Turkish elections bring ruling party down to earth

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an.

AKP, the ruling party in Turkey, won 39% of a municipal vote held on Sunday (29 March), but the results were below its target and are in fact the worst since it first came to power in parliamentary elections in 2002.

The AKP was unable to win the city of Diyarbakir, the largest in the Kurdish southeast, and several other key cities, including Izmir. 

The secularist CHP (Republican People’s Party) opposition, which accuses the AKP (Justice and Development Party) of having a hidden Islamist agenda, gained ground, winning 23 percent. It made inroads in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, and in the capital Ankara. The far-right MHP (Nationalist Action Party) won 16 percent. 

The elections were also marred by violence. Six people died and dozens were injured, the Turkish press reported, when supporters of rival candidates attacked each other using firearms in Kurdish south-eastern Turkey. 

Analysts say the results are a wake-up call for a party grown comfortable in office and a prime minister allergic to criticism. Analysts say that Erdogan, who made the local polls a referendum on his seven-year rule, clearly misjudged voter dissatisfaction over his government’s handling of the $750 billion economy, which is going into recession in 2009 after years of stellar growth. 

“We think that Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan will read the results correctly and concentrate on economic problems,” said Yarkin Cebeci, a senior economist at bank JP Morgan in Istanbul. 

“The Turkish electorate sent a clear warning to the ruling AKP, stating its dissatisfaction over the recent economic downturn,” he said. 

‘Incompetent businessmen’ get blame  

During campaigning, which had all the trappings of a general election, Erdogan played down the effects of the global financial crisis on Turkey and blamed incompetent businessmen for rising unemployment, currently at a record 13.6 percent. 

The results are not expected to halt reforms but may force Erdogan to seek compromises with the opposition to achieve his goals, which may in turn strengthen democratic institutions. 

Erdogan has pledged to reform the constitution drafted by the military in 1982 and change the way the Constitutional Court works – steps that would remove some obstacles to EU membership but could revive tension with secularists who accuse him of pursuing an Islamist agenda. Erdogan denies this. 

“As an example of a positive effect (of the results), we can say that political cooperation on constitutional changes which will come onto Turkey’s agenda soon has become more important or even inevitable,” wrote Erdal Safak, editor of Sabah newspaper, seen as having close ties with the government. 

Erdogan denied any changes in his cabinet would not be done because of the election results. 

“We will have some ministerial changes but only Erdogan knows which ones and the timing of them,” a senior government source, who declined to be named, told Reuters before the polls. 

Businesses, including association TUSIAD, and analysts say his style is sowing divisions at a time when Turkey needs to urgently address economic, political and social reforms. 

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

Dr. Dimitris Tsarouhas, professor at the Bilkent University  in Ankara, told EURACTIV that in spite of the fact that the opposition has emerged stronger in a number of provinces, these gains are unlikely to change the political landscape of the country. 

"It's a sign that the electorate has yet to be convinced that CHP and MHP offer a credible alternative to the ruling party. The AKP remains strong – but the opposition has been given the chance to build up an alternative political platform and thus rejuvenate Turkish democracy by contesting AKP dominance. For the sake of Turkey's pluralist democracy, this is a necessary and much-delayed process," Tsarouhas commented. 

The scholar added that the opposition parties have correctly assessed the mood of the electorate and appealed to their socio-economic needs rather than identity politics. "Instead of stressing issues such as secularism, CHP and MHP stressed unemployment, poverty and corruption as core issues and gained the trust of the electorate. In Istanbul and Ankara, the impressive performances of the CHP and MHP candidate respectively propel them to national prominence and place them in a favourable position once the succession race of the current CHP and MHP leaders start," Tsarouhas added. 

Local elections have traditionally been important in Turkey, with governments severely handicapped if they fail to record good results. 

Current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the brains behind the AK Party's successive wins. Charismatic yet severe, he is currently Turkey's most popular politician and heads the most stable single party majority government in decades. 

Erdogan pledged a new era of compromise when his party won a landslide re-election in 2007, a poll sparked by a row with the secularist opposition over the direction of the country. 

Instead, shortly thereafter, he pushed for the lifting of a ban on female students wearing the Islamic-style headscarf at university, sparking further political tensions and a court case to close the ruling AKP for Islamist activities. 

Turkey's highest court annulled a parliamentary vote on easing a ban on headscarves being worn at universities (EURACTIV 06/06/08). The same court apparently backed down, deciding not to close down the ruling AKP party, but to send it a "serious warning" by cutting off half of the party's funding (EURACTIV 31/07/08). 

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