Monday, March 30, 2009

In Turkey, Local Elections with National Implications

Turkey held municipal elections yesterday, in a vote that was essentially a proxy for a national one. Voters hoping to talk about, say, the condition of their city’s sidewalks or the quality of its water were out of luck. Voting for a mayor in Turkey means, for the most part, voting for the party the candidate represents and along national fault lines, rather than based on local issues or concerns.

In that sense, the election results offer some interesting insights into Turkey’s national political picture. The most important result, of course, was that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered its first electoral setback since starting its meteoric rise seven years ago. The AKP’s share of the municipal vote around the country was 40 percent, compared to 42 percent in 2004 and, more significantly, down from the 47 percent of vote the party received in 2007’s national parliamentary elections. The AKP held on to the mayor’s office in Istanbul and Ankara and in a large number of other cities, but the competition managed to score important wins in highly contested places, such as Izmir, Antalya and throughout southeast Turkey. With unemployment at record high levels and Turkey seriously feeling the impact of the global economic crisis, AKP leaders might still be able to point to the results as a success, but clearly they failed to meet their own expectations. As Radikal’s headline put it, the public told the AKP and prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan “One Minute.”

The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition, seemed to score big, increasing its share of the municipal vote by 10 points, going from 18 percent in 2004 to 28 percent. It also significantly improved on its 21 percent share of 2007’s national vote. This time around the party put up some very serious and qualified candidates, especially in Istanbul and Ankara, where it came close to unseating the AKP’s incumbent mayors. That said, the party still failed to offer much more in the way of policy than it’s standard knee jerk opposition to the AKP and remains in the iron grip of its antediluvian leader, Deniz Baykal. One can only wonder how much better the party would have fared if it had a more forward-looking leader and more pronounced policy proposals.

The hard-line Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) also did well, getting almost 15 percent of the municipal vote, compared to 10 percent in 2004 (and equaling its share of the national vote in 2007). But perhaps the most surprising results came from the predominately-Kurdish southeast, where the AKP was hoping to build on the inroads it made during the 2007 elections, when it won 56 percent of the regional vote. This time around, though, voters there mostly shut the AKP out, handing some big victories to the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP). This was particularly true in Diyarbakir, where the party’s incumbent won 65 percent of the vote, despite the AKP’s intensive campaigning in the city. The DTP also won back some cities that it had lost to the AKP in the 2004 municipal elections. The party even failed to win in Tunceli, where AKP-appointed officials gave out ovens, refrigerators and other appliances before the election. Clearly, there is still some life left in the DTP’s brand of “identity politics.”

“We will study why we dropped to this level,” Erdogan said in Ankara after the election results came. “We will extract our lessons from the election result and direct our work accordingly.” The question is what lessons will the AKP extract from the election? Some of the potential lessons might be troubling. The AKP now has a diminished mandate to move ahead with any bold reform efforts, such as changes to the constitution and any legislation related to the country’s stalled European Union membership drive. If the party was concerned about the political cost of making such moves after 2007’s election, where it won a whopping 47 percent of the vote, it’s hard to imagine it doing so now, considering that its main rivals (the now emboldened CHP and MHP) have been critical of the EU project and of the AKP’s efforts to liberalize or abolish some of Turkey’s statist and militarist laws and structures. The election results could very well lead the AKP to decide that the lesson learned is that it has to beef up its nationalist credentials (something it has already been doing to a certain extent) in order to fend off the CHP and MHP. The AKP government has said that it would return to the reform process after these municipal elections, but the results could very well mean that this will not be the case.

On the other hand, the results in the Southeast may show the AKP that, despite some of the positive moves it’s made on the Kurdish issue, it may have to go even further to meet the expectations of the local population. Launching a state-run Kurdish television channel was an important move, but it may not be enough, especially if Kurdish politicians are still jailed for campaigning in Kurdish or if private television and radio stations are punished for broadcasting in Kurdish. But it may be difficult for the AKP to both take significant steps to solve the Kurdish issue and strengthen its nationalist credentials. Clearly, tough choices – and the possibility of further political polarization – are ahead.

[UPDATE -- As Jenny White points out in a post on her Kamil Pasha blog, the one thing that remains unchanged in these recent local elections is the almost nonexistent number of women voted into office. According to Bianet's count, only 15 women managed to get elected to one of the more than 3,000 municipal offices that were in play in Sunday's poll. As Bianet points out, prior to these elections, the percentage of women serving as elected officials in Turkey's local governments was 0.56, a number which might even go down after the most recent vote.

For some background on the continuing struggle to get more women involved in Turkish politics, take a look at this article I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor before the 2007 national election.]

(Photo: a voter in Istanbul casting his ballot during the 2007 national elections. By Yigal Schleifer)

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