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Why Turkey's AKP is throwing its weight into local election campaign

Turkey’s March elections have pushed themselves to the top of the country’s political agenda - and with the economy on the slide, the ruling AKP is preparing to fight a tough campaign

Just as children in Western countries were unwrapping their gifts on 25 December, lower-income families in Turkey received a set of presents from their government, but for a totally different reason. 

With local elections still more than three months out, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doled out some enticing gifts to voters, along with a pledge to restore economic growth and bring down inflation. The minimum wage was hiked by more than a quarter, a 10 percent discount was introduced on electricity and gas bills, and billions were earmarked for social assistance projects.

There is no mystery as to why the government has made these promises: they are the opening rounds in its campaign for Turkey’s local elections, due on 31 March. 

Resounding victories

Although the country held presidential and parliamentary elections only six months ago, and both were won resoundingly by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey’s press is already highly excited at the upcoming contest - even though all that is at stake is control of the country’s municipalities. After these elections, there will be no national elections until 2023, so party politics will enter a quiet phase.

On the face of it, this is a very unequal contest, and its outcome - an AKP victory overall - is not in doubt, despite some forecasts that the party faces serious challenges in Ankara and Istanbul. 

No one seriously expects a major reversal for the AKP from these elections, particularly after its better-than-expected victories in June

The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), got only 22 percent of the votes in last summer’s general elections and has a record of defeats stretching back half a century. Its record has been particularly poor under current leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has been defeated in seven consecutive elections but rules the party with an iron fist, firmly rejecting all talk of stepping down to make way for a new leader.

Of the other parties, the third largest is the pro-Kurdish left-of-centre Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and it also does not look like a stronger challenger nationally. Its leader, Selahattin Demirtas, is in prison, accused of “terrorist” activities in his speeches, as are about 10 other senior MPs, and dozens of the party’s mayors in southeastern Turkey have been removed from their posts and replaced by interior ministry appointees over the last four years. 

On the defensive

The HDP may have the support of about five million voters, mostly in southeastern Turkey, but in the rest of the country, it is either absent or marginal. The mainstream national press denounces it as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey classifies as a “terrorist” movement; the state has been fighting the PKK since 1984.

Despite this, the AKP, which won 42 percent in the June general elections, is somewhat on the defensive. It would like to have a 50 percent share of the votes - something it achieved in Turkey’s presidential elections - and seems to regard a support level of less than 40 as an embarrassment that could pave the way for a period of renewed weak coalition governments, though it is very hard to imagine Turkey’s current opposition parties taking power and using it effectively.

The problem for the AKP is that the local elections are happening at a bad time. Turkish incomes are being squeezed as a result of the country’s economic turbulence last summer, when the lira dropped badly against other currencies and interest rates were hiked to 24 percent. 2019 looks more or less like a “no-growth” year for Turkey, with GDP expanding by less than one percent or even contracting,  badly down from 2017, when it rose by 7.4 percent. 

The Turkish lira tumbled to record lows against the euro and dollar last year (AFP)

A performance like that means unpopularity for any administration, anywhere. So, despite their disarray, opposition parties see a chance to upset the pattern of national politics significantly if they capture the mayoralties of Istanbul and Ankara. The AKP and its pre-2000 forerunners have held both cities since 1994, but a combination of its opponents could perhaps bring its control to an end. 

The AKP has taken the precaution of maintaining its alliance with the MHP, a party with a slightly less religious, more nationalistic outlook, but one that can bring in perhaps 12 percent of the votes and potentially help clinch an easy victory. The deal is nevertheless pretty unpopular with the AKP rank-and-file, as it means sacrificing some small municipalities to the MHP.

A genuine fight

The AKP has selected an efficient but conservative former mayor of the central Anatolian city of Kayseri, Mehmet Ozhaseki, as its candidate for Ankara. He has to defeat an opposition candidate backed by the CHP and his own Good Party who very nearly won in 2014, Mansur Yavas. It looks like it will be a genuine fight, and Mansur is already declaring ebulliently that he will win.

The AKP candidate in Istanbul, the frontrunner in the elections, seems to be Binali Yildirim, Erdogan’s loyalist former prime minister, now speaker of the Grand National Assembly. But Yildirim’s candidacy has yet to be formally confirmed, perhaps because AKP ministers have been defeated before when running for mayoralties in big cities, and his defeat in Istanbul would be a particular humiliation.

There are rumours Yildirim might be allowed to run without relinquishing his parliamentary position, though this would suggest a lack of confidence.

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Kilicdaroglu has decided to field a relatively little-known CHP local candidate for mayor of Istanbul. The candidate is keen on urban development, but the CHP has ducked the chance to field Muharrem Ince, its charismatic and fairly successful former presidential candidate but a Kilicdaroglu rival. 

No one seriously expects a major reversal for the AKP from these elections, particularly after its better-than-expected victories in June. Its task is to come out of these elections undented.

David Barchard has worked in Turkey as a journalist, consultant and university teacher. He writes regularly on Turkish society, politics and history, and is currently finishing a book on the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament in Ankara on 16 October (AFP)

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