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Turkey's Local Elections: Referendum on Erdogan's Leadership

(Photo: kremlin.ru)

Ibrahim Taha

Turkish citizens will head to the polls for the local elections on March 31, the first time since the country formally transitioned to presidential rule. These elections come amid warnings of an economic recession, and analysts are describing them as a referendum on Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has maintained a majority of public support, after sweeping into power in 2002. The successive electoral victories of the AKP and President Erdogan have enabled ongoing economic prosperity, which has been often credited to social, political and economic reforms. With Turkey’s opposition parties calling on voters to hold the government accountable for economic mismanagement, the current slowdown will become a key influencing factor in the March elections, along with Syrian refugees and unemployment.

The opposition parties’ attempts to blame the government for the crumbling economy have not been effective with defiant Turkish citizens. Many nationalists and supporters of the President depict the economic situation as a political assault on Turkey by foreign. This reflects the broader power play between Ankara and Washington, the effects of which are being felt by many Turks, as growing distrust of America becomes a widespread reality among the population. Turkey’s relations with the US President Donald Trump have fluctuated, and were almost on the brink of collapse last year when the US imposed trade tariffs on Turkey in retaliation for the confinement of American pastor Andrew Brunson. As a consequence of US sanctions, Turkey’s economy has suffered, with the lira plunging a quarter in value, embattling the corporate sector and increasing hardships for ordinary Turks.

The threats from the Oval Office have continued this year: Donald Trump took to Twitter to threaten to devastate the Turkish economy if the Kurdish militias were targeted following the withdrawal of American troops from Syria. The foreign policy divide between Washington and Ankara worsened during the Syrian conflict, in which the United States supported Kurdish militias, a move denounced by Ankara, who classified those militias as terrorist organisations. These recent developments indicate a shift in the political landscape, as Turkey turns to new regional allies in Iran and Russia. Although the foreign policy landscape has changed, the sanctions and threats from Washington have proven effective, damaging the Turkish economy by halting foreign investment, increasing inflation levels to an all-time high and consequently curbing economic growth. This comes at an unfavourable time for President Erdogan and the AKP Party who are seeking re-election in Turkey’s major cities in March.

The extent to which these foreign policy disputes and economic hardships will influence the local elections in March remains uncertain. According to TRT World journalist Saed Hasan, “Turkey’s defiance on the international stage has been embraced by Turks across the political spectrum, because loyalty to the state is foremost”. This corresponds with Kiniklioglu’s analysis, in which he describes nationalism as an incredibly durable force in Turkish politics. For example, the Turkish government grasped an opportunity to gain domestic and international support during Jamal Khashoggi’s murder case, wherein Turkey was instrumental in leading the investigations into the murder. As a result, Turkey’s foreign policy has received strong support from all sides of the political spectrum, meaning it will not be a controversial election issue, unlike the economy.

While Turkey’s opposition parties are seeking to punish the government for economic hardships, the AKP government have boasted of their economic record in order to suggest the economy is making a steady. With increasing public expenditure on infrastructure, such as the new Istanbul Airport, and rebalancing the current account deficit to a surplus both priorities, the government has ruled out taking loans from the IMF, a claim used by the opposition to tarnish the government’s economic management. Turkey paid off its debt to the IMF back in 2013, a success that remains a hallmark achievement for the government. While the stark devaluation of the Turkish lira has adversely affected inflation and food prices for locals, it has led to a 63% increase to Turkey’s tourism industry in 2018. The figures have continued to spike in 2019, as Turkey is on target to host 40 million foreign tourists this year, raising its rank to the sixth most-visited nation in the world.

Despite signs of an economic recovery being hailed by the government, the burdens are being felt by locals who have experienced a 31% increase in food. In response to this dire political situation, the government has condemned ‘food terrorists’, suggesting that the rise in grocery prices are an attack launched against Turkey. The government has pledged to exercise market control and sell cheaper fruits and vegetables to consumers in major cities to curb rising living costs. While the move is seen as politically strategic ahead of the March elections, economist Timothy Ash highlights the associated electoral risk of undercutting small providers, especially given that the AKP party’s backbone are small business operators. Locals have been queuing for hours at markets, a situation the opposition have used to criticise the government’s economic program as ineffective and warn voters that prices will continue to rise despite the government’s efforts.

The countdown to the March elections has begun, with candidates campaigning in Turkey’s major cities. The opposition parties are holding regular rallies and campaigning rigorously to defeat the government in key municipal districts. The ruling AKP Party understands that it must maintain a majority of support on polling day, as it was a sweeping victory at local elections that enabled its rise a decade ago. This was demonstrated when Erdogan was elected Mayor of Istanbul in 1994 to 1998, a position that was influential in his rise to power. The significance of this election is underestimated by neither the opposition and nor the government. There are many factors that will influence voters on March 31, with the economy being the most pivotal factor, as the significance of these local elections will reflect the broader attitudes of Turks in a referendum on the leadership of President Erdogan.

Ibrahim Taha is a freelance contributor to several publications with a keen interest in politics and international affairs. He is currently studying a Bachelor of Law and Arts at the University of Sydney.