Erdogan, 'the Opposition,' and the Municipal Elections

April 27, 2014 0 Comments

Overcoming a series of scandals and controversies, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) came away from the Turkish municipal elections with a strong showing seen as a positive referendum on their rule.   

Prior to the 30 March municipal elections, there was a noticeable schism between the ruling AKP and the opposition, which was mainly represented by the Gezi Movement and the Gülen Movement.  Dented by corruption scandals involving Prime Minster Erdogan and his inner circle, the rivalry between the AKP and the Gülen Movement, popular protests from the Gezi Movement and Erdogan’s ban on YouTube and Twitter, the prime minister and his party were seen as being as vulnerable as they’ve been in years. With the growing unrest, Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP used the municipal elections as a referendum on their legitimacy.  Predictions of the AKP’s downfall, it turned out, were premature.

This photo was taken from Hurriyet.  

In the elections, the AKP was hoping to repeat or better its 38.8-percent share of the vote the party received in the 2009 elections.  The results of the municipal elections showed that Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP not only maintained supporters but in some cities, including Ankara, Istanbul and Antalya, even increased its backing. AKP candidates came away from the elections with 44.19 percent of the vote. The main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), received 28.66 percent while the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) won over 15.83 percent of voters.  (For more results of the elections, see the graphic or visit Hurriyet.)  
The results of the election demonstrate there is no united opposition.  There is the CHP, the MHP and the Peace and Democratic Party (BDP), among others, all of which represent different values in Turkish society.  The CHP is a Kemalist party, while the MHP is an ultra-nationalist party and the BDP is a Kurdish, democratic party.  

So, when discussing the AKP and “the opposition,” it is a misnomer to say there is a united opposition party.  In the year leading up to the elections, the Gezi Movement and the Gülen Movement weakened the voter base of the AKP and created momentum towards potential change.  However, neither movement utilized that momentum and created a unified bloc.  For example, in the elections the Gülen Movement asked its members to support whichever candidate had the best chance to beat the AKP in their district.  Later on, there were allegations that the Islamic Gülen Movement aligned with the socialist CHP in the elections, despite their vastly differing ideologies. Did they find a way to compromise ideals, or did the Gülen Movement allegedly back the CHP out of political expediency?  

With the absence of a unified opposition, the AKP passed its latest test. Now the question becomes what will happen to the opposition movements post-election.  Turkey is expected to remain polarized between AKP supporters and those opposed to its rule.  

Following the results of the March elections, Diwaniyya interviewed Zafer Yoruk, a Turkish professor at Izmir Economy University, to explain a few of the particulars in the election and what to expect moving forward.      

 1.  It could be said there was an anticipation that the AKP's popularity would drop in the municipal elections, mainly due to the highly visible presence of the opposition.  Could you please explain the relative visibility of the opposition and the municipal election results?              

A:  Turkish opposition was reinforced prior to the elections with the inclusion of Gülen movement. A chain of corruption scandals involving top figures of the governing AKP, including the prime minister himself, has been revealed from December 2013 to the end of March 2014. The government fought back through a comprehensive liquidation of elements close to the Gülen movement, who held key positions in the police force and judiciary. Both the nationalist (MHP) and centre left (CHP) opposition parties utilized the corruption data allegedly catered by their new ally, the Gülen movement, in the run up to the elections. They also had tacit alliances in certain localities. A substantial decline in AKP votes was a common expectation, but this did not occur. Nor do the election results indicate a tangible increase in the popularity of any opposition party. The only winner is, in spite of the fall in their total votes, probably the Kurdish movement’s party, BDP. They managed to win the majority of the municipalities of Turkey’s Kurdish provinces.

2.  What is your opinion on the 'alliance' of the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the religious Gülen Movement?  Do you think the alliance compromises the secularist values of the CHP and/or the religious values of the Gülen Movement?     

A:  CHP no doubt requires a comprehensive structural adjustment in order to remain a major party in Turkish politics, consisting of a redefinition of secularism and the recognition of the Kurdish identity. Some evidence of such change can be observed but never openly declared, probably to avoid a split with the strong Kemalist/nationalist (“ulusalcı”) tendency within the party and the electorate. Now, the pre-election alliance with the Gülen movement emerged from a necessity, rather than the alliance being a planned merger. I think, the Gülen movement would want to be influential over CHP, but the pious members of this community would not want to enter this party. The CHP membership, on the other hand, would not welcome the existence of the Gülen community elements among themselves. So, I believe, the relationship would not mean a unity of the Gülen movement and CHP, but will continue more in the form of mutual dialogue and temporary, tactical alliances. CHP may benefit from this relationship in terms of curing their Islamophobia in favour of a relaxed version of secularism. Even if this occurred, they also need an opening towards the Kurdish movement, and I doubt that the Gülen community is the correct agent to initiate such a turn.

3.  Hay Yanarocak, a researcher and PhD candidate at the Moshe Dayan Center predicts that the results of these municipal elections will cause further fragmentation and polarization in Turkish society.  What is your opinion on this forecast?

A:  An AKP vs anti-AKP polarization emerged in the run-up to the elections and this certainly will deepen, given that the presidential elections are due in August and the general elections will take place next year.  But such polarization will not help at all the Turkish society’s needs of peace, democratisation and social justice. Opposing AKP’s and the Prime Minister’s authoritarian dreams, including the government’s systematic attempts of Islamisation of society, is one thing, constructing an identity based on the wholesale opposition to the AKP policies is another.  An anti-democratic nationalist discourse is likely to hegemonise such dissident identity. 

4.  Apart from being an academic at Izmir Economy University, you are also a Turkish citizen.  Could you please explain how you felt before, during, and after the municipal elections as a Turkish citizen? 
A:  First, as a middle class Turk, I feel lucky that I live in Izmir, a CHP stronghold, because this is the last city where the government would try to impose its forced Islamisation program. But, at the same time, I am not happy, due to the polarisation discussed above.  This polarisation forces every citizen to make a choice between a corrupt, authoritarian and Islamist government, and a potentially authoritarian nationalist opposition. On the other hand, I feel lucky that there is a third option, for the true democrats, which is to vote for the Kurdish movement’s party. They did a great job, not only by winning the Kurdish cities’ municipalities, but also electing woman candidates to the top municipal positions, in a country where systematic murder of women, in the name of “honour killings” has been on a horrific rise. 


Diwaniyya Contributor