Analysis

Erdogan Made the Local Elections All About Himself. It Backfired

His party may have won, but the Turkish president took two very personal hits

A supporter holds a banner picturing Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a rally near the headquarters of the AKP party, Istanbul, Turkey, March 31, 2019.
AFP

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party won Sunday’s local elections in Turkey, but Erdogan lost. That’s the paradox in which the president placed himself when he said that these elections polls were a vote of confidence in him and in his policies, and would shape Turkey’s future.

Turkey’s local elections have generally been rather torpid affairs, mainly because they tended to focus on local issues such as taxes, water and sewage treatment and local business development. The results were also pretty much a foregone conclusion. The colorful maps showing the country’s provinces according to the parties that control them were dominated by yellow, the signature color of Erdogan’s party, known as AKP.

As in 2014, AKP won about 44 percent of the vote. The secular Republican People’s Party, or CHP, won 30 percent, compared to 26 percent in 2014.

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Erdogan gave his victory speech near dawn Monday, speaking from the balcony of party headquarters. He could fairly argue that his party, together with the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, which received 7.5 percent, had won more than half the vote. He will surely get a lot of mileage over this victory when the time comes to implement the economic reform designed by Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s his son-in-law and the country’s economy minister.

But after inflating the significance of these elections, Erdogan took two very personal hits, in Ankara and in Istanbul.

In both cities, he had appointed the party’s candidates. In Istanbul he chose his former prime minister and parliament speaker, Binali Yildirim, who lost the city’s mayoral election by a hair. Although the final result may change in the wake of challenges over the vote count and accusations of fraud, that loss was especially excruciating.

Istanbul was Erdogan’s political springboard, electing him mayor in 1994. It was also the stronghold of the AKP for the past 16 years. In 2014 it won by a margin of over 8 percent. That gap practically disappeared this time.

In Ankara, Erdogan ran Mehmet Özhaseki, from the city of Kayseri, a virtual unknown in the country’s capital. He lost by more than 4 percent: In 2014, his predecessor won by a margin of 1 percent.

Those numbers don’t seem like the stuff of tectonic shock in support for AKP, but the symbolism of losing control in both cities will reverberate throughout Turkey and beyond. Mainly, the issue is how potential investors will interpret the loss in these two cities, and in other key cities to trade such as Izmir, Adana and Mersin, where AKP lost, unsurprisingly. These are key economic centers in Turkey which attract gigantic government budgets for development projects.

Ankara and Istanbul are home to the country’s richest people, many of whom are cronies of the president. The ties between the Erdogan regime and the rich also nourished AKP institutions, whose people in turn won the cream of projects, in exchange for which they supported Erdogan’s economic initiatives. They will be the ones called into service when the government has to switch from election economics to the real deal.

Now Erdogan will be facing mayors from the opposition in the big cities, who can gum up his development plans. They can hold up licenses, approve or nix construction projects as they please and see to their own cronies at the expense of the AKP oligarchs, creating a funding network for the CHP and its partners.

Erdogan has already hinted that he means to learn the lessons of these elections, which is a nice way to suggest he’s planning a purge in the party ranks, especially in the cities where the party lost. He has to do it, based on the economic pain he is expected to have to impose, in order to fight inflation, which is at about 20 percent, and unemployment, which has expanded to 13.5 percent.

The principles of the economic plan haven’t been stated yet, in order not to damage support for the ruling party in the polls. Instead, Erdogan focused his campaign on national security, Turkey’s international status and fighting terrorism, issues on which he can portray himself as defender of the homeland, while accusing his rivals of supporting terrorism and collaborating with Turkey’s enemies. The economic miracle Erdogan carried out after his initial election in 2003, a key point in local campaigns before, was practically absent.

When these principles are publicized, however, they will include reduced subsidies and welfare budgets, rising interest rates on loans, constrained economic growth and rising unemployment, which could spur public protest of a type Turkey has experienced before — which has brought down governments.

Meanwhile, despite the defeat in Ankara and Istanbul (unless that changes), the election results are no threat to Erdogan’s status. He remains Turkey’s unchallenged leader. After the preliminary presidential elections last year, which enabled him to implement the full range of broad powers granted by the constitution, Erdogan rules legislation via his control over parliament. His term in office is practically unconstrained. He also the head of the executive branch, which has the exclusive power to shape economic and military policy in Turkey. The next elections for the presidency and parliament will take place only in 2023, and if he is elected again, he will have marked 20 years of consecutive rule.