Every square inch of Anatolia has to be under its control. Not a town or village can be left to the wicked opposition.
These are the guiding principles of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its autocratic leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and they are busily applying them, as of now, even though municipal elections are still five months off.
This is because they are worried. The results of the 24 June general and presidential elections came as a slap in the face. In spite of all “precautions”, the results were glaring proof that the party’s popularity is on the wane.
Were it not for its alliance the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the AKP would not have been able to control even a simple majority in parliament.
So, for the ruling party and Erdogan, the forthcoming municipal elections are not just about compensating for their parliamentary slide. They are about inflicting the most brutal defeats on their electoral rivals. They are about revenge.
The last remaining independent newspapers in Turkey confirm this and report that the AKP headquarters in Ankara is fraught and huddled in planning sessions for an existential battle.
By all means they want to avert a repeat of the debacle of four years ago, in Ankara and Istanbul above all. In the 2014 municipal elections, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) was declared the victor in those two large and influential cities.
Then large chunks of Anatolia were plunged into darkness due to power outages (a cat tripped a switch, according to the government-controlled media) and the tallying was interrupted.
By dawn next day, the results were reversed. CHP officials filed a complaint of foul play with the Constitutional Court which has still not issued a ruling on it.
Today, the ruling party is in a better position since it controls 95 per cent of the press and the party chief is also the president in a new system that grants him virtually unlimited powers.
But there can be no more electoral failures, which is why Erdogan has sent down orders to party rank and file to get to work, now, to prepare for the local elections to be held in March 2019.
The ruling party has not yet announced its candidates, but it has already begun the race. The websites of AKP-controlled municipalities are in a frenzy of self-promotion, boasting great accomplishments and public projects in the process of completion.
Taking a leaf out of the Erdogan campaign manual, Menderes Türel, AKP mayor of the Mediterranean coastal city of Antalya, has put all the city’s facilities at the service of the campaign.
Public buses and minibuses are now plastered with his smiling face and memorable sayings. Like Ankara and Istanbul, Antalya is no stranger to electoral rigging.
In the 2014 municipal polls, that city of about a million inhabitants, until then a CHP stronghold, fell to the AKP’s Türel by a narrow margin. Hundreds of ballots with ticks next to CHP’s Mustafa Akaydın were discovered in rubbish bins.
In Sakarya, about 120 kilometres east of Istanbul, large billboards featuring the current mayor Zeki Tocoglu (AKP) have been erected in busy parts of town. The mayors of Konya and Afyonkarahisar are equally industrious.
In Izmir, long a CHP stronghold, Aziz Kocaoglu has announced that he does not plan to run in the forthcoming local elections in March.
The 70-year-old CHP politician said that he decided to open the opportunity for a new generation of leadership. In the 14 years in which he served as Izmir’s mayor, investments in the city increased 28-fold, the rail system has been completely overhauled and the district’s agricultural infrastructure has been upgraded.
Kocaoglu’s resignation has raised the hopes of the ruling party, which has long thirsted to wrest Izmir away from the CHP and which had used various inducements to lure voters in what CHP officials have described as the AKP’s “desperate” attempts to alter the voting character of the city.
Former prime minister Binali Yildirim never bothered to deny this. He, himself, had fielded himself in Izmir local elections on several occasions, including the last snap elections in November 2015.
As was the case in the run-up to the 24 June elections, the Democratic People’s Party (HDP), which has the third largest electoral bloc in parliament, has once again come under the ruling party’s crosshairs.
On Saturday, 6 October, the Ankara Public Prosecutor’s Office opened procedures to lift the immunity of 12 MPs from the party that champions Kurdish, women’s and minority rights.
Cumhuriyet newspaper, mouthpiece of the opposition CHP, predicted, based on precedents, that parliament will ultimately comply, especially given that the AKP and MHP have reaffirmed their electoral alliance.
As pro-HDP websites have observed, the public prosecutor has initiated the same scenario that occurred nearly two years ago when parliament lifted the immunity of three HDP MPs, most notably HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yuksekdag, who have since languished in high security prisons.
The charges being levelled at the 12 HDP MPs who have been targeted this time, and among whom are co-chair Pervin Buldan, are the same as they were then: promoting and disseminating terrorist propaganda for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Although the CHP has consistently taken clear and unequivocal stances against the PKK, the AKP media machine has initiated slur campaigns against it, accusing CHP members of “complicity” with the HDP merely because they stood up for basic democratic freedoms and the need to respect the will of voters.
Accordingly, it came as no surprise that the prosecutor’s action also called for lifting the immunity of three CHP MPs. In their case, however, the AKP’s public prosecutor pulled out another stock-in-trade charge: insulting President Erdogan.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Erdogan’s party on HDP witch hunt