As with all of the elections in the past period in Turkey, the local elections which took place on Sunday 31 March were in reality a referendum on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But while Erdogan used to score victory after victory with ease, this time important dents were made in his image of invincibility.
Turkish elections are never uneventful. Since the local elections last week the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) first demanded a recount of all annulled votes in Istanbul. Then last Wednesday the party demanded a recount of all the votes in Istanbul. This was followed by the demand to annul the result in one district in Istanbul - due to alleged voter fraud - where the local party claims that 20,000 non-existent voters were illegally registered. Conveniently this is more or less the amount of votes that the AKP mayoral candidate came short by, losing to Ekrem İmamoğlu from the the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP). Now the AKP is demanding that new elections be organised in Istanbul.
The party was until a few days ago following a similar line in the capital, Ankara, where the AKP also lost to a CHP candidate. It is clear that Erdogan is not going to let go of Ankara and Istanbul easily. Too much influence and income is at stake, without which he would struggle to keep up his wide network of patronage. But it all bears a whiff of desperation. It is clear for all that he has lost the cities politically. This is particularly stinging as it was from Istanbul, where Erdogan became mayor in 1994, that he launched his political career.
The fact is that the country is slowly slipping from his grip. Officially Erdogan’s electoral alliance (which included the right-wing Nationalist Movement party (MHP)) won the elections scoring 51.63 percent of the ballots. This is around 2 percent down from the parliamentary elections of 2018. However, his ruling party lost a whole series of major metropolitan areas to the CHP, which beyond the two largest cities of Istanbul and Ankara also took the important provinces of Adana, Antalya and Hatay from the AKP or the MHP. Along with Izmir, which is a traditional CHP stronghold, the party now controls the 3 largest cities in the country.
In Istanbul, the AKP alone used to get around 50 percent of the vote. In the 2015 general elections, the AKP and MHP received a combined vote of 57.34 percent in Istanbul. In the 2018 parliamentary elections their joint vote had declined to 53.66 percent. This year, in spite of piling up their votes, and the MHP withdrawing in favour of the AKP, their vote slipped even further, receiving 48.55 percent of the vote. Considering that the main emphasis in the campaign of all other parties was not being Erdogan, we can see see that a majority in the city is turning against him. These are hard and demoralising blows to the AKP and its base which until recently was used to jumping from victory to victory.
A similar picture appeared elsewhere in the major cities. In the Kurdish South East, the AKP was quick to declare victory, in particular after taking the provinces of Agri and Sirnak from the Kurdish-based HDP. This was amidst reports of thousands of people being bussed in from outside to vote on election day. However, it must be said that even here, Erdogan’s results were not impressive. Since 2014, Erdogan has been carrying out a one-sided civil war against the Kurdish population in order to dislodge the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). In this period, he has demolished whole neighbourhoods where support for the HDP was high. He has been moving troops into the area to act as voting cattle and he has arrested thousands of HDP supporters and activists along with more than 60 HDP mayors and more than a dozen HDP MPs (including the main leaders of the party) - all of these on trumped up terrorism charges. At the same time all of the high profile candidates of the HDP were blocked from standing as candidates in the latest elections. Nevertheless, the HDP managed to win back the main cities in the area.
Campaign of terror
While the South East was the hardest hit, the campaign of terror was not isolated to this area. The elections followed what has now become an increasingly familiar pattern. Throughout the campaign Erdogan whipped up an atmosphere of fear and terror of what might happen if his party (or rather, he) does not win. He accused the opposition parties and their voters of being in bed with terrorists. He played videos from the Christchurch massacre again and again, playing on the fear that westerners are a threat to Muslims. And so on and so forth. All of this was faithfully reported, amplified and supported by the mass media - which is more or less under Erdogan’s full control - as he tirelessly campaigned throughout the country every single day.
This did not use to be the case. When Erdogan came to power in 2002, he was the underdog liberal fighting the calcified Kemalist establishment who had full control over the state and the economy. Back then the AKP, which grew to become the party of the weak Anatolian bourgeoisie, was calling for more democracy and an end to state interference in politics and in the economy.
Now the tables have turned. Erdogan was once known for being against corruption, looting and nepotism within the state apparatus. But that was back when he and his own base were not benefitting from this. Over the years Erdogan has tightened his grip around the state apparatus. In 2016 he countered a coup attempt with his own coup, purging more than 130,000 people from the state apparatus and replacing them with AKP loyalists.
Now, as his rule faces increased pressure, he is desperately dependent on control over state structures in order to maintain this network of patronage. The loss of major municipalities in Istanbul and Ankara will be a blow to this network, further propelling his decline. The level of Erdogan’s involvement in the local elections also reveals the extent to which his party has been repeatedly purged and shaped to be a one man sect - a far cry from the multi-million activist organisation it once was.
The hypocrisy, bullying, and outright corruption has cooled the mood of Erdogan’s base of support. Criticism has increased and the enthusiasm of longstanding AKP supporters has waned. This is a process that has been hollowing out Erdogan’s rule for years. At the same time many of Erdogan’s prestige adventures such as the war in Syria, picking fights with US imperialism and mega construction projects such as the new Istanbul Airport have all led to humiliating setbacks.
Turkey’s intervention in Syria was supposed to be the first step of Erdogan’s imperialist ambitions to erect a modern reincarnation of the Ottoman empire. But so far all of his maneuvers have backfired and he is now stuck between Russia and Iran on one side and US imperialism on the other. Meanwhile Turkey has become home to millions of Syrian refugees, who are becoming an economic and political point of tension as the general Turkish economy comes under pressure. On the other hand, Erdogan’s provocative stance towards the US has led to a series of clashes with Donald Trump who has been increasing pressure on Ankara. Erdogan partially uses the clash with the US to create a sense of siege amongst his supporters in Turkey, but in the end the clash with the West has left him more isolated and weak on an international scale than before.
At the same time, along with the general decline of support for the AKP, Erdogan has become increasingly dependent on the right nationalist MHP. Initially, he thought he could milk the MHP for nationalist votes following the civil war he started against the Kurdish population. But with the decline of their combined vote, it is clear that he is now completely dependent on the party to maintain a majority. Instead of taking votes from the MHP, the cannibalising has also started going the other way and, on a handful of occasions in these local elections, the MHP actually won seats from the AKP. Yet another dent in the strong man’s image.
Most important however is the economy. Over the years many people have credited Erdogan’s success to his cult of personality and his religious background. Yet, while it is true that the these factors do play a certain role, it is a miniscule one compared with economic factors.
When Erdogan came to power in 2002, Turkey was going through a deep and acute political and economic crisis. All political parties had been completely discredited by countless corruption scandals and their incompetence in the face of the economic crisis. The AKP was seen as a set of clean hands not embroiled in the state apparatus and the dominant wing of the capitalist class.
But on the back of the world economic boom, Erdogan’s entrance on the scene also coincided with the biggest economic boom in Turkish history. Turkish GDP went from $200 billion in 2001 to $950 billion in 2013. This was followed by a massive growth in infrastructure and industrialisation, which affected the Anatolian areas - Erdogan’s traditional base - more than any other area. These areas which were formerly economically extremely backward were now dotted with big industrial towns where a new working class moved in. Living standards rose in parallel with GDP with income amongst the poorest almost quadrupling in a decade.
During this period, Turkish capitalism had room to give certain concessions, in particular to the poorest in society. Running water, electricity, access to free healthcare and education: all of these things were suddenly made available to huge areas which had been more or less cut off from modern world for decades. All of this was connected to the name of Erdogan and the AKP. This is the real basis for Erdogan’s strength. In the eyes of millions of Turks and in particular in the fresh layers of the working class, Erdogan is to thank for the complete transformation of their lives.
In the eyes of these layers from previously marginalised areas of Turkey, the Kemalist opposition was not interested in anything but the big cities in the West. They were also completely discredited by their behaviour in the 1990s which saw every single party involved in corruption scandals.
As long as the economy was going forward, the Erdogan regime was stable. But since the breakout of the world economic crisis of 2008, instability has been creeping in from all sides and he has had to resort to increasingly drastic measures to keep the economy afloat. Debt levels, which used to be very low, went up sharply as billions of dollars were pumped into the system. But reality is catching up with all of these maneuvers.
Over the past year the Turkish Lira has lost a third of its value against the dollar. This slide was only stopped by an interest rate hike up to 24 percent. Inflation also went up above 20 percent and Turkey entered recession after the economy shrank by 3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018, after shrinking 1.7 percent in the third quarter. Overall the economy grew by 2.5 percent in 2018, compared to 7.5 percent in 2017. This year it is projected by many to contract by 0.3 percent. All in all, there is a very sharp slowdown in the economy which is already putting enormous pressure on the working class.
If this hasn’t already led to greater defeats for Erdogan it is not for lack of potential, but for the lack of an alternative. The main opposition party, the CHP, once used to be a hybrid of a right nationalist and a left nationalist party, but it has been veering sharper and sharper to the right. Its leaders are nothing but the unashamed mouthpieces of the traditional capitalist class. Further, they have supported Erdogan’s war on the Kurds, the imprisonment of the tens of thousands of HDP supporters, and publicly welcomed right nationalists such as its own Ankara mayoral candidate, Mansur Yavas. Its electoral partner, the IYI party, is also a right nationalist party. Even the old Kemalist secularism has gone as it has embraced a clearly more Islamic rhetoric. In fact, far from posing any real opposition, it is tailending the AKP. Even the Daily Sabah, which is very close to the AKP, admitted this when it wrote:
... the CHP's Kemalist-leftist ideology has transformed since Turkey's switch to the presidential system. The party appears to have parted ways with its traditional Jacobinist rhetoric and endorsed ideology-free candidates in various cities to win mayoral races.
For instance, the CHP candidate in Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, was a conservative nationalist. After the election, the mayor-elect put up signs across the city that read: ‘Come on, let's go, bismillah!,’ using an Islamic phrase. Likewise, the CHP's mayoral candidate in Istanbul visited mosques, recited the Quran and made frequent references to religious values on the campaign trail. To say the least, this is an unconventional situation for CHP and Turkey. Clearly, the main opposition party has come to terms with the fact that it needed to cozy up to conservatives to win in Turkish politics.
It is true that the AKP and MHP lost votes in these elections compared to the parliamentary elections in 2018, going from 26.3 million (53.6 percent) to 20.6 million (51.63 percent). But so did the official opposition (CHP, and IYI along with the HDP, which withdrew from all major areas where the CHP had a chance, supporting the CHP instead) going from 22.1 million votes (44.3) to 19.2 (41.8 percent)! In such charged elections, this reveals that the opposition is not seen as as a real alternative to Erdogan. The lack of an alternative means that Erdogan’s stay in power is prolonged. But underneath the surface powerful explosions are being prepared. In January 2018, 130,000 metal workers voted to go on strike for higher wages. The strike was shut down by a government intervention, but it reveals what is being prepared for the future.
In the run-up to the local elections the AKP was forced to take drastic measures such as state-run vegetable stalls selling produce for cheap. This might have saved Erdogan some face, but it is an indication of the gravity of the situation which is approaching. Anger is rife amongst wide layers of the population who are facing enormous economic pressures. This will intensify in the next period. A major crisis is coming to Turkey and the ones who will be asked to pay for it will be the workers, the youth and the poor.
This will not only lead to convulsions in the old traditional working class, but it will also violently rip apart the illusory bonds between the AKP and those new layers of workers who associate its rule with improving conditions. With the political scene completely ossified, it is most probable that the first avenues future struggle will be on the economic and industrial front. But in the conditions of Turkey, with power increasingly concentrated in one man's hands, it will not take long before such movements take on a political character against the wannabe strongman himself and the regime he has erected.