Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suffered a significant setback in local elections held at the end of March. Sevinç Bermek writes that the elections highlighted the extent to which Erdoğan and his party are beginning to lose their grip over Turkish politics in the aftermath of the country’s financial and economic crisis.
On 31 March, Turkey held local elections. Current results suggest that the ruling party Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party, AKP) has lost three metropolitan cities (Istanbul, Ankara, and Antalya). The loss of these major metropolitan cities to the main oppositional party Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party, CHP) highlights that the AKP political machine is not invincible when economic recession impacts the daily lives of Turkey’s citizens and opposition parties introduce new candidates in a strategic and cooperative way. To comprehend the importance of 2019 local elections, it is crucial to remember that local government has been an antecedent to success in legislative elections.
The importance of local elections in Turkey
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current President of Turkey, obtained his renowned success after being elected as the Mayor of Istanbul at the 1994 local elections. Erdoğan’s then party Refah Partisi (Welfare Party, RP) also won Ankara, the capital, along with Istanbul. Erdoğan and the RP’s success in two major metropolitan cities became a game-changer in Turkish politics as the RP subsequently topped the vote in the legislative elections of 1995.
During his tenure as Mayor, Erdoğan and the RP targeted the needs of underprivileged people who were living in the peripheral neighbourhoods of Istanbul by delivering tangible services to them (e.g. efficient public service provision and welfare services). Though Turkey is formally a unitarian state with a strong central government, local government, especially in metropolitan areas, gained significance after significant urban migration which began in the 1960s.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana (CC BY 2.0)
The RP successfully responded to the demands of locals living in peripheral areas of metropolitan cities with its sophisticated grassroots party organisation, establishing strong community linkages in neighbourhoods (e.g. via personal relationships with locals and regular visits to households). One of the important aspects of the local government by the RP and its successors (Fazilet Partisi, Virtue Party, FP) and later the AKP has been the institutional resilience of these Islamic-leaning parties at the local level; even though the RP was closed down following the ‘Post-modern coup’ in 1997 and its successor (FP) was closed in 2001, the party at the local level continued to canvass votes from its core constituencies.
During the sixteen-year ruling tenure of the AKP, local government has remained its stronghold. It has helped the party and its leader to hold onto power by drawing on local knowledge, establishing clientelistic relationships with locals and thereby constructing a socially anchored local party machine. The latter has helped the AKP to consolidate its position at both local and central government and helped it to maintain a strong political organisation that understands the needs of core constituencies and delivers accordingly.
The presidential system, economic mismanagement, and voter fatigue
Over the last sixteen years, the AKP has sustained its political hegemony (both in local and central government). However, the country’s shift to a presidential system and this new system’s inability to address a worsening economy, alongside voter fatigue with the AKP, paved the way to the election results.
Turkey held a referendum on a package of reforms which aimed to shift the country from a parliamentary democracy toward an executive presidency in April 2017. The new system was accepted by a narrow margin (with 51.4 per cent voting in favour). Despite the reforms passing, the referendum was actually a precursor of the 2019 local elections, as three major cities (Istanbul, Ankara and İzmir) voted ‘No’ to the executive presidency. In addition to these cities, other cities such as Adana and Antalya also voted ‘No’. These five cities account for almost half of Turkey’s total GDP.
Despite a high share of ‘No’ votes in the referendum, the reforms still passed and general and presidential elections in 2018 completed this regime change with the election of Erdoğan as President up until 2023. Nevertheless, the economy, which was already in a fragile position, became more vulnerable in 2018 after the country was hit by a currency crisis, increasing inflation rates to 16 per cent (far beyond the central bank’s 5 per cent target).
This massive increase in consumer prices could have been prevented if the central bank had maintained its independence and increased interest rates, but Erdoğan wanted to avoid this as it would have put citizens carrying debts, including mortgages, in a difficult position and potentially curb economic growth. In addition to political pressure on the central bank, Erdoğan appointed his son-in-law as the economic chief of his new administration, putting him in charge of a new Ministry of Treasury and Finance and side-lining previous AKP members before the elections. The sense of nepotism about this appointment deepened the country’s economic vulnerability as the new minister lacked credibility.
These institutional developments compounded the effects of the deteriorating economy. However, ultimately, the central bank increased interest rates to address the depreciating Turkish lira. Though the situation was brought under control in the short-term, since February, soaring food prices have driven Turkish inflation even higher. Despite the government introducing some unorthodox measures to minimise discontent among voters, such as the introduction of municipality-led vegetable stalls in major cities, the recent elections highlight the extent to which the electorate in metropolitan areas is dissatisfied. Rather than these unorthodox measures, many would prefer full-fledged economic reforms that tackle inflation and increasing unemployment, with youth unemployment now touching 30 per cent.
It is crucial to remember that following the country’s economic crisis in 2001, every one of the parties in the then governing coalition failed to win representation in parliament in the 2002 general election. The AKP’s electoral campaign prior to the local elections this year emphasised the survival of the regime, but it was not persuasive enough for the average Turkish voter who would like to return to economic stability. Moreover, this time the main opposition party (in collaboration with other opposition parties) offered a new style of discourse, moving beyond the Islam-secularism axis and putting forward carefully chosen candidates who have already gained experience in local government. This contributed to their success in Istanbul, Ankara and Mersin.
The immediate response from the AKP was to lodge objections regarding the results of the local elections, particularly in Istanbul. It was always unlikely that the AKP would acknowledge that it has lost its grip on Istanbul after a period spanning 25 years. There is symbolic importance at stake here as it is often claimed the party that governs Istanbul is likely to obtain further power in legislative elections.
Beyond this symbolic meaning, Istanbul’s share of total GDP stood at 31 percent in 2017. It has always been the city where politicians and policy makers hope to get more income via lucrative rent-seeking activities such as real estate and infrastructure. Even with AKP acknowledging the opposition candidate’s victory, the central government may make it difficult for an opposition mayor to govern by withholding central government funds or by appointing trustees to replace the elected ones.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
Sevinç Bermek – LSE / King’s College London
Sevinç Bermek is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Government at LSE and a visiting Research Fellow in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London. She is the author of The Rise of Hybrid Political Islam in Turkey: Origins and Consolidation of the JDP (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).