April 2, 2009

Prime Minister Erdoğan (AP)

"To move forward, Erdoğan and Justice and Development need to get back to basics on the economy, particularly as the unemployment rate nears 15 percent, and political reform."

The results of Turkey’s local elections were a shock to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Although the party secured almost 39 percent of the vote—16 points better than its closest competitor—and 42 mayoralties, those numbers represent an eight percent decline in popular support and a loss of 15 mayoralties. For a politician of great skill such as Erdoğan, this miscalculation is compounded by the fact that he called the elections a referendum on his leadership and his party. Indeed, in the run-up to the polls Erdoğan indicated that if AKP secured anything less than 47 percent of the vote, the party would consider it a failure. As a result, despite Justice and Development’s still commanding leads at both the local and national levels, there is a sense that Erdoğan and his party are greatly weakened and have begun an inevitable, irreversible slide in popularity. To move forward, Erdoğan and Justice and Development need to get back to basics on the economy, particularly as the unemployment rate nears 15 percent, and political reform.

It is too early to pronounce AKP’s demise, but these elections show that the 47 percent of the vote that the party garnered in the July 2007 national election was an inaccurate reflection of its actual public support. Erdoğan and his associates seem to have overlooked the political context of the 2007 poll, which came after the Turkish General Staff’s effort to prevent then-Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul from becoming Turkey’s president. The public backlash against this inherently anti-democratic demonstration of the military’s power, which ultimately failed, added anywhere from 5 to 10 percent to AKP’s vote total. That the economy was boasting 6 to 7 percent GDP growth rates also helped.

If the sporadic reports of ballot irregularities prove to be false or minor, the election results are a healthy development for Turkey’s democratic transformation, and one that President Obama should acknowledge in his speech to the Turkish Grand National Assembly next Monday. Justice and Development parliamentarians in the chamber may not like to hear that their failure represents a success, but the president’s message would be clear. Washington takes the AKP-initiated political reforms of 2003-2004, which gained Turkey an invitation to begin EU membership negotiations, seriously. Backsliding on the party’s commitment to political change is neither in the interest of Turkey nor that of its strategic partners.

The question remains, what will Erdoğan and the party do next? The party’s strategy of playing to nationalists, Kurds and its religiously-oriented base clearly did not work. Parties representing each of these constituencies—the Nationalist Movement Party, Democratic Society Party and Felicity Party, respectively—all increased their vote totals at the expense of AKP. The popularity of the party between 2002 and 2007 was based on its ability to lead a diverse coalition of big business, religious conservatives, liberal democrats and average Turks who all wanted to live in a wealthier, more pluralist, more modern, and more democratic Turkey. The thoroughgoing changes AKP wrought to many of Turkey’s outmoded or anti-democratic economic and political institutions were promising, but over the last 18 months Erdoğan seemed to lose interest in reform in favor of a narrow, ad hoc, even punitive approach to governing, which critics contend represents the prime minister’s authoritarian tendencies. This accusation is overblown, but the Turkish voters who abandoned AKP—the middle class, liberals, Kurds and others—did not like what they have seen since the 2007 elections. Erdogan and the AKP clearly need to look back to their previous successes to chart the course forward.

Steven A. Cook is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey (Johns Hopkins University Press).

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