President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called the local election a matter of “national survival”. His opponents were called terrorists and traitors. His grip on the media resulted in overwhelming positive coverage in the run-up to the election. Yet although his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) nationally won just over 51% of the votes on an 84% turnout, the loss of major cities is a moment of truth for Turkey’s authoritarian president. Ankara, the capital was won by the opposition secular Republican People’s Party (CHP). Istanbul, Erdoğan’s birthplace and former stronghold, is holding a recount demanded by the President. So far the CHP maintains its narrow lead.
Below are the views of a well-placed source of mine in Ankara on the outcome of the election.
Q. Did the result come as a shock to you?
A. No. According to the poll results, it was foreseen that the big cities such as Izmir and Ankara would be won by the opposition coalition parties: the Good Party (IYI Parti) and the CHP who formed an electoral alliance. The People’s Democratic Party (HDP) did not field a candidate in Istanbul or Ankara, so HDP voters also supported the opposition coalition. So it was thought that AKP would lose Istanbul to the opposition. But of course it was a shock for AKP indeed.
Q. What role did the economy play in shifting support away from the AKP?
A. Economic crisis is the leading motive for the AKP supporters to change their votes.
Q. Erdogan said that a victory in these elections was a “matter of national survival”. What will be his reaction to the defeat?
A. Erdoğan clearly saw his defeat as the results came in on election night. It was difficult for him and his team to accept them and their first reaction was not to give up without a fight-back in Istanbul and the other places where they lost. This attitude indicates how they will behave in the next 4 years (until the next elections) and manage their relationship between the local authorities they lost and the governing regime. They AKP will not allow the municipalities won by opposition parties to act freely either economically or administratively.
Q. Will there be another crack down (purges) to strengthen his position?
A. There are some indications that there is division within the AKP. As a reaction to the defeat, Erdoğan will make radical changes to the government and the administration of AKP. Erdoğan sees himself as not responsible for the defeat and seeks to shift the responsibility to people around him who will take the blame for the election results. They in turn are likely to resist taking the blame by using their power and influence over the bureaucracy and judiciary to avoid being purged.
Q. Will he use his presidential powers to replace some of the elected mayors? Will he take legal action to challenge the results that went against the AKP? What action do you think he will take against the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)? How will the Republican People’s Party (CHP) build on these results?
A. Erdoğan has defined the new Istanbul CHP mayor as “lame duck”. He also claims that the opposition parties have no majorities in the assemblies of the municipalities where the people elected CHP or HDP mayors and they can therefore not make any budgets or take major policy decisions. In effect it means that the opposition local mayors will be under the strict control of the President. HDP mayors will be accused of terrorist activities, while he hopes that CHP mayors will be restricted economically. There will be big political conflicts between the President and the opposition parties right up until the next general, presidential and local elections in 2023. There is also the possibility Erdoğan could call early elections if the political struggle increases and the economic crisis deepens.
Q. Do the results show that democracy is still alive despite the massive purges and crack downs on the independent press?
A. If you accept democracy equals elections, you may say that democracy is alive in Turkey. But it’s not the case. The governing AKP still has big control over media, judiciary, legislation (parliament), bureaucracy, military, police, intelligence, and all official institutions and private companies. As already mentioned recounting is taking place in the provinces where AKP lost and objections made by the opposition parties, especially by HDP, have been overruled.
After the elections in Istanbul, the police questioned members of the balloting committees (so called ballot box committees) consisting of local political party representatives, public servants and the judges who head them up. This action was undertaken by the order of the public prosecution office. Members were questioned as to whether they have any relationship with so called “terrorist organisations”, especially Fethullah Gulen (FETO). This was an attempt to threaten and put pressure on members of the balloting committees, which are part of the national body which oversees the elections.
Under these conditions, we cannot say that democracy is alive in Turkey.
Q. Any other comments?
A. Before the elections, people believed that Erdoğan would apply every pressure to avoid losing. The developments after the elections show that he will use all powers of the state for private and political party interests and not for the public good. Before flying to Moscow shortly after the election Erdogan made a speech saying that challenges to the results will continue, by judicial means if required.
On the other hand, the two main leaders of opposition coalition, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and Meral Akşener, held an important post election ‘review’ meeting. They are worried about Erdoğan’s political influence over and pressure he could put on the Supreme Election Council (YSK) which oversees all elections in Turkey. It has the right to give the final ruling on the 31 March elections, including the Istanbul results. The AKP wanted all votes in Istanbul recounted, including ‘invalid’ votes (i.e. voting papers without the official mark or general ‘spoilt’) but on 9 April their request was rejected by the YSK. The Istanbul result is very important for AKP because of the city’s financial and economic significance.
Briefly, there is no democracy, there is no rule of law in Turkey. And yes, the results show that there is a partial reaction to the Erdoğan regime, but it is still the rule of Erdoğan in Turkey.
This interview took place between 3 – 8 April.