A weakened Erdoğan downplays his election loss
In Istanbul, the key constituency of Turkish elections on March 31, the opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu has announced his victory in a press conference in the early hours of April 1st but still there is no official announcement neither to confirm of to deny that, in one of the biggest blunders of Turkish politics in recent years. If that is officially confirmed President Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) led government block in Turkey would officially lose the local administration in five largest cities in the March 31 municipal elections, including Istanbul and capital Ankara. Even without Istanbul, that could count as a major blow but those two cities had been won by AK Parti’s predecessor Welfare Party (RP) 25 years ago in 1994 marking the rise of the Islamic/conservative line in Turkish politics. So far any party in Turkish politics losing control over the municipalities of those two cities has started to decline in the next general elections.
Perhaps that was the reason why Erdoğan has announced in an address in rather early hours of the election night that he was still the president and the next general election would be held in 2023 as scheduled; he said the outcome was a win for him highlighting the 51 plus percent of the votes the AK Parti could win thanks to its partnership with Devlet Bahçeli’s Nationalist Movement party (MHP) without even mentioning the heavy losses in provincial centres.
Despite most of the public opinion polls showed former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım as 3-4 points ahead of İmamoğlu, the rising star of the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP), backed by the center-right Good Party (İYİ), İmamoğlu managed to close the gap in the 15-million (11 million voters) metropolis. In Ankara, the CHP-İYİ backed Mansur Yavaş defeated AK Parti’s former Urbanization Minister Mehmet Özhaseki. In İzmir, already a CHP stronghold, another rising star Tunç Soyer beat AK Parti’s former Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekçi with a 20 points gap. Turkey’s southern hub Adana and the Mediterranean tourism resort, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s homeland Antalya are also in CHP hands now. That was in spite of an unfair media coverage; Erdoğan’s almost all 102 public addresses in the last 50 days, plus interviews had been broadcasted live on TV stations in a state of media where 90 percent of owners are pro-Erdoğan investors.
It is true that local elections had no effect on Erdoğan’s post as president, neither on the Parliament’s composition. But losing five-bigs is not likely to make Erdoğan’s governance easier especially when he promised for economic reforms in the same speech. Polls prior to the elections showed 80 percent of people considered economy issues like cost of living and unemployment in spite of the fact that Erdoğan and his partner Bahçeli had promoted the elections as a matter of national security and “existence”; apparently most of the people did not buy it. But Erdoğan vowed to continue his partnership with Bahçeli. The main idea behind the shift to the executive presidential system was to avoid fragile coalition governments, but the system led to a de-facto coalition between the AK Parti and the MHP where the latter has an influence on the government with no legal responsibilities; a symbiotic relationship.
It is still a question though whether Erdoğan could manage to take all those reform steps in partnership with MHP especially when it comes to gaining back the Kurdish votes. The Kurdish votes seemingly played a role in the CHP-İYİ performance especially in the Western cities, where most of the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) voters opted against Erdoğan, partly due to his partnership with Erdoğan. Accusing the HDP supporters and even the CHP and İYİ of being terrorists has seemingly back fired. On the other hand HDP lost some important municipalities in provinces bordering Syria and Iraq to AK Parti.
Erdoğan is weakened by the opposition block might take reconciliatory steps in foreign policy as well. The purchase of the Russian S-400 hundred missiles is a big foreign policy issue with the U.S. has been swept under the carpet up until the elections and now is about to surface up again, and because the U.S. dollar-based Turkish markets are vulnerable to outside manipulation the issue is closely related with economy.
The March 31 elections is likely to mark a turning point in the continuous rise of Erdoğan and his AK Parti.