BACKGROUND: Although local factors can sometimes play an important role, voting preferences in Turkish local elections have traditionally been largely shaped by perceptions of the parties’ performances in national politics. The campaign for the March 30, 2014 local election was held amid a barrage of alleged revelations of corruption and malpractice involving Erdoğan and members of his family and inner circle of trusted associates. The allegations – most of which are based on purported covert audio recordings posted on the internet – were the product of the collapse of Erdoğan’s former alliance with the followers of the exiled Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, commonly known as the Gülen Movement.
In return for their political support, Erdoğan had allowed Gülen sympathizers to establish a substantial presence in the police and the judicial apparatus, which they then used to prosecute and imprison hundreds of their perceived critics and rivals. The alliance became increasingly strained after the AKP won a third successive term in power in June 2011. It finally collapsed on December 17, 2013, when pro-Gülen prosecutors ordered the arrest of 51 businesspeople – all of them with close connections to the AKP leadership – on charges of corruption and contract-rigging. Erdoğan responded by instigating a purge of suspected Gülen sympathizers from the police and judiciary. To date, more than 400 judicial officials and over 10,000 police officers have been removed from their posts.
Significantly, all but one of the recordings that have been posted on the internet appear to date to before Erdoğan initiated his purges. The exception is a covert recording of meeting in the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs on March 13, 2014, in which senior officials discussed creating a pretext – including staging a false flag attack on Turkey – in order to justify a Turkish military intervention in Syria. The authenticity of the recording has been confirmed by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. It is unclear whether the audio file was posted on the internet by members of the Gülen Movement – which would suggest that, despite the purges, they have retained some intelligence gathering capabilities – or whether it was recorded and posted by someone else.
The allegations of impropriety dominated the AKP’s local election campaign. Even though he was not a candidate, the streets of Turkey’s cities were festooned with large banners bearing Erdoğan’s portrait. The AKP’s election song and official campaign video focused solely on the prime minister. Erdoğan toured the country, using mass rallies of AKP supporters to condemn the apparently incriminating recordings as politically motivated fabrications and part of an international conspiracy to try to prevent Turkey’s otherwise inexorable rise to greatness under his leadership.
According to the provisional results of the March 30, 2014 local elections, the AKP secured 43.3 per cent of the national vote in the council elections, rising to 45.5 per cent in the mayoral elections. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) was second with 25.6 per cent and 27.8 per cent respectively, followed by the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) with 17.6 per cent and 15.2 per cent respectively. The AKP secured the highest proportion of the vote in 48 of Turkey’s 81 provinces. The CHP was the leading party in 14 provinces, compared with eight for the MHP. Candidates affiliated with the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) won the largest share of the vote in 11 provinces, all of them in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country.
IMPLICATIONS: The apparently incriminating audio recordings involving Erdoğan and his close associates appear to have had only a minor impact on the AKP’s vote. Public opinion surveys conducted in the run-up to the local elections suggested that most voters had already decided which party they would vote for long before the recordings began to appear on the internet. It is also likely that the number of recordings released by members of the Gülen Movement diluted their impact by making it clear that they were part of concerted campaign to try to undermine Erdoğan.
In late 2013, as the alliance began to fray, there was considerable speculation as to the extent of the Gülen Movement’s political influence and whether Erdoğan could afford to antagonize it. The local election results suggest that its political influence is limited. Erdoğan now appears likely not only to press ahead with his presidential ambitions but also to intensify his campaign against the Gülen Movement itself, possibly including initiating criminal proceedings against its members, companies and NGOs.
In his victory speech on March 30, Erdoğan made it clear that he regarded the election results as absolving him and his close associates of any wrongdoing. Even though it accounted for well short of a majority, Erdoğan described the vote for the AKP as representing “the national will” at a time when his government was engaged in a new “War of Independence” against foreign powers and their domestic lackeys. Erdoğan also characterized the AKP’s victory as a triumph for the world’s Muslims, particularly those in the Balkans and the Middle East.
One of the reasons for Erdoğan’s electoral successes is that he has enhanced the self-image of a substantial proportion of the Turkish population, who sincerely believe that he is transforming Turkey into a neo-Ottoman regional superpower. Disturbingly – and despite the recent deterioration in Turkey’s image both in the West and in the region – Erdoğan also appears convinced by his own rhetoric. In the days following the local elections, Erdoğan’s advisers briefed Turkish journalists that Erdoğan was planning not only to stand for the presidency in August 2014 but to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with a semi-presidential one.
It is currently unclear whether Erdoğan will succeed in having himself elected to the presidency, much less introduce a semi-presidential system. What is undoubted is that the main challenge to Erdoğan’s ambitions – and one of which he appears unaware – is not the breadth but the depth of the opposition to him. Ever since Turkey was swept by the mass anti-government demonstrations – commonly known as the Gezi Park Protests – in summer 2013, Erdoğan has sought to maintain his grip on power by becoming more authoritarian and pitting one portion of the population against the other. This may enable him to win elections but it is not a recipe for political stability.
The March 30, 2014 local elections were marred by an unprecedented number of allegations of irregularities, particularly during the counting of the votes. Some of the claims appear to be well-founded. Even if they are unlikely to have had a significant impact on the party’s overall vote, there are concerns that they may have been influential in some districts which the AKP won by a narrow margin. Regardless of the veracity of the specific allegations, the suspicions of electoral fraud have also undoubtedly exacerbated political tensions in an already deeply polarized society.
The aggressive tone of Erdoğan’s speech on March 30, 2014 suggests that, rather than reaching out to those who voted for his opponents, he is going to continue to target them, raising the possibility that the resultant increased tensions may spill over into acts of violence. Erdoğan also appears unaware that he is no longer able to intimidate the media.
On March 11, 2014, 15 year-old Berkin Elvan died after nine months in a coma. On June 16, 2013, Elvan had been hit in the head by a police tear gas canister when he had gone out to buy bread for his family during the Gezi Park Protests. Elvan’s death sparked an unparalleled outpouring of grief. Almost every public figure – including many in the AKP – issued statements of condolence to Elvan’s family. The only exception was Erdoğan, who not only refused to express any sorrow but encouraged an election rally of his supporters to boo the child’s mother.
While they were still allied with Erdoğan, Gülen’s sympathizers in the judiciary had ordered the arrest of more than 20 Turkish journalists on spurious charges and thus played a critical role in cowing the media into silence. The first signs that the climate of fear was beginning to ease came during the Gezi Park Protests. The process accelerated in late 2013 and early 2014 amid a sense that the power struggle between Erdoğan and the Gülen Movement was opening up more space. All of the restraints disappeared in an eruption of fury at Erdoğan’s callousness at Elvan’s death. Consequently, for the first time in many years, a large section of the Turkish media is now not only opposed to Erdoğan but vociferously hostile.
CONCLUSIONS: Just as the AKP’s performance in the local elections appears to have encouraged Erdoğan to seek to concentrate even more political power in his own hands, it is also likely to galvanize his opponents and rivals into trying to prevent him from realizing his ambitions. Privately, President Abdullah Gül has already made it clear that he is only prepared to forgo his right to run for a second term if he can return to active politics and become prime minister under the current parliamentary system. Flushed with what he seems to regard as a personal mandate from the electorate on March 30, Erdoğan appears more determined than ever to try to consolidate his domination of politics by concentrating even more political power in his own hands. If Gül stands his ground, a major confrontation with Erdoğan seems inevitable.
Erdoğan will also need to address the Kurdish issue. The BDP regards its strong showing in the local elections in the southeast as a mandate to intensify its calls for autonomy for the region. If Erdoğan accedes to Kurdish nationalist demands, there is a danger of a fierce Turkish nationalist backlash. But if he resists, he will risk not only the BDP unilaterally attempting to create the foundations for eventual autonomy but a resumption of violence by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
As a result, beset with challenges from inside and outside the Islamic Movement, an emboldened media and a deeply divided society, the key issue facing Erdoğan over the months ahead may not be electoral arithmetic but the governability of the country.
Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program.