A warning from the ballot box: What now for Turkey?

A warning from the ballot box: What now for Turkey?
Comment: The results of the local elections show Turks believe the ballot box is the ultimate check and balance for their country, writes Resul Serdar Atas.
6 min read
04 Apr, 2019
84 percent of Turks came out to vote last Sunday [Getty]
Is Turkey really a graveyard for democracy?

Despite the never-ending accusations that Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is killing democracy in Turkey, or the assertions that "Erdoganism has set Turkish democracy on a path to self-destruction", Sunday's local election in Turkey has shown otherwise.

For all its flaws, Turkish democracy is still resilient and delivering well.

According to unofficial results, the ruling AK Party lost some of Turkey's major cities, including the capital Ankara. Whether this includes the loss of Istanbul remains to be seen, as votes are still being recounted. But the high level of participation - a turnout of 84 percent - proves very clearly that Turks believe the ballot box is the ultimate check and balance system for their country.

Since the first multi-party elections in 1912 in the Ottoman Empire, the transparency of the electoral system has remained intact. The handover of power through elections is the backbone of the country's political system, though military coups have also interrupted.

Since 1912, regardless of their ideological viewpoints, no political party or actor has dared resist the democratic transfer of power demanded by people honouring the ballot box. As a leader who has enjoyed popular support for more than two decades, and is still praised by many Turkish voters, Erdogan's era is no exception to this.

Despite the uproar of coverage labeling Erdogan a "fear-mongering and "incorrigible authoritarian leader", he initially embraced the election results, stating at the first post-election press conference that "some municipalities are won and some are lost. It is the outcome of our people's will, an essential part of democracy, which should be accepted".

To argue that the AK Party has lost its legitimacy is misguided

Recounts ordered by Turkey's High Election Board are still taking place, but AK Party spokesperson Omer Celik also reaffirmed Erdogan and his party's position, by saying "we will respect the results regardless of the outcome, as it is our people's choice".

Will this mean a tectonic shift in the country's political structure?

Even though Sunday's polls counted a major loss for the ruling AK Party, it remains the number one party in the country overall, securing 44.3 percent of votes, putting it almost 15 percent ahead of the main opposition party, CHP.

Moreover, the Erdogan-led People's Alliance got 51.6 percent of the votes while the opposition-led Nation's Alliance received 37.5 percent. In light of this, while the main opposition party CHP has won a remarkable success, to argue that the AK Party has lost its legitimacy is misguided. Such hasty assessments that Erdogan's star is waning are shortsighted.  

Read more: Turkish local elections: Votes to be recounted in Istanbul

The polls are neither to be regarded as a landslide victory for the CHP nor as the end of an era in Turkey. If Sunday's elections had been a presidential one, with the figures above Erdogan and his party would still have comfortably secured both the presidency and majority in the parliament.

Of course, the results of local elections are promising for the CHP and manifest a bold warning for AK Party. Calls for the AK Party to focus on structural reforms are urgent, and should be taken seriously. No elections are scheduled for the next 4.5 years in the country, and Turkish voters will be closely monitoring the parties' performance.

What does it mean for the country's foreign policy?

Turkey's foreign policy is a defensive one based on the risks surrounding the country, particularly what it regards as the threat from Syria. According to Ankara, the US' solid support to the PKK's Syrian offshoot, the YPG, is the number one national security threat.

Turkish foreign policy regards containing this threat at the gate as an utmost priority. The PKK has been designated a terror group by the US, EU, UN, and Turkey. Thus, Washington's partnership with an affiliated group in Syria is the principal reason for the deterioration of relations between the two capitals.

For Ankara, the US' recognition of its security concerns has been inadequate, while Washington shows a growing impatience with Turkey's deepening relations with Russia. The US decision to suspend Turkey's participation in the F-35 fighter programme was the most direct response to Ankara's planned acquisition of Russian air defense system, the S-400.

Despite Ankara's efforts to prevent fallout with Washington, and statements that Turkish relations with Russia are not an alternative to the relationship it maintains with the US and NATO, the American remain unconvinced. Once "strategic partners", Ankara and Washington are falling away from each other and if the US military support to the YPG in Syria continues, a further escalation in the already soured relations is to be expected.

Local elections, despite some major setbacks, did have some good news for the ruling party. The predominantly pro-Kurdish HDP suffered striking losses in cities such as Sirnak, Bitlis, Tunceli, and Agri, which were seen as its strongholds.

This vote of confidence in Erdogan's AK Party from Kurdish-majority eastern and south-eastern cities is significant, because it will enhance the government's hand in negotiations with the US regarding northern Syria, amid accusations that Ankara opposes not just the PKK, but all Kurds - something it vehemently denies.

Could the economy be the catalyst for a wider change in Turkey?

The economy is the best friend of Turkey's democracy, and any political party in the country can appeal to the nation if it can secure economic stability. Turkey has witnessed aggressive financial growth over the last one and half decades under Erdogan's leadership, first as prime minister, and then president. The rise of a comprehensive, profound, wide, dynamic and productive middle-class is regarded as the primary social revolution of Erdogan's era.

Economic stability has been the magic behind many election victories for Erdogan. For the first time in 17 years, the ruling party went to an election against the backdrop of a recession.

The impact of the currency crisis which has shaken households nationwide will continue to be felt. For this very reason, President Erdogan, throughout the entire election campaign, emphasised that following the elections, the government would rapidly implement the structural reforms to further strengthen the country's economy.

Any political party in the country can appeal to the nation if it can secure economic stability

Despite the recent downturn, the Turkish economy still shows relatively sustainable annual growth compared to other OECD countries. And while the polls carry a bitter warning for the AKP, for the majority of Turks, Erdogan remains the only political actor in the country who is able to guide the nation back to its former prosperity.

Erdogan has a mandate until 2023, and still won more than 51 percent of the votes on Sunday. But the competition is tougher than ever, and both the ruling party and the opposition will need to forge a way ahead if either is to secure a victory in 2023.

Resul Serdar Atas is currently the Director of News, Programmes and Visual of TRT Arabi. Prior to that, he was Director of Programmes and Managing Editor at TRT World, and a member of the Euronews Editorial Board between 2015 and 2017. He also worked for Al Jazeera for five years as planning producer, senior producer and head of the Middle East desk.

Follow him on Twitter: @ResulSerdarAtas

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.