The party of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been defeated in local elections in the capital Ankara, and was trailing in a close contest for mayor in Istanbul, the country’s largest city, unofficial figures showed Monday. The election results do not impact Turkey’s national government, but were being widely discussed as the first major blow to Erdogan in his well over 15 years in power. By evening, Erdogan’s party had lost in seven out of Turkey’s 12 main cities.
Background to the election
Erdogan, who was mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998, founded the Islamist Justice and Development Party in 2001, and became Prime Minister in 2003. He remained in the post until 2014, when he became Turkey’s 12th President. After surviving an attempted coup d’état in 2016, Erdogan launched a sweeping crackdown on dissidents including civil society leaders, lawyers, judges, academics and most significantly, journalists — firing or suspending some 130,000 people and arresting about 45,000.
In 2017, he narrowly won a referendum that gave Turkey a new political system, doing away with the post of Prime Minister and giving the President unprecedented executive power, including the right to appoint judges and officials who would scrutinise his decisions, and to order inquiries against Turkey’s 3.5 million civil servants. The referendum gave the President insurmountable personal power; however, the closeness of the result, with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ separated by just a couple of percentage points, laid bare to the world a deeply divided nation.
Last June, Erdogan swept to victory in Turkey’s national elections — he won the contest for President without need for a runoff, and his Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (or AKP) got the largest share of votes in Parliament and a majority with its ally, the Nationalist Movement Party.
Why these results matter
While local elections in any country would not be expected to draw much attention overseas, this particular vote was held nine months after the national elections that gave Erdogan an iron grip over his country, and at a difficult time for the economy. While Erdogan remains Turkey’s most popular leader by far, the municipal election results provide the most recent assessment of where he stands with voters.
The local votes for mayors, municipal councils and neighbourhood administrators is seen as critical to Erdogan’s grip on power, The New York Times said in an analysis published Sunday. The municipalities represent the core of his working-class, conservative power base and a source of income for his party, the report quoted Aykan Erdemir, a former MP and a senior fellow at a US-based research institute as saying.
The importance Erdogan attached to the elections had been evident in his feverish campaign, during which he addressed up to eight campaign rallies across Turkey every day, referring to the vote as being critical to “national survival”, and asking voters for a mandate “in perpetuity”.
He handpicked senior aides to contest for mayor in Ankara and Istanbul, and although overall results showed the AKP about 15 percentage points ahead of the opposition Republican People’s Party, the defeat in the capital city, representing political power and government, and probable humiliation in his home town, the business centre, were being described as a “nuclear” setback for the President, and a development that was potentially as farreaching as his own arrival in Turkey’s politics.
“This election is as historic as the local election in 1994,” the veteran commentator Rusen Cakir posted on Twitter. “It is the announcement of a page that was opened 25 years ago and is now being closed,” he said, according to a translation of the tweet reported by The NYT.
Turkey is now officially in a recession after close to two decades of growth. Figures released last month showed GDP shrank by 2.4% in the fourth quarter of 2018, following a decline of 1.6% in the third. Unemployment is more than 10%, and up to 30% among young people. The Turkish lira lost 28% of its value in 2018 and is still falling, and inflation has touched 20%. Opposition candidates offered change and promised to create jobs.
What happens from here
Analysts on Monday were predicting a powerful backlash from Erdogan to what they said was a personal rebuke from voters in elections that he had presented as a referendum on his leadership and a battle against “terrorists” who, by challenging him, were threatening Turkey itself. Legal challenges to several results were expected, with the government leaning on pliant judges.
Personally, Erdogan does not face a national election until 2023, and under the new system brought in by the 2017 referendum, he can stay in office up to 2032. He will be 78 then.
(With the NYT)
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines