Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Turkey's Local Elections: A Preview

In about a month’s time, on 29 March, local elections will be held throughout Turkey. Let me give you a brief preview: the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, will win and win handily.

Even was this not shown by every major public opinion poll, there are three good reasons to believe this will be the case. First, despite the sharp costs of the global economic downturn for Turkey, the AKP’s record for effective governance remains largely intact. Second, Tayyip Erdogan’s recent performance at the Davos World Economic Forum, in which he sharply criticized Israeli President Shimon Peres before walking of the stage in a huff, won him accolades across the political spectrum in Turkey. Turks, after all, were appalled by the carnage of the Israeli incursion into Gaza, and, in any case, have a taste for tough, “larger-than-life” political leadership. Erdogan’s actions at Davos allowed him to stand tall on the world stage in a way that few Turkish leaders have been able to. This is important in Turkey, which has long seen itself as deserving a greater role in world affairs. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the main political opposition parties are absurdly weak, bereft of ideas and out of energy.

The opposition looks hopeless. The party founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, is now led by the charismaless Deniz Baykal and flays about with a mixture of economic nationalism and Republican nostalgia which seems out of touch with the dynamism of contemporary Turkey. That the CHP remains an important party at all can be attributed to residual loyalty to the party of Ataturk and the feeling among many secular voters that, for all its flaws, the CHP remains the best vanguard against creeping religiosity in public life. The other major opposition party, the quasi-fascist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has diminished as well, particularly as the AKP adopted a more nationalist tone and cut into the MHP’s base. Quite simply, even if the economic downturn has made support for the AKP softer, the political opposition is too weak to constitute a real threat.

The real questions for the local elections will be in the details. Will the AKP’s victory be more or less definitive than the 46.6% of the vote that it won in the 2007 General Elections (current poll data suggests that it will do somewhat better)? If the AKP does, in fact, do better, despite the economic downturn, it will have won a significant mandate for further reform and a powerful mandate that will give opposition in both the Parliament and the military pause. If, on the other hand, its cannot match this level of support, the door will be opened for more aggressive resistance to AKP reform efforts in the Parliament and, more importantly, within the bureaucracy, courts, and military.

Finally there is the question of the Kurds. One of the strengths of the AKP has been its ability to win Kurdish votes in the Southeast. It has done so both by its sympathy for religious observance in the public sphere and by its relatively greater comfort with Kurdish cultural expression. However, this policy has been followed fitfully as the AKP has attempted to simultaneously reach an accord with a restive military establishment. Its success in balancing a more nuanced approach to the Kurds with its relations with the generals will be tested in these elections.

The AKP is going to win the upcoming elections. What is less clear is how strong its mandate is going to be. Even more important, is the question of whether, in the long term, Turkish democracy can survive without a vibrant and viable political opposition.

Howard Eissenstat is a post-doctoral fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University.