At the end of March Turkey will hold municipal elections. However, the ongoing campaign is not about our failed city planning, repairing broken sidewalks and potholed streets.
For the JDP this is an exercise to further consolidate its power. It is running its campaign on a nationalistic platform claiming that the election is about Turkey’s survival. The JDP has won every single election since 2002 and the prospect of losing the popular vote and/or the mayorships of major cities has now become its worst nightmare. President Erdoğan is crisscrossing the country from one end to the other leading his Party’s campaign. This is a novelty of our new “presidential system” approved in the April 2017 constitutional referendum with a very slim margin (51.41 % – 48.59%). In that referendum, the JDP lost in all major cities. The Party, as before, relies heavily on religious themes. Its rhetoric is at times threatening and almost always polarizing.
The main opposition, Republican People’s Party’s (RPP) leadership remains focused on the state of the economy, its dramatic downturn as illustrated by the long queues at government-run stalls where people can buy the indispensable vegetables of regular Turkish cuisine at subsidized rates. The RPP seems to have put its faith in the mantra “it’s the economy, stupid”. Party leaders are aware that another failure at the ballot box can re-ignite the debate about leadership change. Though it preaches democracy, RPP’s lack of democracy within the party is a problem as it undermines its credibility and the electorate’s confidence in its ability to restore democracy. Many are fed up with the current leadership and say that they have turned the party into an asset for the JDP.
There is no risk of internal opposition for the JDP leadership where allegiance to the top and party discipline remain supreme. While some in the Party higher-up reportedly admit that the country has been on the wrong track for some time, they do not come forward to avoid being labelled as traitors to the “cause”.
With the government using the all means of the state to win votes and the media playing its tune, this election campaign is clearly not a fair competition. Thus, its compliance with the internationally accepted norms and principles for democratic elections is questionable.
Those who are unhappy with the direction the country has taken call the upcoming election a referendum on JDP’s performance, the “last exit for democratic rule”. As a matter of fact this has become the opposition’s litany of all our elections in the past decade. Some years ago, RPP leader Mr Kılıçdaroğlu famously said, “willy-nilly, you’ll go and vote for us.”
The general mood in the country continues to be one of pessimism. Because a combination of
- democratic decline,
- economic downturn,
- a chain of costly foreign and security policy mistakes,
- extreme polarization, and
- a state of lawlessness
has pushed the country into a state of depression.
Yet this “more than municipal” election is not about an in-depth discussion of those challenges; how we must stand up to them as a nation, united and strong.
For some, it is about staying in power. For others, it is about keeping fingers crossed that the electorate would show the JDP a “yellow card” which might dent its invincibility and encourage the public to begin exploring new avenues for political representation, probably beyond what is on offer by the current main opposition.
Ali Tuygan, Ambassador (Ret’d) and former Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The article is also published on his blog.