On the way to consolidate the shift from a parliamentary to a presidential republic, Turkey is facing a number of challenges in both domestic and foreign policy. Domestically, the main alarm bells for President Recep Erdogan come from the economy, which entered into recession at the end of 2018, with 20% inflation, 13.5% unemployment and rising costs of living, especially in food prices. Therefore, in the wake of last year’s currency crisis and in view of the local elections on March 31, the economy – for a long time the flagship of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – may transform into the Achilles’ heel of the ruling party. Recent polls show that the economy and growing unemployment are at the top of the Turkish people’s concerns, while at the same time suggesting the possibility that a deteriorating economy could erode AKP’s electoral consensus in the major cities. In recent months the elections of mayors for 81 provincial capitals have dominated Turkey’s national debate, as they are perceived as a crucial test for the government and a “matter of survival” for the state. President Erdogan’s campaigning on the front line for the People’s Alliance, which includes the AKP and the National Movement Party (MHP) that maintained the winning coalition in the June 2018 general elections, has turned this vote into a referendum on his own leadership.
In order to maintain electoral support for the AKP, the government has implemented a number of expansionary fiscal measures. At the end of December Erdogan announced a set of measures to reduce the negative impact of the slowing economy on the lower social classes. They include an increase in the minimum wage of 26 % in 2019, that is to say by 2,020 lira ($381), the allocation of 62.1 billion lira for social assistance projects, a 10% discount on home electricity and natural gas prices, and a VAT reduction on food and medicines. In addition, last February the Turkish government opened its own markets to sell discounted vegetables in order to assuage people’s discontent over rising prices. Although it remains to be seen whether all these initiatives will work in AKP’s favour, analysts consider that the increase in public spending is not sustainable in the long-term and that the adoption of fiscal stimulus measures may weaken the Turkish lira and further increase inflation.
Major cities are the biggest prize in these elections. The political weight of the AKP candidate for Istanbul, the former prime minister and former speaker of the National Assembly, Binali Yldirim, shows how high the stakes are for the government. Winning Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city with 15 million people, has a high symbolic value. According to polls, here Yldirim is leading, but it seems that the main opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, supported by the main opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP) together with the Good Party (Iyi) united in the National Alliance, has been closing the gap. Instead, a different picture is being outlined in Ankara where the opposition candidate, Mansur Yavas, seems to be far ahead of the AKP candidate, Mehmet Ozhaseki. It seems that Yavas’ nationalist background is playing a role in attracting consensus also from AKP and MHP supporters, as nationalism is a growing trend in the Turkish political landscape, also confirmed by the results of June’s general elections.
This time what appears to be a significant change is the decision of the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), although not part of the National Alliance, to not propose candidates for mayor in the big cities as a strategy to spur its supporters to back the main opposition candidates to contrast the AKP. The HDP’s main aim is instead to regain control of the cities in the Kurdish southeastern provinces where the government removed more than 90 mayors, accused of being linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and replaced them with trustees appointed by the government. Since the end of the peace process with the Kurds, including the PKK, in mid-2015, many HDP members have been put in jail on charges of supporting terrorism. It is not the first time that the Kurdish vote might tip the balance in Turkish elections, although a major defeat of the ruling party in the country is unlikely. Indeed, some people in Turkey believe that the lack of credible alternatives to the AKP has contributed to its success over the past 17 years.
The political party’s harsh rhetoric in the electoral campaign has intensified polarization in a country where deep divisions have been profoundly affecting both politics and society in recent years, particularly after the constitutional referendum in April 2017, whose contentious result paved the way for the transformation of Turkey into a presidential republic, providing the president with extensive executive powers.
Political issues, more than local issues, have taken centre stage in the electoral campaign: from the future of Syrian refugees in Turkey – more than 3.6 million people according to the UNHCR – to Ankara’s regional posture, not to mention difficult relations with the US and the “new axis” with Moscow. On the top of the list, there is the conflict in Syria that since 2011 has greatly affected both Turkey’s domestic policy, not only as far as refugees are concerned, and its regional approach in which securitisation and militarisation have increasingly prevailed.
Certainly, March 31 will close a vibrant and divisive electoral year that had started last April when president Erdogan called for early general elections. However, whoever wins the local elections, Turkey's challenges are here to stay and the task to address them effectively and to give concrete responses to people’s concerns will be up to the AKP, which is expected to run the government for the next four years.