Why Erdogan loses his own party in local elections

The presidential system built by Erdoğan failed to become a universal solution to all Turkey's problems as was initially promised by its pundits. It did not help the authorities to work out a clear plan to deal with the economic crisis and other issues, instead it only facilitated further concentration of the entire political process on Erdoğan's figure, resulting in bleeding out of its own ruling party and depriving it of its independence.

Local elections, especially in unitary states, rarely attract much attention, but those that will take place on March 31 in Turkey are a clear exception. The strong polarization of public life in combination with the economic crisis is doomed to make any voting in this country politically important. Therefore, even local elections, which are supposed to deal with local issues of urban and municipal life, in today's Turkey have become a full-scale plebiscite about the political course of the Turkish President.

Economic problems and the growing influence of nationalists make Erdogan go to the people and fight for the result: the experience of past decades shows that the loss of majority of votes in municipal elections by a ruling party is fraught with bigger defeats in the future and at higher levels. But even before the vote, it became clear that this time Erdogan could be left without his own party. It managed to lose both a clear political platform, and an understandable social idea, and, finally, a renewed identity — all of which was eclipsed the cult of the president’s personality. The zenith of Erdoğan’s personal power turned out to be a sunset for his own Justice and Development Party.

Economic success has always been the trump card of the Islamist Justice and Development Party. The growth of the country's welfare since the Islamists came to power in 2002 has meant a stable level of political support. The fall of the lira at the end of 2018 and the growing problems in many sectors of the economy have badly tarnished the image of the party.

Attempts to reverse this trend have so far given the opposite effect. For example, the authorities recently decided to fight rising food prices, opening kiosks in Ankara and Istanbul, where fruits and vegetables are sold at low subsidized prices. In one hand, you can be released no more than 3 kg of vegetables of each type, if, of course, you can stand for several hours in the queue.

It was suggested that cheap vegetables would raise the popularity of the ruling party, but the effect was the opposite. The type of long queues for basic products only highlighted economic problems and high inflation, which over the year  exceeded 30%. Rising prices for fuel and imported fertilizers are forcing Turkish farmers to raise selling prices. But the government prefers to accuse the mafia of middlemen and retailers of artificially high prices. Erdogan speaks of "vegetable terrorists" and promises to fight them with the toughest methods.

Severe punishment is promised to those who, with their research, are destroying the idyll in the banking sector in Turkey. Agency banking regulation and supervision is going to launch an investigation against JPMorgan for published before the election report that the budget deficit is fraught with problems in the Turkish state-owned banks. It also said that the Turkish authorities themselves undermine financial stability in the country by handing out cheap loans to unreliable companies before the elections.

Now JPMorgan in Turkey is accused of undermining the reputation of local banks and provoking volatility in the country's financial market. At the same time, the authorities surprisingly disregard the verbal interventions of President Erdogan, which harm the Turkish financial sector much more than any international reports. For example, in February, Erdogan announced that he intended to transfer part of İş Bankası shares to the Treasury, which immediately brought down quotes of one of the largest private banks in Turkey.

In order to bring down the wave of economic negatives, the Turkish authorities are trying to limit access to objective information about the situation in the country. The first blow was delivered to foreign media - it became much harder for their correspondents to get accreditation in Turkey.

The second blow fell on non-governmental organizations and civil society activists, who were already in a half-dead state. The trial of the well-known entrepreneur and patron of the arts Osman Kavala, who is accused of trying to overthrow the government during the protests in Gezi Park in the summer of 2013, should diminish the enthusiasm of everyone who wants to be active today. Even if the authorities fail to close you, you will spend years behind bars waiting for a court decision.

Finally, public opinion research agencies came under Erdoğan’s criticism . The president’s appeal to ignore their reports and polls surprised many - until recently Erdogan and his party worked closely with similar firms and even took the results of research into account when making decisions.

But this love was doomed to live only as long as it was mutual. Erdoğan not without purpose accuses sociological agencies of bias and manipulation of data - most polls clearly show the low ratings of candidates from the coalition of the ruling party and nationalists in the major cities of the country.

In order to bring down the focus of the campaign from economic problems, the authorities are trying to create an atmosphere of alarm and imminent catastrophe in the country. It seems that the elections are only local, but they are accompanied by constant accompaniment from statements that Turkey is about to fall apart and cease to exist as an independent state.

The candidate for mayor of Ankara from the ruling party, Mehmet Özkhaseki, as if feeling that Erdoğan’s lengthy statements need specifics, says that the threat from Turkey comes from those who want to divide Turkish society far and wide, geographically and politically, into right and left, into the Turks and the Kurds. It is clear that he is referring to the Turkish opposition, but in fact the radical statements that most split the Turkish society are made by President Erdogan. He openly accuses the Kurdish Peoples Democracy Party of terrorism, and its supporters of sympathizing with the terrorist organization, which is more than 10% of Turkish voters.

The situation in large cities for the ruling party is especially difficult, which pushes Erdogan to more and more radical methods. In the course are open threats to opposition candidates: the Kurds are promised to remove the elected heads of municipalities suspected of having links with terrorist organizations, and replace them with appointed managers from the center. Even more noise was made by Erdoğan’s threats to put behind bars the leader of the opposition nationalist Good Party Meral Akşener, who was able to split a significant number of supporters from the ruling coalition. The media close to the authorities urge to hang the leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party.

The Turkish opposition has learned from past elections. The largest opposition parties were able to nominate in a number of large cities single candidates within the framework of the National Alliance. They deliberately do not enter into a war of words with Erdogan, who is famous for his oratorical abilities and can crush anyone, especially when there is a colossal propaganda apparatus from controlled media on his side. Instead, the opposition has consistently placed the main emphasis on economic problems, employment, infrastructure development and improvement.

Erdogan has ruled Turkey for many years, but for the first time, he was so actively involved in the campaign before the local elections, ignoring the provision of the Constitution on the neutrality of the head of state. This suggests that from the once mighty Justice and Development Party, where Erdogan was only one of the leaders, now there is little left. Regardless of what the results of the local elections will be, the election campaign has already shown that an increasingly amorphous ruling party did not have any bright candidates or an attractive program. Erdoğan's sun eclipsed the movement, thanks to which he once came to power.

Despite the cooperation, the opposition forces could not offer a credible alternative, but the Justice and Development Party also stopped playing the role of an inclusive movement capable of representing various social strata. The resulting void is so tangible that the authorities are seriously worried by rumors that former prominent leaders of the ruling party, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former President Abdullah Gül, may lead a new conservative party. Both politicians have considerable sociopolitical weight in Turkey, so Erdogan has already covertly accused his former comrades in betraying ideals and apostasy.

The presidential system built by Erdogan did not become for Turkey a universal solution to all problems. It did not help the authorities to develop a coherent plan for dealing with the economic crisis and other problems, but only concentrated the entire political life on Erdoğan’s figure, bleeding the ruling party and finally depriving it of its independence.

This article was originally published in Russian by the Moscow Center of Carnegie Foundation

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