Reflections on Turkey’s local elections

Local elections have once again demonstrated that Turkey is now a country with three different social groups: Kurds, mid and eastern Anatolia, and western Anatolia, including southern coastal cities.

These three social groups are not sharply separated from each other. For example, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) secured 30 percent of the vote in Diyarbakır, the biggest city in the mainly Kurdish southeast, a stronghold of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish party. 

Similarly, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) got almost 30 percent of the vote in Kahramanmaraş, an Anatolian city where the AKP dominates all elections. 

But despite such overlaps, these three social groups are starkly different in lifestyle, ideology and outlook. The consolidation of these three different social groups proves that political analysis in Turkey requires a regional perspective. Turkey has now three different groups of people with distinguishably different cultural, political and ideological preferences

Secondly, the local elections also proved that Turkey has millions of people who are ideological voters. A typical ideological voter rarely changes his or her political party. For example, the AKP easily secured a high percentage of the vote in cities such as Erzurum, Konya and Gaziantep, despite them feeling the most adverse effects of the recession in the country. But the CHP also has many loyal ideological voters in cities such as Izmir and Edirne. Similarly, the HDP is always supported in Kurdish-majority cities.

The consolidation of ideological voters has made Turkey akin to the United States where only swing states determine the fate of elections. Turkey also now has its swing provinces such as Bursa, Istanbul, Ankara and Antalya.

The local elections showed that ideological voters, particularly those with nationalist and Islamist tendencies, dominate many Anatolian provinces. But there is a competition between the two brands of Anatolian conservatism. On the one hand, we have the nationalism-first MHP brand of Anatolian conservatism, on the other we have the Islamism-first AKP brand

The MHP replaced the AKP in several key conservative Anatolian towns such as Bayburt, Amasya, Erzincan and Karaman. This should be seen as an important new dynamic in inner Anatolian politics.

The electoral alliance between the AKP and the MHP in several other cities gives the illusion that these parties have the same ideological tenets. This is wrong. The AKP and the MHP are ideologically different parties. The MHP brand of nationalism has secularism as its major principle, which differentiates the party from the Islamist AKP. Thus, MHP mayors would never tolerate the AKP brand of Islamisation in cities they govern. Islam is part of the MHP, however, not as a political agenda but rather, as a cultural even a folkloric dimension of its nationalist ideology.

The local election results also show it is now highly unlikely to expect more radical changes in voter behaviour without changes to the party alliances or the emergence of the new party. A new party would mostly be a threat to the AKP and the opposition centre-right Good Party. All other parties have consolidated their voters and there is no reason to believe their supporters would abandon the CHP, MHP or the HDP. 

But a new party, for example one being set up by former AKP politicians like such as Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ali Babacan, would certainly lure some support from the AKP and Good Party. The AKP cannot afford to lose even a few percent of its support. The Good Party is equally vulnerable since it is still in its infancy. Its popularity is mostly due to the simple reason that there is no alternative for conservative and centre-right voters.

Though the election campaign was not fair, local elections proved that the ballot box is still a pillar of Turkish politics, part of the social contract between society and state. Turkey has carried out elections since 1876 and they are now the undisputed norm.

The position of state bureaucracy should be highlighted though. Given how high-level bureaucrats behaved on election day, it might be argued that the state wants to project an image of distance between itself and the AKP. On Monday, the head of Supreme Electoral Board publicly criticised the state-run Anadolu news agency for its partisanship and declared the CHP candidate was ahead in the Istanbul vote. It was possibly the first time we have seen an intervention by a top bureaucrat not in the favour of the AKP.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.