After the local elections in Turkey on March 30th there are undoubtedly millions of voters who would agree with the late American journalist and essayist H.L. Mencken about the value of democracy.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won another large victory in the municipal despite allegations of massive government corruption and the increasingly intolerant, authoritarian behaviour of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. Opposition political leaders must be scratching their heads wondering what it takes to shake the faith of the mass of voters about the value of the AKP.
Mencken would probably tell them they had a very difficult task indeed.
Democracy, he once wrote, “is the theory that the common people know what they want – and they deserve to get it good and hard.”
Still others would share his cynicism that “democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” Or perhaps they would agree with him that “Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”
Certainly there are many in Turkey who are ashamed of the government they must live under. Unfortunately for them they don’t seem to agree what to do about it. In the old days it was easy. Simply dial up the army and let them deal with it. Now, the opposition has to do the hard work of grass roots politics. And that takes time, money and commitment to deliver services rather than merely bleat about the evils of the existing government. Twitter and YouTube alone are not going to deliver the hard-to-earn votes.
You may not like the AKP, but you have to admit they are very, very good at grass roots political organising. The opposition needs to take a page out of their book to make a dent on the mass of voters.
As Sedat Ergin notes in the Turkish daily HurriyetDaily News, however, Erdoğan may find it more difficult to translate victory in the local elections into victory in the presidential race due to be run in August this year. The president used to be selected by the parliament, but now for the first time the Republic’s history the president will be chosen by popular vote. The victor has to get 50% + 1 vote in a two-round battle.
Some numbers show the difficulty of his decision about running for president, a position he has long coveted. Despite his impressive win last month the fact remains that Erdoğan’s party received 19,455,000 votes, almost 2,000,000 votes less than it did in 2011.
There were 44,725,000 total valid votes cast in the 30 March elections. Assuming the same number of valid votes in August the winner of the presidency will have to receive 22,362,501 votes. In other words, Erdoğan has to pick up another 3,000,000 votes – not a slam dunk. The obvious place to turn is the Kurdish party that just happened to receive almost the magic number of 3,000,000 votes. But the Kurds are far from stupid and will definitely want some tangible reward for giving him their votes.
Therein lies the problem. How much can he give without alienating his core nationalist/conservative base? This problem is particularly acute because the right-wing Nationalist People’s Party recorded 7,875,000 votes last month, up 17.6% from 2011. Too many concessions to the Kurds could see these numbers climb even higher.
He may also face a different political landscape. The anti-AKP vote has always been splintered among several different parties. There is a lot of talk now about the two major opposition parties uniting behind a common candidate in a rare concession to common sense.
In the first few days after the municipal elections Erdoğan showed absolutely no sign of reaching out to the 57% of the electorate that did not vote for him. Indeed his first public remarks were to scold the Constitutional Court for overturning the ban on Twitter and order the theoretically-independent Central Bank to reduce interest. His actions over the next couple of months could even alienate that block further.
Another factor in his calculation is that he has been unable to change the nature of the presidency from its largely ceremonial role. The president has some authority, but real day-to-day power and patronage lie with the prime minister. Will Erdoğan give up that power base for the symbolism of the presidency? Or would he rather remain in his more-or-less guaranteed role as prime minister?
And then there is the economy. For the moment Turkish assets are booming in a post-election glow. But growth forecasts keep getting cut, and now are under 4% for 2014. Unemployment cannot be reduced with these sliding GDP growth numbers. Meanwhile inflation is creeping up, and the important middle classes could soon start to feel a squeeze. How will Erdoğan react? If he forces the Central Bank to reduce rates to spur growth he risks a sharply devalued currency and reduction of the required foreign fund flows. If he lets rates remain high the key construction sector – filled with his cronies – could be hurt.
Given these difficulties no one would be surprised if Erdoğan makes a deal with Abdullah Gül, the current president, to allow Gül to run for another term while he remains at his power base as prime minister. In either scenario Turkey is, unfortunately, in for another several more months of political turmoil.