POLITICS: Turkey’s economic downturn threatens to haunt Erdogan in local elections

9 mins read

Turkey’s upcoming local elections on 31 March may just see Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party losing control of some of the country’s key large cities.

A possible weak showing by the AKP would be a symbolic blow and illustrate how frustration over the Turkish economy can hurt a politician long seen as unbeatable.

After a decade-and-a-half in power and an economic boom which helped AKP and Erdogan sweep up power has turned sour, internal polls showed AKP and Erdogan to be in trouble ahead of the local elections.

AKP sources quoted by Reuters had said in January that their opinion polls showed support for the AKP had fallen to 32-35 per cent, before accounting for the 30 per cent of voters still undecided.

In 2014 local elections the AKP took 43 per cent, far ahead of its nearest rival, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), which polled less than 25 per cent.

Commenting on whether Erdogan and his party, which has sweeping executive powers since 2012 when AKP won its first parliamentary majority, may see its support shrink, a Turkish affairs expert says a drop may be on the cards as people are getting weary of the financial hardship they face.

Nicos Moudouros (PhD) specialist in Turkish and Middle Eastern Studies, told the Financial Mirror that Erdogan’s ‘Peoples’ Coalition’ with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), maybe in for a significant loss in the upcoming elections both in terms of votes and in municipalities.

“The AKP now faces the potential loss of Ankara, the capital, as opposition CHP’s (Republican People’s Party) Mansur Yavash has led the opinion polls since day one. AKP’ candidate mayor in Istanbul who happens to be Binali Yildirim, the country’s ex-Prime Minister is in for a tight race, as his CHP opponent Ekrem Imanoglu is giving him a run for his money,” he said.

The AKP party and its predecessor (the Virtue Party) has controlled both cities, as well as most other big Turkish municipalities, for more than 20 years.

Moudouros noted that Erdogan rose to prominence as mayor of Istanbul and is known to attach special importance to municipal elections, seeing local politics as key to how voters view the national government.

“While he is not up for election, the polls are widely regarded as a referendum on his rule, with the downfall of the economy being an open wound for him and his AKP.”

Economic instability the country is currently going through essentially started was mainly felt after the summer of 2018.

Moudouros said Turkey's economy is characterized by a particularly high inflation rate which was 25.2% in January 2019. Devaluation of the Turkish Lira and the high rates of unemployment have taken their toll on the living standards of the poorest and middle class in society. 

Unemployment in Turkey reached 12.3% at the end of 2018, with a 20% unemployment rate among young people aged 20-35.

“It is estimated that some 3-3.5 million unemployed people were wandering the streets of Istanbul in 2018 and 2019,” said Moudouros.

He argued, these sectors of society are the central core of the ruling party's electoral base, which find themselves today financially worse off than they were back in April 2017.

Erdogan fully understands the distance that separates the political context in which he promoted the adoption of the presidential system from the current situation.

He built his campaign during the pre-referendum period on the argument that institutional and political stability, to be brought about with the adoption of the presidential system, would lead to financial stability and growth.

“As the adoption of the presidential system was followed by a financial recession rather than growth, we saw elements leaving the party, which decreased its influence over society,” Moudouros said.

He explained, Erdogan’s administration response was not aimed at resolving the crisis but rather at pushing back its disastrous effects until after the upcoming elections.

“Erdogan has triggered a defence mechanism putting forward that the financial crisis was a product of an external attack on Turkey carried out mainly by the USA. Turkey’s president is essentially saying to his people that the country is under attack by foreign powers and that Turks need to pull together to combat this threat.”

As the crisis spread and grew, Erdogan’s rhetoric was no longer taking shots solely at foreign powers but also at local financial actors who were accused by his administration of speculating against the Turkish economy, and merchants for making exorbitant profits.

“Erdogan has launched a ‘campaign against inflation’ with municipalities organizing what they called ‘regulated sales points’ where mainly items are sold at a lower price than supermarkets, much like the left did in the ‘70s,” said the expert.

“Erdogan is essentially pushing local authorities to set up stands selling vegetables at below market prices”.

Erdogan has repeatedly lambasted opposition claims that people lining up at the stalls were in "poverty queues", insisting they were "queues of wealth" and the AKP was key to economic success.

While this tactic may have helped relieve the poorest sections of society to some extent, it did little in combating the crisis, argued Moudouros.

He said there is growing discontent among the people towards the government over the way it has handled the financial crisis, and this is expected to be recorded in the local elections, which traditionally sees AKP performing poorer than at national elections.

Erdogan’s AKP received 42% of the Turkish vote in 2014 local elections, but significantly lower than the 49.5% it had achieved in the general elections of November 2015.

Moudouros said upcoming elections mean more to Erdogan than just elections for the local administration, that is why he is triggering these ‘defence mechanisms’ in trying to polarise Turkish society.

This way, Erdogan is sending a simple message to the electoral base of AKP and its ally MHP: The present state of order must survive since the "risk" of a switch in power will give rise to the prospect of an "unknown change".

“His message is directed at ‘negative instincts’ of the masses, reminding them of previous economic and cultural achievements of the conservative part of society achieved by the expansion of Erdogan's power.”

Moudouros said Erdogan has consciously turned these elections into a referendum of approval of his policies and his remaining in power.

“Erdogan’s main target is ‘everlasting dominance’. In the ideological traditions of the particular political spectrum, the electoral process is the epitome of social legitimacy. It is no coincidence that the AKP from one point onwards functions more like a huge electoral mechanism of mobilization aiming to affirm the power and influence of its leader. This is what is at stake for AKP and Erdogan.”