The results of Turkey’s polls: a win-lose for all

A win-lose. The Turkish version of the expression “win-win” or “lose-lose”!

Let us start with the mayors elected or re-elected in Sunday’s local polls, taking into account that local governments have always been the stepchildren of Turkish politics. Local governments are not only the stepchildren of politics, but also its losers, because in Turkey local governments are under the authority of the central administration.  

Not only are they under the authority of Ankara, but also under that of political parties’ headquarters. Who did Turks vote for on Sunday? They did not even vote for candidates nominated by party headquarters, they voted for political parties! In many places they were unaware who was running for mayor.

That weird tradition tells us a lot. The same handicap is also in place for lawmakers. In parliament, deputies are usually referred to by their political parties, not by the provinces they represent. While local elections are often like a second-class general election, local agendas and problems were totally overlooked in the campaign for Sunday’s vote due to extreme political tensions. The meaninglessness of the local poll has now become perfectly obvious.

Articles 123, 126, and 127 of the constitution frame what is called administrative tutelage, a system in which a mayor cannot hammer a single nail without the consent of the central government or the provincial or district governors who are its local representatives. The absolute and permanent supremacy of appointed public servants over elected representatives is another distinguishing characteristic of Turkey’s flimsy democracy. 

The dependency of local governments on the centre has been reinforced under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power since 2002. Since then, the constant 15 percent share of the budget allocated to local government has shrunk to 10 percent. Municipalities have been made dependent on the central government for providing services. Many of them have resorted to novel ways of making profit in order break this dependency. The financial troubles of local governments are one of the reasons for the destruction of cities and the environment in Turkey.

As the AKP government transformed into one-man rule, of course local governments took their share of the impact. In August, a new presidential decree tied the budgets of all the municipalities and other local administrative bodies to the Treasury and Finance Ministry, under the control of the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak. Municipalities must now obtain the consent of central government, not only for their revenues, but also for their expenditures; their resources will be determined by Erdoğan and his son-in-law.

Erdoğan hinted at his intention during one of his television monologues: “They will not be able to manage? Why? They will not be able to pay the salaries in those municipalities. We have records of all their accounts, the current debts of their municipalities. They will not be able to manage. Those who do not work in harmony with the central administration in the future will absolutely declare bankruptcy,” he said. Tunç Soyer, the new mayor of Izmir for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), aware of this situation, said during his campaign that he would have to knock on the president’s door for resources.

Erdoğan also warned he could appoint administrators to replace elected mayors suspected of terrorism links, as he has done before in the mainly Kurdish southeast. Since it is he who decides the definition of terrorism, independent of election results, local government has in practice come to an end. Those who expect miracles from elected mayors should beware.

When it comes to the winners and losers of Sunday’s vote, many say democracy was the winner. So let us have a look at the prospects for democracy.  

We can assume that what the new mayor of Izmir said is true for all dimensions of politics, apart from the predominantly Kurdish Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP). There is no political institution left now that questions the legitimacy of Erdoğan’s powers, which he acquired through violence and trickery. Given that, he can know consolidate his position over political parties and determine all rules of the game.

The other parties join in that game. In fact, the system has been illegitimate since the June 7 elections of 2015. At one point, before the constitutional referendum of 2016, the leader of the Good Party, Meral Akşener, tried to express this illegitimacy, but soon gave up. We saw before the June 24 elections last year that CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was disturbed by calls for a boycott of the polls that implicitly recognised that illegitimacy.

Let us talk about the opposition that is said to have won a victory. When we look closely, there is not one, but two opposition fronts. The anti-Erdoğan front established before the referendum including five dissimilar political movements has no political future as it has no policy beyond opposing the president. This front revitalises itself from election to election, and any gains it achieves only have a lifespan of a few days following the polls.

In an election environment that was neither fair nor free, the ruling alliance of the AKP and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) gained just over 50 percent of the vote. There is therefore no apparent threat that can undermine the regime in the foreseeable future. Did Erdoğan not say on election night that he would be ruling the country for the next four-and-a-half years? A snap election is not on the horizon.

“All our nation should know,” tweeted CHP lawmaker Aykut Erdoğdu on March 27. “It is likely that we are going to win in major cities … We will not demand a snap election if we win local polls … We will give all our support to overcoming the economic downturn we witness and for the implementation of structural measures.”

Akşener similarly said: “I am calling on the president once again. Do not strain the people, do not tire them … Know that we will support you for every right step you take and we will stand against you on the behalf of the Turkish people for every wrong one”. Did she not say that?

The opposition is even enthusiastically putting itself under the ruins of democracy. There it is destined to stay as all checks and balances have been removed. Does that look like a win?

The new opposition mayors are obliged to bow down to the central administration right after they take office; that should also be taken into account when evaluating that “win”.

So what will the spring that the CHP promised during its campaign look like? The people suffocated by the regime for all these years needed to see this relative defeat of the government. But let us not forget, the June 7 elections of 2015 also seemed a new beginning, but had disastrous results. It is likely the March 31 victory will end in a similar way because there is no serious political alternative that can fulfil these hopes. There is nothing on the horizon apart from economic and diplomatic crisis. The government will certainly not ease its pressure on the opposition, so can we call this a win?

Finally let us talk about the Kurdish political movement that is said to have helped the opposition win. The HDP took part in the elections and its jailed former co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş called for people to go to the polls, but the HDP was the only political institution that did not resort to verbal or physical violence. The party, faced with everything possible since the state decided to destroy it in late 2014, again pointed to the ballot as the place to show reaction. It is obvious this tactic affected the results in major cities on Sunday.

Though it meant voting schizophrenically for candidates that come from political backgrounds that hate the Kurds as much as the government does, the HDP’s stance was an important gain for Turkish politics. But I am wary that this tactic, which taught the government a lesson, could also be punished. Who can guarantee the government will not sack HDP mayors and appoint administrators in their place? The “official” opposition would not back the HDP in such circumstances. Can we call this a win?

According to Erdoğan and his parallel universe, he won on Sunday, but he also lost. Though he has been declaring victory in elections since 2013, this time he suffered a huge blow. His future will depend on the drastic economic situation and foreign policy fiascos. Unfortunately, the country has entered a stage that can be described as a loss instead of a win.


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

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