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What to expect in Turkey’s local election?

Forget the Erdoğan/Gülen melodrama for a moment: 2009 offers a far better crib sheet for Turks might vote in March

Forget the Erdoğan/Gülen melodrama for a moment: 2009 offers a far better crib sheet for Turks might vote in March

Voters have two months to decide

Seasoned observers of Turkey will know perfectly well what has been going on since 17 December. A simmering row between the country’s government and an influential cleric in self-imposed Pennsylvanian exile went public in spectacular fashion in the middle of last month.

There have been arrests, sackings and proposed law changes aplenty, and it has all hit the economy hard: the dollar has seen record highs and last week the central bank decided to radically raise interest rates, much to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s chagrin.

I’m going to spare readers of another thinkpiece on what this means for the prime minister’s authority and the economy, and instead offer some thoughts on the looming local election.

Anyone wanting to understand how Turkey might vote on 30 March should stop combing through the past six weeks for morsels of Erdoğan/Gülen melodrama and remember how things were in 2009, when Turkey last held a local election and the governing AK Party came out with the worst result in its history.

Worst AK Party result ever

I say “worst”, but Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party did still win. It held Istanbul against the strongest opposition challenge it had seen in years and easily retained large cities like Ankara and Bursa. But AK’s victory was just not as decisive as in elections before or since. There were three reasons for this.

The first is pure inevitability: the previous elections in 2004 had delivered an artificially high AK result. AK had been swept to power just 15 months previously by a weary electorate desperate to find someone to replace the political parties responsible for Turkey’s stagnant 1990s.

Mr Erdoğan, having become prime minister barely a year previously for legal reasons, was enjoying an extended honeymoon period and voters rewarded him warmly with councils like Antalya, on the Mediterranean coast, and Balıkesir in the northwest. AK was always going to struggle to retain such naturally secular-friendly places in 2009.

Arrogant candidate selection

The second reason for AK’s poor performance in 2009 was poor candidate selection. In several towns across Turkey, the party chose not to reselect mayors who had delivered victory in 2004, replacing them with candidates appointed from Ankara.

It reflected Mr Erdoğan’s complacent attitude: just two years previously he had confronted Turkey’s hawkish military, won a stronger mandate in the parliamentary election that followed, and installed his own candidate as president. It was natural, perhaps, for the party leadership in Ankara to arrogantly believe it could run whoever it wanted anywhere in the country and expect them to win.

But 2009 taught AK that localism doesn’t work by centralised diktat and that voters vote for different reasons in national and local elections. Deselected AK mayors, popular in their home towns, resigned and either joined rival parties or ran as independents. Many won – most prominently Aytaç Durak, the mayor of southern Adana who had switched to the Nationalist MHP, and the mayor of southeastern Şanlıurfa, Ahmet Eşref Fakıbaba, who defeated AK’s candidate as an independent.

But the third and most significant reason for AK’s 2009 result was the Turkish economy.

This was the era of the credit crunch and Turkey’s economy reacted by shrinking sharply, albeit briefly. Interest rates and unemployment shot up.  Voters in democracies around the world have punished their governments for economic hardship and this is what the Turkish electorate did; had there been a better organised opposition, the punishment may have been even harsher.

What’s different?

Much, you could argue, has changed since 2009. AK this year no longer has the dizzying heights of 2004 to defend, but a 2009 result it can improve upon. And it has become a little smarter at politicking too.

In late 2011 Mr Erdoğan merged AK with a smaller centre-right rival and poached prominent leaders from other parties in an attempt to broaden his party’s appeal. He also welcomed popular rebels like Mr Fakıbaba back into AK.

So what of the much-publicised Erdoğan/Gülen divorce – how will that affect the election?

The simple answer is that it is too early even now, with two months to go, to tell. But Turkey in 2014 is a place where inflation is on the increase and the current account deficit is growing, where there are very real fears about unemployment and to top it all the lira has plunged to record depths.

The economy is affecting the lives of ordinary people. It will be fascinating to see, after two months of heavy campaigning, how all this influences votes on 30 March.