Alwaght- In the recent local elections in Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the elections in many cities with 40 percent. However, from 10 key cities, it could only win three cities, with the rival parties managing to lead in important cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and Diyar Bakr. The vote, the first since the country shifted to the presidential system, was of significance from a set of aspects. Loss of the crucial cities bore important messages for President Recept Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP.
The rivals accentuate the elections as a huge success to them and an indirect referendum on the government’s performance. This, the analysts suggest, was the reason why Erdogan after the results instead of attacking the critics in a soft tone talked about review of the cabinet makeup and some of the state’s policies. The changes to be brought by the election outcome are of high importance on home and foreign levels.
What are the consequences?
The March 31 elections were a test of the popularity of the ruling party in the whole country in general and the significant cities in particular. It also provided a launching pad for the major winners to make their way to the success in the future parliamentary and presidential elections. Erdogan during his speeches asserted that the local elections represented a “matter of survival” for him and his ruling party.
The AKP strategists’ prediction was that with naming Binali Yildirim, the former parliament speaker, the party could score a major win in Istanbul. But to their frustration, the rival parties, Republican People’s Party (CHP) and People’s Democratic Party (HDP), in a well-concerted strategy grabbed the power in the country’s largest city with their candidate Ekrem Imamoglu. In one of his campaign addresses, Erdogan had said any party who wins Istanbul wins the elections. The city is the country’s most populated region and economic hub. Losing or winning the city means that people living there put their trust, or do not, on the ruling party.
Over the past 25 years, the AKP held a tight grip on the city. Its successful economic policies won it, mainly since 2002, unprecedented popularity among other Turkish parties in the major city. Last week’s loss apparently warned AKP that it should embark on the most efficient economic strategy for it to survive politically.
Ankara, the capital which has been in the AKP hands over the past 15 years, was grabbed by the CHP. The results mark the political gaps in Turkey and some discontent after the 2016 failed military coup. They will, certainly, force Erdogan to rethink some of his policies, at least domestically.
What are the potential changes by AKP?
The ruling party has the major focus put on Istanbul. It has not yet accepted the results there. AKP appealed the city’s results. It has not managed to win the majority in various municipalities. Some speculations suggested that if the party loses the elections, it will step up arrests of the opposition leaders. Before the elections, Erdogan had warned that should the opposition candidate win in the capital, he will reject the outcome and order his arrest. He, however, softened his tone after the results came out. Hinting at accepting the results, Erdogan promised reforms and reviewed policies.
One aftermath of this loss could be calling for early parliamentary and presidential elections by the opposition groups. So, the country’s political competition is expected to witness a new page. The AKP will take pains to steer clear of snap elections. In a post-vote speech, Erdogan said this was the last election before 2023, making clear his serious opposition to any early election demands and showing the ruling party’s intent to invest on the ultra-sensitive election of next four years.
The CHP coalition with iYi Party and coordination of strategy with HDP, which brought it the much-needed success, will push Erdogan to scale down pressure on the secular nationalists as well as the Kurds in a change of the policing atmosphere introduced after 2016 attempted putsch.
Erdogan praised the Kurdish “brothers” for not giving their votes to the “pro-terrorist” parties in reference to AKP’s win in Kurdish-majority cities of Sirnak and Agri in eastern Turkey. AKP still has the backing of the conservative Kurds and in Istanbul it lost by a narrow margin. Such close rivalry will allow the AKP and the major opposition parties to negotiate for satisfying political gives and takes. The ruling party will draw on such talks to preclude early elections and slowdown of its economic policies.
How will foreign policy look like in post-vote era?
Since 2002, the AKP built its success on two vital issues. First, restoration of the historical identity of the nation’s foreign policy which pushed the party to seek strategic depth not only within national borders but also in parts of West and Central Asia. And second was the economic policies. Strengthening the private sector, bringing into the economy the multinational companies, and enhancing the foreign trade, the AKP managed to build a success when it came to the economy. But this did not last for two full decades. The government has been facing simmering public dissatisfaction with its economic record over the past few years, and mainly last year when the nation’s currency’s value began to shrink.
2023 parliamentary elections will coincide with the centennial anniversary of modern Turkey and it will represent the biggest opportunity for the ruling party to present an acceptable record of its performance. With regard to the 20 percent inflation and 13 percent unemployment rates, the election will be Erdogan’s largest trump card. He will have to improve economic conditions. So, the economy is tied to politics. The most important path the president should step in is the expansion of foreign trade with important partners, mainly China, and also some of Turkey’s neighbors. After Germany, China is the largest business partner of Turkey.
After 2016 coup, Erdogan reduced his trust in the West. A public expectation to see a rejuvenated economy motivated the Erdogan government to seek to broaden economic ties with China as a reliable and strategic trade alternative to the West.