Turkish citizens went to the polls for local elections on March 30 to decide on far more than new mayors. After recent corruption investigations implicated members of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s family and cabinet amid censorship scandals, they also voted on the future of Erdoğan. According to unofficial results, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) received 45.6 percent of the votes – up 5 percent from the last local elections – with its principal challenger, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), more than 16 percentage points behind.
Erdoğan’s strong showing, despite the corruption allegations against him supported by Fethullah Gulen, his former ally and leader of the Islamic Gulen movement, has puzzled his domestic opponents and the international community. Erdoğan’s domestic rivals went to the polls with high hopes of dealing a significant blow to his 12-year rule. Fueling their optimism was not only the corruption allegations and Gulen rift, but the anti-government movement, which has been simmering since the June 2013 protests. Yet Sunday’s result appeared to mark the latest in a long line of defeats for the prime minister’s secular, conservative and liberal opponents.
Several factors account for the failure of Erdoğan’s competitors to pose a significant electoral challenge to his leadership.
After the tension between the AKP and the Gulen movement came to a head in December 2013, when prosecutors believed to be members of the Gulen movement initiated a raid on dozens of individuals allied with Erdoğan, including the sons of three ministers and an AKP mayor, over corruption charges, Fethullah Gulen mobilized his media, his supporters within the police force and the judiciary to weaken the prime minister. He called for his supporters to vote for the second party after the AKP in each district, which left his base with two options: the secular CHP and the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Gulen’s call seems not to have resonated with his supporters, who are skeptical of the secular CHP and do not see eye to eye on major issues with the MHP, making the AKP the only option.
The CHP also failed to mobilize a larger anti-AKP voting bloc than its traditional base. Hoping to ride on the fissure in the Gulen-AKP alliance, the CHP allied with the Gulen movement and attacked Erdoğan with Gulenists’ illegally wiretapped recordings. The CHP’s alliance with the Gulen movement and its uncritical use of illegal wiretappings might have alienated potential newcomers who harbor deep resentment toward the movement due to its alleged role in the Ergenekon case, which led to the imprisonment of dozens of military figures, Kemalist intellectuals, and activists to the party base.
Yet the most significant factor behind the AKP’s strong standing in local elections is the economy. Corruption is prevalent in Turkey, but voters tend to punish politicians for corruption only when the economy is perceived to be doing poorly. After a volatile 1990s, the AKP has presided over steady high growth and modest inflation. Despite the slowdown in economic growth over the past year, Turkish voters seem to credit the government for the economic development and relative stability that have marked the nearly 12 years of its rule.
Regardless of the factors behind the AKP victory, the win could have broad implications for Turkey’s turbulent political landscape. Erdoğan is likely to interpret the result as a popular seal of approval, and will assert his authority even more strongly in a power struggle continuing into this summer’s presidential election and next year’s parliamentary elections. After being targeted by Gulen supporters within the judiciary and the police force, Erdoğan’s first move will be to root out Gulenists within the state and target businesses and civil society organizations close to the movement. That Gulenists allegedly posted a recording on YouTube of a secret meeting of security officials about possible intervention in Syria right before the elections has given such action new urgency.
Erdoğan is likely to give up his long-held dream of becoming Turkey’s first directly elected president in favor of purging Gulenists from state institutions, a mission that requires full control over the party. He will likely seek to alter his party’s term limit rules to run for a fourth term as prime minister in 2015, and will let President Abdullah Gul seek reelection in August.
A renewed mandate will also strengthen Erdoğan’s hand in the Kurdish peace process, an ongoing government-led initiative aimed at ending the three-decade conflict between security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Facing the most challenging time of his 12 years in Turkish politics, Erdoğan walked a thin line on the eve of the elections, appealing both to Kurds and Turkish nationalists within his base. In an effort not to alienate nationalists but to keep the peace process moving, the Turkish government unveiled a reform package that addressed Kurdish demands halfway. The peace process stalled, but that might now change. Erdoğan may revive the process to address the domestic and regional challenges that the Kurdish issue has posed and secure a Kurdish alliance against his domestic opponents in the run-up to the general elections.
Further, Erdoğan had been dragging his feet on normalizing relations with Israel before the municipal elections, since such an action is highly controversial among his Islamic grassroots supporters. Now that local elections are over, he might take a step toward repairing Turkish-Israeli diplomatic ties to reclaim Turkey’s tarnished image in Western capitals.
But that might take more than exchanging ambassadors between Ankara and Tel Aviv. To revive Turkey’s stalled European Union membership bid, reclaim the country’s leadership role in the Middle East and reassure Washington of his democratic credentials, Erdoğan needs to undo the damage that Turkish democracy has suffered from illegal wiretapping and breaches against the rule of law and freedom of expression. The latest election results show that he has considerable political capital to do so.
Gonul Tol is director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute.