Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan set the tone for this year’s municipal elections in Turkey long before the campaign opened.
He threatened, flung slurs, called opposition leaders and their supporters terrorists and supporters of terrorism, and vowed to give them all “Ottoman slaps” on election day.
He toured every corner of the country, district by district, holding campaign rallies sometimes two or three times a day.
As in previous elections, all government facilities were available to the candidates of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the National People’s Party (MHP), the AKP’s partner in the Cumhur (Republican) alliance.
These included state television and the 90 per cent of the national press that the ruling AKP government controls and that has relentlessly reiterated the anti-opposition mudslinging.
But despite this grossly uneven playing field, Erdogan failed to crown his new “presidential” system at the local level.
In fact, Sunday’s polls could mark the beginning of the end of the Erdogan regime, since while at the national level the AKP came out ahead, garnering about 44 per cent of the vote while the Republican People’s Party (CHP) won just over 30 per cent, it was a victory that came with the loss of major metropolises including Ankara, the capital of Turkey and the seat of Erdogan’s power.
But the hardest blow came from Erdogan’s hometown, Istanbul, which was wrested from the grip of Erdogan’s former prime minister Binali Yildirim and handed to the opposition CHP candidate Ekrem İmamoglu.
Turkey’s tourism capital of Antalya, home to 34 per cent of the country’s tourist spots, according to the Turkish Ministry of Culture, also fell to the CHP, while historic Izmir remained unchallenged as a CHP bastion.
These metropolises, the engines of Turkey’s economic and political life, are where the CHP scored its real election victory. So it was little wonder that thousands of the party’s supporters flocked to the CHP headquarters in Ankara’s Sögütözü neighbourhood to rejoice at wresting their city from the clutches of a ruling party that had long ignored its needs.
Erdogan still occupies the presidential White Palace in Ankara, and he still controls the state apparatus, however.
Since last October, he has frequently threatened to have elected municipal officials arrested on terrorist charges and replaced by government-appointed “trustees,” and the CHP’s winning candidate in Ankara, Mansur Yavas, suspects that this may now be his fate.
On the eve of the elections when it was clear that Yavas held the lead over his AKP rival in the polls, Erdogan threatened that Yavas might soon find himself at the wrong end of legal proceedings. “There is also this business about taxes, as that man Yavas is a tax evader.
At this moment, the Ministry of Finance is looking into the documents on this situation,” the president said, whose son-in-law is the minister of finance.
CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu is charged with insulting Interior Minister Soliman Soylu in a speech he made ten months ago and proceedings have begun to lift Kilicdaroglu’s parliamentary immunity.Erdogan has also threatened IYI Party Chairwoman Maral Aksener with jail. Her response was a music video that showed people being interrogated because of their social-networking activities and exercise of free speech, with the lyrics asking “will you have enough handcuffs for everyone? Have you calculated the cost?”
Meanwhile, a steady stream of People’s Democratic Party (HDP) members continues to join the former co-chairs of their party, Figen Yüksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas, who have been held in high-security prison since November 2016.
Another CHP Party MP, Aysu Bankoglu, is being investigated on charges of “spreading terrorist propaganda and praising crime and criminals,” in a reference to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
HDP Co-chair Sezai Temelli is also the subject of an investigation on charges of “spreading propaganda for and praising a terrorist organization” (the PKK), and the Turkish prosector’s office has asked to have his parliamentary immunity lifted.
Bankoglu maintains that her words were taken out of context and that the AKP’s campaign was to accuse the opposition of allying with the PKK and the Gulenist Movement.
The likelihood is that the ruling party will pursue this strategy with even greater vigour now that it has lost control of key cities in the municipal elections.
Observers anticipate that the electoral setback of the AKP, a personal setback for Erdogan, will induce him to consolidate his power further.
The newspaper Haberturk has said that Erdogan will announce the creation of a new security ministry that will restructure Turkey’s security and intelligence agencies and bring them “under one roof.”
However, major problems may come from closer to home, as the infighting and power struggles within the ruling party are no secret, and these may even threaten Erdogan.
Abdurrahman Dilipak, a columnist for Yeni Akit, an Islamic fundamentalist daily close to Erdogan, has urged the need to end the corruption in the government, for example.
Beneath the headline, “The Devil has thrown down the Gauntlet,” Dilipak said that “corruption, bribery and nepotism are the commonly talked about subjects” among the electorate.
Without mentioning names, he urged that competence rather than connections become the criterion for appointments to government service.
The results of the municipal elections may also spur the announcement of the splinter party that former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu reportedly begun to establish some months ago.
Citing journalist Fatih Altayli, the Turkish Cumhuriyet newspaper reported that Davutoglu had established offices for his new party in 40 districts around the country and that major figures from the AKP were likely to join, among them former president Abdullah Gul and former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan.
Should such a new party come to fruition, Erdogan’s AKP could find itself in a minority in parliament after having held a majority of the seats for the last 17 years.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Defeats for Erdogan in Turkey’s elections