Polls and Politics: Turkey’s crisis of democracy

by Dimitar Bechev
original article published on ECFR’s blog

These are tense days for Turkey. I’m spending the week in Istanbul and Ankara as the country is bracing itself for Sunday’s local elections. Tension is in the air. Hardly a day passes without a new secretly taped recording of Prime Minster Erdoğan, his family or close associates coming online. The opposition, including Fethullah Gülen’s shadowy partisans (the famed cemaat, “the community”) is up at arms, accusing the government of corruption. Twitter is blocked – but everyone is tirelessly tweeting, having become experts overnight on getting around the ban. Last Sunday Prime Minister Erdoğan addressed more than a million fervent supporters threatening to take down Facebook and YouTube (as of yesterday, YouTube is blocked as well). Few seem to doubt his resolve, but it’s clear that it’s a battle one cannot win. A court has already suspended the ban pending the appeal.

Image: Dimitar Bechev.

It is clear that the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party will score a victory in the elections. The question is by what margin. The vote’s significance transcends local politics and is viewed, by authorities and opposition alike, as a plebiscite on AKP’s rule and personally on Erdoğan. It’s hard to be indifferent to such a polarising figure: Turks either adore him or view him as a dictator living in a parallel reality. Erdoğan himself has intentionally set the bar pretty low, at 38 percent, which is the result the party obtained back in 2009. Chances are this time around they’ll do better, given the 49 percent reaped during the general elections in 2011 and the healthier economy, compared to four years ago. The Turkish lira may be wobbling due to global turbulence hitting emerging markets’ currency and a storm may be on the horizon, but the proverbial “man on the street” is still upbeat. Corruption allegations are often shrugged off. “All politicians steal. These at least get things done, too.”

Istanbul and Ankara are the main battlefronts. “He who takes Istanbul, takes Turkey. He who loses Ankara, loses Turkey”, goes the local saying. The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has fielded strong contenders in each of the metropolises. Much hope has been invested in Mustafa Sarıgül, their man in Istanbul, but it’ll be quite tough to beat the popular incumbent Kadir Topbaş. Topbaş’s face is literally on every corner across the city, most of the times next to that of the prime minister. The message aired by the former architect is a no-nonsense one: we gave Istanbul top-notch infrastructure and will provide even more by way of extending the metro, a third bridge over the Bosphorus, a new airport.

It is worth mentioning that Topbaş’s approval rates have consistently been higher than the AKP’s, and his mild ways strike a contrast with Erdoğan’s abrasive tone. CHP’s Sarıgül is likely to lose the race, but many are convinced that even if he loses the contest for Istanbul, he will garner enough votes to propel him into the position of CHP leader.

Image: Dimitar Bechev.

Ankara is equally, if not more, interesting. Mansur Yavaş, the president of the capital’s Beypazarı district, is running neck-to-neck with the AKP incumbent Melih Gökçek, who has been in charge of the Turkish capital since 1994 (the year Erdoğan himself started his stellar political career by winning the Istanbul mayor ship). As someone who recently jumped ship from the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) to CHP he stands a good chance to win votes from different quarters. If he wins, people whisper, a future CHP-MHP coalition might become a viable option in national politics.

The local elections are a turning point in Erdoğan’s career. If he pulls off a convincing enough a victory (40 percent or more), he’ll most certainly be AKP’s candidate for president next August. If not, he’ll remain prime minister – and amend the party’s bylaws which currently set a three-term limit at the cabinet’s helm. Last summer’s protests around Gezi Park effectively cancelled his plans for a constitutional overhaul to introduce a presidential system. But if he does change jobs in the summer, constitutional ambitions will resurface.

Touted until recently as a regional power, Turkey is now busy with itself. It will remain so for quite some time. At least until the general elections in summer 2015. Expect more nerve-wrecking months once the elections’ results are made public.

PS: You can follow the front-runners in the race for Istanbul and Ankara on Twitter:

@Kadir__Topbas @M_Sarigul @06melihgokcek @mansur_yavas