Why Local Elections of March 31, 2019 in Turkey are Important?
Author: Zurab Batiashvili, Research Fellow, Rondeli Foundation
Local elections were held in Turkey on March 31, 2019. It must be pointed out that these were no ordinary elections. The pre-election campaign took place in a highly polarized environment, as the parties considered these elections to be a sort of a referendum on trust towards President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the 17-year rule of his political party.
The main intrigue in the 31 March elections was who would win in the capital city of Ankara and the largest city, Istanbul, as the former is the country’s political capital, while the latter is its cultural and economic center. Among these two, the results of Istanbul were more highly anticipated, as according to the unwritten rules of Turkish politics, whoever controls Istanbul, controls the whole country as well. Back in the day, President Erdoğan himself started his political career from being Mayor of Istanbul.
Erdoğan’s supporters, the ruling center-right Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) and also center-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) united into the “People’s Alliance” formed specifically for these elections. Erdoğan’s opponents formed the “Nation Alliance,” which included center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) and center-right Good Party (İYİ Parti). Left leaning pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which opposes Erdoğan, did not join the Alliance due to tactical considerations; however, by not running its own candidates in large cities, it practically supported the “Nation Alliance.”
The ruling party got 20.6 million votes all around the country and occupied the first place with 44.3% of votes. If we also add the 7.3% of votes gotten by its allied Nationalists, the ultimate result is 51.6%, which is very close to the June 24, 2018 Presidential Election votes gotten by Erdoğan (he got 52.6% at the time).
The allied opposition got 37.6% of votes in total. However, the important thing was that its candidates, Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, gained victory in Istanbul and Ankara respectively. Opposition candidates also won in several important regions (including the ones on the shores of the Mediterranean and regions bordering Georgia), which were for years controlled by the Justice and Development Party.
The main development in these elections is, undoubtedly, the victory of the opposition in Istanbul, where they defeated a well-known politician from the government, former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, with a very small margin (21,000 votes which is 0.25%).
It is worth noting that the last time the left leaning forces won the Istanbul mayoral elections, was 30 years ago. However, the latest victory is more a coalition victory, greatly influenced by the difficulties the country has been facing lately.
Hence, given the election results, the opposition has gained psychological superiority. The opposition has also regained faith in itself and belief that it is possible to defeat the incumbent party (they have failed to defeat Erdoğan and his party in any of the elections held for the last 16 years).
The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party traditionally won in the governorates in Easter and South-Eastern Turkey, where many citizens with Kurdish origins live.
Recently, the economic situation in Turkey has worsened significantly: foreign (especially Western) capital is leaving the country, inflation has increased to 20% in January-February of 2019 (with the prices on groceries rising especially), the unemployment rate has reached 13.5% (unemployment is especially high among youth, reaching 30%), Turkish Lira has depreciated by 28% for the past year, many companies have gone bankrupt, GDP reduced by 3% in the last quarter of 2018 and production reduced by 7.3% in January 2019, factories have been closed and so on.
All this has most negatively influenced the population in large cities. The results of the local elections in these cities are exactly the reflection of their feelings.
At the same time, the indirect support of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party towards the opposition block has also been important, determining the fate of elections in many cities.
- The results of elections in Turkey and Ukraine show that the region is open to changes and democratic processes are supported by the West;
- Opposition feelings in Turkey, especially given the economic difficulties, are on the rise, with the large cities above all expressing their discontent;
- These election results do not mean that changes will automatically take place on a higher level. Presidential and Parliamentary elections in Turkey were held just nine months ago. Hence, unless something out of the ordinary happens, snap elections are not expected in the nearest future;
- The main task of the government after these elections will be to deal with economic difficulties. Given the fact that Turkey does not plan to hold elections in the nearest future, the government has the opportunity to act freely for more active and efficient reforms;
- The renewal of the Cabinet is not excluded for achieving this goal;
- At the same time, Ankara will have to work on normalizing relations with the West (especially large number of problems have accumulated in bilateral relations with the US lately), which is necessary for attracting foreign (primarily Western) capital;
- The opposition parties are also given the opportunity to increase their chances of success. If they manage to successfully overcome the problems of the municipalities where they have gained victory, they will be able to get more support in other regions of Turkey as well;
- It is clear that the existing problems cannot be resolved easily. The most painful in this regard could be the further depreciation of Lira;
- And finally, given the fact that Turkey is the top trading partner for Georgia and tens of thousands of Georgian citizens work there, economic difficulties there, will naturally influence Georgia as well.
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