TURKEY’S MARCH 2009 ELECTIONS: LOSS WITHOUT DEFEAT, GAIN WITHOUT VICTORY
By Eser Sekercioglu *
In the March 2009 Turkish local elections, the opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and Democratic Society Party (DTP) did better but not as well as they had hoped. The incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) was content to finish first but disappointed by reduced support. Government losses were concentrated in the developed west–hard-hit by the global economic crisis–and the east and southeast–where continuing violence breeds discontent.
This article has two main goals: The first is to provide a descriptive account of the March 2009 local elections in Turkey; the second is to discuss several themes that emerged during these elections that will likely influence Turkish domestic politics at large. The mayorship races and votes won in the provincial general council (Il Genel Meclisi) elections are the focus. Yet it is generally thought that general council elections are better approximations to general elections than mayorship races.
Despite the opposition’s efforts to give the local elections a character of a vote of confidence or a sort of referendum, local elections generally are not faithful indicators of what may happen in general elections. Local factors such as candidate popularity and and the services the candidate has delivered to local constituents influence local elections as well. Still, provincial general council elections give certain clues regarding future voting patterns as well as emerging electoral and regional voting patterns.
ELECTIONS THAT SATISFIED NO PARTY
The March 2009 local elections satisfied neither the opposition nor the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP, Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi), but for both, these elections were not a defeat either. Neither the Republican People’s Party (CHP, Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi) nor the Nationalist Action Party (MHP, Milliyetci Hareket Partisi) could claim victory with any conviction despite considerable gains both in voting shares and the number of mayorships won both at the provincial and district levels. Table 1 below summarizes the election results of the 2004 and 2009 elections as well as 2007 general elections.
Table 1: 2004-2009 Elections
2007 (General elections)
*Provincial General Council elections
** The DTP entered the elections in 2004 as part of a six party coalition. In 2007, general elections supported independent candidates in order to bypass the ten percent electoral threshold.
For the AKP, a pattern that is perhaps more disturbing than the overall decline is the party’s failure to succeed in any of the high profile races that the prime minister himself emphasized several times throughout the election campaign. AKP leadership emphasized winning municipalities in predominantly Kurdish eastern and southeastern Turkey–especially in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the region. Capturing the western commercial port of Izmir, a traditional stronghold of CHP, was also set as a goal. These two high profile greater city municipalities epitomize the competition between the AKP and the two sources of major opposition: Izmir represents the opposition from more developed, better educated segments of the society and Diyarbakir represents the Kurdish ethnic identity but also the lower socieconomic strata of the country. The AKP not only failed to win mayorships of either greater city, but its votes in both provinces declined in comparison to 2004 about three points in both provinces despite hard campaigning. In addition, AKP emphasized retaining Antalya, another coastal stronghold of the CHP, which the AKP won in 2004. Yet despite several visits by the prime minister during the elections campaign, the CHP won both the mayorship and came in first in the provincial general council elections. The AKP’s lack of success in achieving these three important goals indicates the party’s failure to further expand its support base. Since the 1990s, success in local elections and delivery of services to local districts have served as an effective means for parties of the National View (Milli Gorus) tradition to penetrate the electorate. Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself is a former Istanbul mayor. Winning in Izmir and Diyarbakir could have given the party a chance to persuade voters in those two different political camps to look more favorably towards the AKP. As will be discussed later, western provinces with higher levels of economic development and education, and eastern and southeastern regions where the ethnic Kurdish vote is concentrated had been the two segments AKP failed to penetrate effectively, despite the relative success in the east and southeast in 2007 general elections.
The three major opposition parties all increased their voting shares and the number of municipalities won. The most impressive improvement was that of the MHP, whose record shows a 53 percent increase in voting shares and an 87 percent increase in the number of mayorships won. More importantly, the MHP managed to increase its voting shares not only in Central Anatolia, the traditional support base of Turkey’s nationalist parties, but also in the more developed western provinces. Support for the CHP rose from 18.2 percent to 23.1 percent, which corresponds to a 23 percent increase. The CHP won five additional greater city and province municipalities than it had in 2004, and 45 more district mayorships in 2009. However, this improvement was likely not satisfactory from the viewpoint of CHP party leaders, who expected a sharper decline in support for the AKP and hoped to obtain more of the votes of those who abandoned the incumbent party.
The Democratic Society Party (DTP, Demokratik Toplum Partisi), which entered the 2004 elections as part of a six-party coalition, only modestly increased its voting shares from 5.2 to 5.6 percent, but the party won eight provinces as opposed to five in 2004 and 50 districts as opposed to 29 in 2004. In the 2007 general elections, the pro-Kurdish as well as all of the remaining minor parties faced the almost insurmountable 10 percent threshold required to send representatives to the national assembly. In 2007, the DTP nominated and supported candidates who ran as independents rather than under the party banner in order to bypass the 10 percent threshold, which was mainly intended to block pro-Kurdish parties. The strategy worked, and 20 representatives were sent to the national assembly, thus forming a party group in the assembly. With a total of 58 province and district municipalities controlled by the DTP, the party has a significant presence both at the national and local levels of political representation.
Initially the AKP was seen as the heir of Milli Gorus. Yet members of the party broke away from this tradition and thus from the long-standing leadership of Necmettin Erbakan. Nevertheless, following the ban imposed on the Virtue Party (FP, Fazilet Partisi) by the constitutional court, it appears that since the 2002 general elections, the AKP has attracted voters who had in the past voted in line with the Milli Gorus tradition. While the AKP broke away from the strictly religious rhetoric of Milli Gorus, experiencing staggering success at the polls, the FP was steadily losing electoral support. Yet that pattern may have been broken in the 2009 local elections. The FP went from 2.3 percent of the votes in 2007 to 5.2 in 2009. Still, despite this relative success it is difficult to make the claim that the AKP is finally losing the votes it inherited from Milli Gorus, which had consistently attracted about 15 percent of votes during the 1990s. Therefore, it is safe to argue that the AKP is not yet facing a serious challenge from the conservative Islamists.
Obviously results of local elections are not definitive indicators of voting trends; yet for the first time in the most recent four elections (the 2002 and 2007 general elections and the 2004 and 2009 local elections), the trend of increasing support for the AKP has been broken. Still, the AKP’s remains the most successful electoral story of post-1980 Turkish politics. Its success is on par with the previous center-right mass parties; the Democrat Party (Demokrat Parti) of Adnan Menderes in the 1950s, and the Justice Party (Adalet Partisi) of Suleyman Demirel in the 1970s. It remains to be seen whether this run of virtually unopposed electoral victories is finally coming to an end and the decrease in electoral support for the AKP in March 2009 local elections marks the beginning of a declining trend. Much depends on how the global economic crisis continues to unfold and the extent to which Turkey’s exposure will hurt voters’ prospects and pocketbooks. As following sections in this article will explore, though the full extent of the crisis was not reflected at the polling booths, the AKP lost more votes in the cities in which the economy depends on the export sector and is more integrated into the world market. If recovery from the crisis proves sluggish, the effects of the crisis may turn out to be more corrosive for the AKP in the 2011 general elections.
DECLINING SUPPORT FOR THE AKP: TOO LITTLE OR TOO MUCH?
It is hardly an insightful observation to note that the after almost eight years in government the AKP finally lost some of its electoral appeal. However, it is still worth examining what caused that decline as well as mitigating factors that limited the extent of the decline. The two groups of provinces where AKP lost the most support were the western provinces with relatively more developed economies and socioeconomic indicators, and the eastern and southeastern provinces where the Kurdish ethnic vote is predominant.
Between the Hammer and Anvil: Economic Crisis in the West, Identity Crisis in the East
Initially, it appears that decline in support for the AKP was widespread across provinces. The AKP’s voting shares declined in 52 of 81 provinces compared to the 2004 local elections and in a staggering 76 provinces compared to the 2007 general elections. However, in most provinces the decline was modest (less than two percentage points). Yet in 20 provinces this figure was more than six percentage points. Of these 20 provinces, 12 are provinces with economies that depend on various export markets and are relatively more susceptible to global crisis (Karabuk, Zonguldak, Bursa, Denizli, Eskisehir through manufacturing and mining, Balikesir, Adana Aydin, Duzce and Canakkale through agriculture and food processing, Antalya and Mugla through tourism). Of the remaining eight provinces, three (Agri, Hakkari, and Van) are eastern and southeastern provinces with a predominantly ethnic Kurdish vote.
While these figures are no definitive proof, they point to an obvious conclusion: the AKP’s losses in the 2009 local elections were concentrated in regions and segments of the society that had turned to the AKP in 2007 general elections. In 2007, the AKP’s gains in comparison to the 2002 elections were mainly due to its increased popularity in the east and west. Sustained growth for almost four years and increasing GDP per capita on the one hand, and a more moderate and promising approach to the so-called Kurdish problem on the other provided new recruits to the party’s electoral ranks in the east and the west.[i] Some of these new recruits seem to have deserted the party. Aggregate election results show that support for the AKP declined most in provinces where the party had broadened its support base most in 2007.
There is considerable evidence that retrospective economic evaluations affect Turkish voting behavior.[ii] Thus it is not surprising that the electoral fortunes of the governing AKP were affected by the deepening crisis. While the first signs of slowing growth and declining exports were apparent by early 2009 and were broadcast by all major outlets to the nation, Prime Minister Erdogan adamantly argued that Turkey would emerge unscathed and even stronger from the crisis. One of Erdogan’s popular phrases was that the crisis would pass by Turkey like a tangent to a circle. As the severity of the crisis gradually became apparent, Erdogan’s definition of what a tangent was also changed. His efforts of downplaying the effects of the crisis notwithstanding, the provinces with strong ties to the global economy were already aware of the far-reaching effects of the declining global demand. The election results seem to support the observation that in these provinces–where the economies were hit harder and earlier–the AKP’s support declined more sharply than in the rest of the country.
The other region where the AKP seems to have been less successful than in the rest of the country was the southeastern and eastern provinces. There, the story was not as straightforward as in the western provinces. In nine of the 17 provinces where the ethnic Kurdish vote is significant, the AKP managed to increase its votes. However, this was in part due to the fact that there were no viable alternatives to the identity politics pursued by the DTP. The CHP and the MHP, the two main opposition parties, are virtually non-existent as an electoral force in the region. During the post-1980 period, the ethnic Kurdish vote has been divided between parties (when they are able to run) that pursue pro-Kurdish positions and Islamist parties that emphasize religious communitarian ties rather than national solidarity.
The AKP took advantage of this pattern both in the 2002 general and in the 2004 local elections, but the breakthrough in east and southeast Turkey only came in 2007 elections. Much of this increased support was due to the prime minister’s moderate approach to the “Kurdish problem” and promises of positive developments. However, following the 2007 general elections and mainly due to intensified attacks from the insurgent PKK, the government shifted toward a more hawkish and nationalist position, initiating large scale military operations. This seemed to have disappointed the voters in the region. In January 2009, the government introduced the TRT 6, a state administered television channel broadcasting in Kurdish in order to win the support of the residents in the southeast and east Turkey. Despite these efforts, the AKP seems to have lost some of the appeal gained in the 2007 elections. A comparison of the 2007 and 2009 elections show that the AKP lost electoral support in 76 provinces. In ten provinces, the AKP’s loss between 2007 and 2009 was more than 18 percent. Of these ten provinces, six (Agri, Bingol, Bitlis Adiyaman, Malatya, and Erzurum) are located in the region. At first glance, it seems the AKP was not unsuccessful in the east and southeast, especially when comparing the 2004 and 2009 elections. However, despite the goals set by the prime minister and the party’s promising success in the 2007 elections, it is clear that the AKP failed to carry that momentum to 2009.
From these electoral dynamics emerge a regional pattern that has been being shaped in Turkey since the 1990s. Especially since 2002, Turkey has exhibited a clear regional polarization. The secular center-left vote was concentrated in the western provinces, especially in western Marmara and the Aegean regions. The CHP was either the largest party in these provinces or a close second. The ethnic Kurdish vote was concentrated in Southeast and East Anatolia. (See Table 2 below for the regional breakdown of votes). The strongest support for the conservative center-right and extreme right was observed in Central Anatolia and Black Sea, where the AKP won by a landslide. The MHP was a distant second, and the CHP followed by only a narrow margin.
Table 2: 2009 Provincial General Council Election Results Across Geographical Regions
Eastern Central Anatolia
Cushioning the Fall: Diverting Attention from the Economy
While the AKP lost three percent of votes in March 2009 in comparison to the 2004 local elections and fell eight percent from the pinnacle reached in 2007, this could hardly be considered catastrophic; the party still commands a comfortable lead over both of its major competitors. In addition to the expected wear and tear of almost eight years in government, the AKP had to deal with the electoral implications of a deepening economic crisis. In the past, Turkish voters have shown that they respond to economic crisis and “punish” those whom they hold responsible.[iii] In fact, it was the aftershock of a major economic crisis in 2001 that dismantled the incumbent parties in 2002 and allowed the AKP to assume government. By January 2009, the first serious signs of a deepening crisis had already been widely seen by the public. Why didn’t these problems cause a greater decline in the AKP’s support?
Two major scenarios could provide a tentative answer to this question. Either the economic crisis was not a priority for voters or they did not hold the AKP responsible for the crisis. Naturally, without detailed public opinion polls, it is impossible to give a definitive answer to this question. Yet the prime minister’s campaign showed that the AKP was partially able to divert attention away from the economic crisis and instead played to the Turkish voters’ religious and nationalist sensitivities.
The AKP campaign was almost exemplary. The party was most vulnerable due to the economic crisis. Thus the AKP reemphasized the factors that helped the party achieve its electoral success in the 2002 and 2007 elections.
First, following Israel’s military operations in the Gaza Strip, the government took a very negative approach against Israel. During the World Economic Forum at Davos, Erdogan followed his government’s anti-Israel attitude in a spirited debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres. Upon his return to Istanbul after the forum, several thousand supporters were waiting to greet him.
Having appealed to the conservative and Islamist sensitivities–a large portion of its electorate–the incumbent party then turned to bolster its image of being a party dedicated to further democratizing Turkey. This was evident in the government’s introduction of the Kurdish-language TRT 6 television station gestures to the Alevi leaders, and public support for the so-called “Ergenekon” case in which several former and current officers were arrested and charged with planning a coup. Moreover, a new EU negotiator was appointed to rekindle accession talks, which had helped the AKP win the general elections in 2002.
Again, it is impossible to measure the exact effectiveness of these campaign tactics, but the election results do show that the effects of the economic crisis were mainly detrimental to the AKP vote in provinces where voters did not need the media to tell them about the crisis but actually felt the effects in their daily lives.
Picking Up the Windfall
The AKP might have limited its losses somewhat but it still experienced a considerable decline in several provinces. Which party then was most successful in attracting those votes? Both the CHP and the MHP increased their voting shares. Yet the MHP seems to have been more successful in collecting the votes of the disillusioned voters than the CHP. There are two indicators to support this observation. First, the MHP experienced a greater increase in its voting share, both in absolute and relative terms. In absolute terms, the party experienced a 5.6 percent increase, going from 10.5 percent in 2004 to 16.1 percent in 2009. The CHP, on the other hand, only gained an additional 4.9 percent. In relative terms, the MHP increased its voting shares by about 53 percent while CHP only managed a 23 percent increase (from 18.2 to 23.1 percent). Second, and more importantly, the MHP’s gains were less concentrated and more widespread than the gains of the CHP.
The CHP increased its voting shares in 42 provinces, whereas the MHP experienced gains in 62 provinces. More significantly, in four of the five provinces where the CHP increased its voting shares by more than ten percent (Izmir, Kirklareli, Edirne, Tekirdag), the CHP either already had won more votes than the AKP in 2004 or followed AKP by less than three percent in voting shares, and in these four provinces the CHP had won over 20 percent of the votes (thus more than its national average of 18.2 percent in 2004 as well). In other words, the bulk of the CHP’s gains came from provinces where the CHP was already strong. On the other hand, of the 13 provinces where the MHP increased its voting shares by more than ten percent, only in Osmaniye had it won more than 20 percent of the vote in 2004, and in seven of those provinces the MHP voting shares was below its national average. Moreover, in none of the five provinces where the AKP vote declined by more than 10 percent did the CHP manage to increase its voting shares by more than five percent. On the other hand, in three of these five provinces (Karabuk, Duzce, and Ankara), the MHP managed to increase its voting shares by more than 14 percent. If this analysis is extended to the 25 provinces where the AKP suffered the highest losses, in 19 provinces the MHP had a greater increase in voting shares than the CHP. In two provinces (Hakkari and Van) both the MHP and the CHP lost votes together with the AKP; however, in both provinces MHP losses were smaller. Still, more significantly, some of the MHP’s sharper increases were obtained in western provinces that are not traditionally strongholds of nationalist movements (e.g. a 13 percent increase in Balikesir, 14 percent in Denizli, 12 percent in Aydin, and 11 percent in Mugla). These gains cannot be explained by candidate selection since all the voting analyses are based on provincial general council elections.
Based on these observations, it would appear that the MHP has been more successful than the CHP in extending its constituency, whereas the CHP has mainly entrenched itself more in its already established strongholds. As a reference for future elections, this is good news for the MHP leaders who can now hope to build on their recent success and further expand their constituencies.
CONCLUSIONS AND SPECULATIONS
The March 2009 local elections were neither a defeat for the incumbent AKP nor a victory for the major contenders for power, namely the CHP and the MHP. Still, the AKP managed to emerge as the leading electoral force with more than 38 percent of the vote–about the same as its two closest rivals combined. Considering the wear and tear of more than seven years in government and the global economic crisis, the AKP actually did a good job in damage control. The party’s campaigning tactics seem to have worked and diverted attention from economic crisis. Nevertheless, in provinces where the effects of the economic crisis cannot be hidden behind propaganda and rhetoric, in provinces whose economies are most intimately and immediately connected to the global markets, the AKP’s losses were greater. As the economic crisis deepens and penetrates the daily lives of more voters in a wider geography, the AKP may have to withstand further declines in popularity and electoral support. The AKP, however, has its largest support base in two regions–Central Anatolia and the Black Sea area–where the economies are more self-sufficient and thus less affected by the international crisis. Depending on the full extent of the crisis, these provinces may be more immune to the economic crisis than the more developed and open economies of the Marmara and Aegean regions, thus allowing the AKP to survive the aftermath of the crisis. The key should prove the speed of recovery. The next general elections are scheduled for 2011 (and an early election is all but inconceivable at this time) and barring any drastic events either on the EU front or the “Kurdish problem” an economic upturn by 2011 could guarantee four additional years for the AKP government.
If on the other hand the crisis proves to be deeper, the nationalists are more likely to take votes away from the AKP. The March 2009 local elections showed that the MHP was more successful in picking up the votes lost by the AKP. The CHP, however, seems to have great difficulty in penetrating both religious, conservative Central Anatolia and the east and southeast where the ethnic Kurdish votes are concentrated. Again, assuming there are no drastic shifts in policy, the CHP should is unlikely to have any breakthrough in these regions. While Deniz Baykal, longstanding leader of the CHP, attempted to change the way the party was viewed by the religious voters by publicly recruiting women members wearing headscarves, the move seemed to have convinced few.
The relative decline of the AKP did not bring about a revival of the other existing but by now mostly irrelevant center-right parties that once occupied the center stage of Turkish politics. Neither the Motherland Party (Anavatan Partisi) nor the Democrat Party (Demokrat Party) managed to make any impression at the polls managing to win only one and slightly above five percent of the vote, respectively.
A disturbing observation is the inability of any party other than the AKP to rival the DTP in the Southeast and East Anatolia. The region is already marginalized from the rest of the country through socioeconomic cleavages, and the results of most recent two elections (2007 and 2009) signal a sustained electoral marginalization as well. Nevertheless, the relative success of the DTP could be viewed from a more optimistic standpoint as well. Following the 2007 general elections, 21 independent representatives, who the DTP supported during the campaign, formed the party group, thus giving the DTP representation in the general assembly. Now, in addition to national representation, through the mayorships the party has won, the DTP will be responsible for local government and service provisions in 8 provinces and 50 districts. Having legislative responsibilities at the national level and local service provision duties in a wide geographical area mean that the DTP will have to focus on issues other than identity politics. This could move both the party and its electorate toward the mainstream of Turkish politics.[iv]
In the more developed western provinces, the economic crisis has diverted votes to the CHP and the MHP, while in the east and southeast issues related to ethnic identity perceptions have driven voters away from the mainstream and toward the DTP. As such, the crisis and increased military tensions in the east could potentially exacerbate the problem of regional polarization that emerged as a party system characteristic in the 1990s. Only the AKP has managed to draw considerable support from all regions of the country. Both the CHP and the MHP have failed to gather any significant electoral support for the past few elections, local and general alike in the east and southeast. Both parties’ continued electoral insignificance in the region leaves the AKP and the DTP with no other serious challenges. In a deepening crisis, the AKP might resort to an increasingly marginalizing conservative rhetoric. If that happens there will be no mainstream options available for people in the regions where the ethnic Kurdish vote is forced to choose the lesser of two evils: an increasingly marginalized and radicalized DTP or an increasingly aggressive and conservative AKP. The MHP’s failure to attract any considerable support with a Turkish nationalist agenda is natural and expected. However, the CHP, a party with a self-professed social democratic agenda, should theoretically be successful in a region where socioeconomic cleavages, severe poverty, lack of effective social security, and high unemployment define at least part of the political landscape. Still, the CHP is not a textbook left-of-center social democratic party. The CHP has gradually adopted a relatively nationalistic stance with hardcore republican values, especially following the AKP’s success in 2002. Despite a self-professed left-wing stance on economic issues, the CHP remains to be the main instrument of the political center together with the bureaucratic elite.[v] As such, no matter what type of economic policymaking it proposes, some segments of the electorate who find themselves on the political periphery may never look to the CHP very favorably. With no party with considerable electoral support offering a promising economic policy, voters in the predominantly Kurdish regions of the country will be forced to choose between ethnic identity politics and religious conservatism.
Finally, as noted above, the AKP has administered a relatively successful campaign that likely helped limit the damages inflicted by the economic crisis. However, as the global economic crisis continues, clever campaigning may not be enough to win over the voters in the next elections. Only good macroeconomic performance and a speedy economic recovery will help the AKP retain its position in government in the 2011 general elections.
 For the post-election speech, see Radikal, March 30, 2009, http://www.radikal.com.tr/Radikal.aspx?aType=RadikalHaberDetay&ArticleID=928701&Date=30.03.2009&CategoryID=98. For the cabinet change, see Radikal, May 2, 2009, http://www.radikal.com.tr/Default.aspx?aType=BugunkuRadikal&Date=02.05.2009.
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[i] For a more detailed discussion of voting trends and electoral regionalization, see Eser Sekercioglu and Gizem Arikan, “Trends in Party System Indicators for the July 2007 Turkish Elections,” Turkish Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2 (2008), pp. 213-31.
[ii] For detailed discussions of how retrospective and prospective economic evaluations influence voting behavior in Turkey, see Ali Carkoglu, “Ideology or Economic Pragmatism: Profiling Turkish Voters in 2007,” Turkish Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2 (June 2008), pp. 317-44; Ersin Kalaycioglu, “Politics of Conservatism in Turkey,” Turkish Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2, (June 2008), pp. 233-52.
[iii] Ali Carkoglu, “Turkey’s November 2002 Elections: A New Begining?,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 6, No. 4 (December 2002), http://www.gloria-center.org/meria/2002/12/arkoglu.html.
[iv] For a similar view, see Ali Carkoglu, “Turkey’s Local Elections of 2009: Winners and Losers,” Insight Turkey, Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 17-18.
[v] For a detailed discussion, see Serif Mardin, “Center Periphery Relations: A Key to Turkish Politics,” Deadalus, Vol. 2, No. 1 (1973), pp. 169-90.