Final exit before Turkey enters the tunnel of darkness

There are four months until local elections but Turkish politics is already in campaign mode. The parties have secured alliances and are nominating candidates for mayors as well manoeuvring either to consolidate power around Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or to weaken him.

After three elections and a key referendum that changed the character of the regime in Turkey, the local polls are considered by those fighting Erdogan’s autocratic rule as the final battle. The March 31, 2019, elections are regarded the last exit before the country enters the tunnel of darkness with respect to democracy. There are no other elections scheduled until 2023.

Optimists in the opposition say early parliamentary elections could be called if Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) loses major cities, such as Istanbul and Ankara, in March. This may be a dream too far, especially because of suspicions of vote-rigging in other elections.

Erdogan’s aim is to keep a firm grip on power, no matter how and with whom he must align himself. Machiavellian instincts led Erdogan to keep his ultra-nationalist rival close. The AKP’s alliance with Devlet Bahceli’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) may be occasionally wobbly but the Turco-Islamist strategic formation still holds.

With Turkey hit by economic decline in the past year, Erdogan is aware that support among his party’s loyalists has weakened and that he needs the MHP as a walking stick. This suits Bahceli, a political veteran directly linked to what some call the deep state.

Both men, who de facto share power in Ankara, are agreed on making it impossible to reverse Turkey’s “super-presidency.” They are united in a desire to make it impossible for the Kurdish political movement to pursue its aims. An indication of this is Erdogan’s defiant refusal to release from prison Selahattin Demirtas, the most popular figure the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) has ever produced.

Although Bahceli has zigzagged in his support for Erdogan, it seems that his threats to pull out of the alliance were merely tactical. As he watches the AKP grow weaker, Bahceli enhances his influence to the point of holding Erdogan hostage.

Apparently, it was with these thoughts that Bahceli recently agreed that his voters would support the AKP’s mayoral candidates in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. His reasoning appeared to be preventing Erdogan from losing Istanbul or Ankara. As Kemal Ozkiraz, director of the Eurasia Public Opinion Research Centre, astutely put it: “The state seems to be between the lips of Erdogan but, in reality, Erdogan is stuck between the lips of Bahceli.”

For Bahceli, preservation of the new regime matters. He is aware of the massive nationalist wave sweeping through Turkey, which will help authoritarianism even if Erdogan is no longer in power.

“The result of the local elections is very important for the establishment and implementation of the presidential regime,” Bahceli said a while ago.

“So are the (elections in) three big cities. The opposition parties may win there and, if so, they can start to question the legitimacy of the (presidential) system. It will mean that the transition period will be turned upside down.

“Also, the votes in the (mainly Kurdish) south-eastern cities are very important, too. Government appointed 101 trustees in those municipalities. If that party (HDP) wins there again, it will be horrible, because then they can present the results as a plebiscite.”

All of this is telling in terms of how tough and acrimonious the local elections will be.

Ozkiraz said the AKP-MHP alliance’s vote share is down 5 percentage points to 47%. He added that the AKP’s popularity is as low as 33%.

Although it is too early to take the pulse of popular opinion, Erdogan’s struggle to find viable candidates for Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara indicates a sense of despair. He has been trying — without success — to persuade one of his most devoted supporters, Binali Yildirim, now parliamentary speaker to be a mayoral candidate for Greater Istanbul municipality.

That said, let us be cautious. Erdogan is a formidable political survivor. This time, too, he may surprise everyone by pulling several rabbits out of his hat. Four full months give him time to strategise.

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