Local elections in Turkey: nationalists brace for takeover of state resources

Turkish political parties are in full swing implementing their perspective strategies for the upcoming March 31 local elections. The most pressing issue on the agenda of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is to keep an agreement with its allies in the People’s Alliance, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) on candidates for mayors and heads of municipalities and make sure this marriage of interests doesn't limit Erdoğan's grip on power. The growing wave of discontent among the electorate forces the ruling party to take urgent and extraordinary measures, making further dealings with the Turkish nationalists increasingly complicated.

Difficult negotiations between the conservative Islamist AKP and the nationalist MHP on the content of the candidates lists and the development of a joint programme in a number of large cities revealed significant problems for the Turkish ruling elites. No wonder why local elections are of such great importance  for the AKP: control over municipalities in large cities, where more than 77% of the Turkish population live, means direct access to budget funds that are vital to maintain the distribution system of contracts among party supporters in local businesses and ensure a network of loyal voters. In addition, the March municipal elections will seal completion the country's transition to a presidential system of government, and the results will be an indicator of popular support for the course of the ruling party on the local level.

The success of Erdoğan’s party in the past five years ago municipal elections was leveled over time by the economic turmoil in Turkey, especially because of the debt crisis, and the fall of the lira this year, which significantly hit the pockets of citizens accustomed to welfare growth. Instead of nominating candidates with a program to solve problems that really concern citizens, such as traffic in big metropolises, illegal construction and rising inflation on basic goods, Turkish authorities deliberately turn municipal elections into voting for certain strains of ideologies further driving Turkish society in depressing polarization. It is not surprising, therefore, to see how the authorities are trying to use foreign policy, especially the problem of terrorism in the region, in order to shift the attention of citizens from the more pressing problems of unemployment and rising food prices to problem of "national survival" and foreign power's plots to divide the country.

Another source of problems for the authorities is the fall in support of the ruling party itself. If the president himself still manages to retain the image of a politician who is able to defend the interests of ordinary citizens both in the face of internal enemies and outside, his party is not in its best condition nowadays. In the rays of the national leader, it is difficult to find, couch and nominate charismatic candidates from the ruling party who really would be able stand to opposition and to win hearts and minds of broader layers of Turkish society rather than AKP's core voters. The image of the ruling party’s image among the conservative and national electorate was damaged by the course of flirting with its former political ally, Fethullah Gülen, whom official Ankara is now blaming of organization of a coup attempt in July 2016 which left more than 200 people dead. Past attempts to strike a deal within the democratic opening with Kurdish political activists, and indirectly with the terrorist organization PKK, or intervention in Syria and the subsequent influx of Arab refugees, - drives many voters away from voting for Erdoğan's nominees as well. 

A series of unsuccessful decisions over time began to have an cumulative effect on the AKP's image. A growing wave of discontent among its own voters is forcing the party leadership to take urgent and extraordinary measures. On the one hand, under the slogan of updating the local leadership, the Erdoğan party since May 2017, following an unsatisfactory victory at the referendum on the draft of the new constitution, replaced several popularly elected mayors of large cities, a clear sign of aversion from its long-preached commitment and respect for popular will. The principle of respect for the will of the people was subject to considerations of the long-term survival of the party, as the opposition parties have been stressing for some time now. However, the most important turn of the last two years was decision of the AKP to work closely with the nationalist party of Devlet Bahçeli.

The party of the nationalist movement is rapidly gaining popularity due to its integrity, emphasis on strong statehood, national identity and independence of Turkey and the decisive struggle against Kurdish separatism in the region. Thus, ideology of the MHP satisfies the growing public demand for conservatism without religious fanaticism, a strong unitary state and the rejection of foreign policy adventurism while maintaining a strong position on protecting the national borders of the country in tumultuous times.

The origins of such popular demands are rooted in the failure of official conservative policy of Erdogan in a number of critical issues for Turkey. Examples of such failures include the crisis of the model of citizenship promoted by Erdogan on the basis of religious Muslim identity, and crisis of the “Islamist” project of statehood in the region as a whole. The stagnation of Ankara’s relations with Western countries, the constant maneuvering of the Turkish president from crisis to crisis, during which the actions of the Turkish leader are increasingly at odds with its rhetoric - all this does not remain unnoticed by the Turkish populace.

Given not very optimistic predictions about the chances of the Turkish opposition to somehow shake the power of the AKP in major metropolises, we can say that the main winner will be the nationalist party of Bahçeli. Moving in the forward of official propaganda, the nationalists avoided the fate of the opposition and were not branded by Erdogan as "enemies of the people" and "instruments of external influence" curb'ng for themselves a secure room for political maneuvering.

Moreover, after gaining control over urban areas and municipalities of large cities, the party and network of its supporters will get access to more budget funds. In the medium term, totality of the growing political influence of the Nationalist Action Party, expanding presence of party supporters in the bureaucracy, judiciary, police and the Turkish army, could spur the process of turning the country “to the nationalist right”. The conflict between the two parties will be restrained by the common interest - to maintain a strong state influence in the political sphere of the country, especially in matters of national security and countering "internal enemies". This, however, is doomed to change as well, as no political alliances in Turkey last too long these days.

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