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Analysis: Ruling party errors give Turkey’s opposition hope for future

In News, World
April 16, 2024

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ruled over the country for nearly two and a half decades, undefeated. In that time, elections have largely followed a similar trajectory, each strengthening his popularity and position of authority.

But a few years ago, warning signs emerged. In the 2019 local elections, Erdogan’s AK Party lost the mayoral race in four of Turkey’s largest cities, including the biggest city, Istanbul – where Erdogan made his name as mayor in the 1990s. Then, in the most recent local elections at the end of March, the results were even worse, with the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) emerging victorious again.

Two days later, Turkish press outlets reported that Erdogan had told his party’s executives that the “results demonstrate not only a defeat in the election but also the loss of the party’s soul”.

He reportedly went on to say that arrogance among his party’s representatives in both the national headquarters and local branches had become “disease-like”.

The Justice and Development Party or AK Party, which began as a grassroots movement promising to break barriers between the people and the state, has evolved, with its initial anti-status quo stance, reformist ideals, and what it represents also transforming significantly.

The party has always had its opponents, particularly among the hardline secularists once regarded as the establishment in Turkey. But the phenomenon of long-time party supporters staying home will worry Erdogan and the party he founded and led for more than two decades.

The causes are multi-faceted and touch on the issues facing Turkish voters in general and in particular the AK Party’s traditional voter base in Istanbul and Turkey’s Anatolian heartland.

Not just the economy

The most obvious issue is the economy, a problem that the Turkish government has faced for a number of years, and that remains the biggest millstone around its neck, leading to widespread frustration, discontent, and grievances.

Increased income inequality, runaway inflation, a rapid depreciation of the national currency, soaring costs, and a decline in the standard of living for pensioners are just some of the economic problems the Turkish people are living through, leading to widespread frustration, discontent, and grievances.

The Turkish Statistical Institute reports that in October 2022, inflation shot up to 85.5 percent, the highest level in 25 years. In the same month in 2023, it was 61.3 percent, still one of the world’s top five. Some sources, however, contend that the actual rate might be considerably higher.

Residential property prices in Turkey increased 75.52 percent in December 2023 compared to the same month in the previous year, the highest year-on-year figure in the world. The Turkish lira’s sharp decline in value has impacted businesses and employees alike, and income inequality has also increased. Forecasts indicate that nearly 10 percent of Turkey’s population will earn less than $6.85 a day in 2024, below the poverty line for upper-middle-income countries like Turkey, as defined by the World Bank.

The deteriorating economy has particularly hit the middle and lower economic classes, the bedrock of the AK Party’s support.

But there is more to the backlash against the ruling party. Many voters felt that the candidates they were being asked to support were selected based on decisions made by a disconnected party leadership, without considering the opinions and expectations of local voters.

This led to disillusionment among some traditional AK Party voters who lost faith in the ability of elected officials to represent them, which caused a sizable portion to abstain from casting ballots.

CHP politicians, on the other hand, are growing ever more popular, particularly the now-re-elected mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, and the mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavas.

Election results show that both the AK Party and CHP candidates for mayor of Istanbul lost a combined 800,000 votes compared to the 2019 elections, with the AK Party shed 200,000 more votes than the CHP did.

Is this indicative of a party disconnected from its supporter base? There was an incorrect belief at party headquarters that weak candidates could be carried over the line by the AK Party’s popularity, with some top party figures ignoring information from the provinces regarding the unpopularity of the candidates, according to Turkish political sources who spoke to Al Jazeera.

Ultimately, party figures were too reliant on the personal popularity of President Erdogan. While he was heavily involved in the election campaign, touring 52 provinces in two months and holding more than 100 election rallies, Erdogan’s popularity was insufficient to persuade enough of them to overcome their reservations about the state of AK Party rule, particularly when it came to the economy.

Some argue that some of the candidate selection mistakes may have come from Erdogan’s desire to avoid high-profile candidates who could turn into competitors among the president’s conservative-nationalist voters. Erdogan has largely avoided the notion of a de facto heir apparent in the party since it was established in 2001, reportedly fearing the shadow of a competitor, a fear deeply rooted in Turkish politics and history, stretching back to the Ottoman Empire.

Nationalism triumphs

There are also ideological reasons for the AK Party’s failure to galvanise its base. The party’s increasingly nationalist policies are less and less satisfactory to the religiously motivated supporters who have historically been its driving force.

The adoption of this rhetoric – partly out of necessity to maintain the support of the nationalist MHP after the July 2016 coup attempt – has had the unintended consequence of reducing the party’s inclusiveness and turning the more religiously oriented supporters off, as well as those from some ethnic backgrounds, particularly Kurdish voters, many of whom once believed that the AK Party was going to transform the status quo.

With Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast overwhelmingly voting for the pro-Kurdish DEM Party – formerly the HDP – in the last elections, and antagonism towards the government due to nationalist narrative and security-oriented policies, it may surprise some to learn that the AK Party once had a large amount of Kurdish support.

That goes back to the party’s initial appeal to voters across Turkey’s political, ethnic and religious divides. In the years following its arrival onto the political scene in the 2000s, it had supporters who were moderates, social democrats, conservatives and Kurds. This had started to waver in the years before the attempted coup, but it was the alliance with the MHP and the political insecurity created by the coup attempt that firmly rooted the AK Party in the Turkish nationalist milieu, focused on security-oriented policies.

In this dichotomy of democratic reforms and security, the latter has decisively prevailed. This has gradually resulted in the absence of traditional supporters from the voting booth, as well as a loss of support from those who had previously backed the party due to its reformist, anti-establishment stance.

The media and intellectual circles surrounding the ruling party have adopted an overtly antagonistic and polarising narrative that also played an important role in losing support for the AK Party – aiming to appease political elites rather than foster a vibrant intellectual environment and advance public good. The resulting intellectual and political environment has been detrimental to the country’s policymaking as it narrows perspectives and dries up diversity.

Finally, another factor has emerged in the past six months as a result of Israel’s war on Gaza – a widespread perception that the government has ignored its core base’s emotional response to the suffering in Gaza and disappointment with its policies on the issue. This has created a sense of betrayal and alienation among those who have traditionally supported the ruling party because of its ties to Islamic identity and has been one of the fundamental causes of the rise of the conservative New Welfare Party, which advocates cutting trade links and severing diplomatic ties with Israel.

 Can the CHP maintain the momentum?

The ultimate victor from the AK Party’s weakness among its traditional base has been the CHP, which secured wins across Turkey. The opposition’s success is a blow to the argument that competitive authoritarianism is entrenched in the Turkish political system and that Erdogan would never transfer power peacefully.

Erdogan’s party lost in Turkey’s five biggest cities, and the opposition candidates took office swiftly and smoothly, except for an initially disqualified DEM mayor in the city of Van, who was later reinstated. Despite valid concerns about fairness, elections in Turkey still matter and are free and transparent. Comparisons of Turkey with Russia and China are unjustified and overlook the fact that Turkey’s institutions continue to deliver and democracy continues to function, albeit imperfectly.

However, analysts should refrain from making hasty assumptions, such as believing that Erdogan is gone and that Imamoglu, the CHP mayor of Istanbul, will replace him. The AK Party’s traditional conservative base, unlike some of the party’s former supporters from different ideological wings, has not given its support to the CHP, which is still associated with the grievances that religiously conservative Turks have with the more militantly secular politicians of the pre-AK Party era.

To transform society in the early period of the modern Turkish Republic in the early to mid-20th century, the CHP used brutally elitist and ultra-nationalist engineering and militaristic French-style laicism, a policy that has left bitter memories for conservatives and Kurds.

Well aware of this fact, CHP candidates avoided engaging in ideological arguments in the election campaign. Instead, their tone was more moderate and focused on public discontent against the ruling party. The rift between Kemalists – Turks who believe in the laicist secular ideology of the founder of the Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – and conservatives still exists.

But while the ruling party deployed a state-centric narrative, preaching that the very survival of the state is at stake if it loses the election, the CHP candidates successfully ran a campaign that was less ideological but boldly promising change in an attempt to appeal to different segments of society. However, it remains unclear whether the opposition will be able to maintain its momentum until the presidential election in 2028.

One of the chief takeaways from the local election results is that the ruling party’s traditional base punished Erdogan and his party by abstaining from the ballot box. They aimed to send a clear message to the party, demanding their voices be heard.

Just 10 months ago, many of those same supporters helped Erdogan defy those who thought the opposition would defeat him in presidential elections. Their absence this time is calculated, and many will feel they have sent a message that they should not be taken for granted. Local elections are ultimately different from presidential elections, particularly in the current Turkish context.

Last year, the fragility of an opposition coalition of parties from across Turkey’s political spectrum frightened many voters and was part of the reason why popular discontent did not translate into an opposition victory. But local elections have their own dynamics, with less focus on ideology, and a greater propensity for movements and swings in the behavioural patterns of voters.

Based on the local election results, it was not that the CHP’s vote numbers increased dramatically, but that the number of votes won by the AK Party dropped. Voters have distanced themselves from their party but have not switched to the opposition. However, if prolonged, this vacuum can potentially cost Erdogan his presidency if he fails to reform his party and recover the economy, which are the primary reasons for public discontent.

The onus now falls on the opposition to prove itself. As the results illustrate, the provinces in which the opposition won the majority make up nearly 60 percent of the national population, about 70 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), and 80 percent of the country’s exports. That gives the opposition a tremendous advantage over the ruling party economically and demographically.

Imamoglu received well-deserved leadership status in the opposition and is now an authentic political actor and challenger to Erdogan. However, polling shows that Erdogan’s popularity is higher than the AK Party’s, and many who did not support the party in local elections will likely still back the president.

While the results indicate the emergence of an organic opposition, they also reduced the window of opportunity for Erdogan to pursue major political moves, like amending the constitution to allow him to run for the presidency a third time, for which the current constitution limits the mandate to two terms.

The opposition faces equal challenges to those that await Erdogan. The CHP remains susceptible to crisis because of ongoing internal conflicts and power struggles among its leaders. Managing provincial affairs is one thing; ruling a country is another. To date, the CHP and its most prominent figure, Imamoglu, have not presented a convincing agenda for democratic reforms or an economic recovery plan.

It can be argued that the opposition did not win in the latest election, but rather the ruling party lost.

The voters sent their message to the AK Party and only slightly outstretched an arm to the opposition, which can yet be retracted. The AK Party has the chance to learn from the lesson and correct the mistakes that have been made, which cost the party dearly in the local elections.

The voters have also given the opposition an opportunity to be tested with more power. Whether the ruling party learns those lessons and the opposition uses this chance wisely will ultimately determine the outcome of the 2028 presidential vote, and the future of Turkey.

EMEA Tribune is not involved in this news article, it is taken from our partners and or from the News Agencies. Copyright and Credit go to the News Agencies, email news@emeatribune.com Follow our WhatsApp verified Channel210520-twitter-verified-cs-70cdee.jpg (1500×750)

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