cities have been governed by political parties linked to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The loss of these two metropolises to the opposition is a major shift. The elections in both were won by a relatively small margin, but these big cities will still be governed by a mayor from the main opposition party, if the results are confirmed.
The number of people in the provinces who will be governed by the opposition is close to half of Turkey’s entire population. Furthermore, more than 70 percent of Turkey’s Gross Domestic Product is produced by these cities. Difficulties may be expected if the central government reduces the flow of public funds to these provinces because of this change and it may cause major friction between the central government and the big cities.
One surprise result was the election of Mehmet Maçoğlu, the candidate of almost non-existent Turkish Communist Party, as mayor of Tunceli province. Previously, Maçoğlu was the mayor of the small district of Ovacık in the same province.
The March 31 elections were regarded as a test of whether the electorate would approve Erdoğan’s presidency. The outcome indicates that less than 45 percent of the electorate continues to support Erdoğan. With the backing of the MHP, this support goes up to 51.4 percent. But the MHP’s support makes the government a lame duck, because this far-right nationalist party has its own agenda that may not converge on every point with that of the ruling party.
As far as the post-election era is concerned, no other elections are scheduled for the coming four-and-a-half years. Therefore, the government has no excuse if it fails to solve the multitude of problems that engulf the country. The economy is the highest priority because an important proportion part of the electorate is more interested in finding its daily bread than in democracy and fundamental rights and freedoms. The economy has deep-rooted problems and needs structural reforms and they are not easy to implement. Some reforms will not yield results before the next elections. Therefore, the government has to move swiftly and chose the right tools to eliminate the shortcomings.
There are also pressing problems in foreign policy including the purchase of S-400 air defence missile systems from Russia, the U.S. reaction to it, the sale of U.S. F-35 fighter aircraft to Turkey, relations with the European Union, and the Syrian quagmire (Idlib, Manbij, east of the Euphrates and safe zones to be established in the Turkish-Syrian border).
The yellow card shown by the electorate will force the ruling party to be careful and successful at the same time.