Both Turkish citizens, all of the candidates and international observers seem to be happy that at the end of a long-election marathon, local elections ended as the victory of democracy in Turkey on March 29, Sunday. Almost 48 million citizens voted in 180.000 polling stations to choose their local leaders in every level, from city mayor to village headman, from 60.000 candidates. Results of the elections have significant importance in regards to ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s power and general political culture in Turkey.
2009 local elections in Turkey became the first election that ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been the strongest party in the country since 2002 parliamentary elections, had got lesser votes than the previous election results. Although AKP won the elections by taking 38.97% of the votes, public support to party and its candidates started to decrease since 2007 general elections, where AKP had got 46.54% of the votes. At the same time, main opposition parties, Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) raised their votes to 23% and 16% respectively. It is observed that CHP re-dominated Thrace, Aegean and Mediterranean coastlines while Black Sea coastline is more scattered by AKP, CHP, DSP (Democratic Left party) and MHP votes. In central and eastern part of Turkey there is the dominance of AKP. However, in the Southeast of Turkey AKP lost many cities against pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP).
This situation could be considered as not a failure for a governing party, which has still the majority of the votes generally in the country. However, it is true that Sunday elections has shaken AKP’s gradually increased confidence in ruling the country as a dominant party. Before local elections, it had claimed by Prime Minister and the leader of AKP, Erdogan that their aim is to get at least 50% of the votes, which would strengthen AKP power clearly in all regions of the country and give enough courage to government to implement its upcoming policy changes without so much opposition. The results of Sunday elections warned ruling party that democracy is alive in the country and citizens are ready to show their discontent about recent policies of ruling AKP government. On the other hand, it also does not mean that main opposition parties, CHP and MHP, are the winners of this election that opposition’s call for early general election is not probable.
It is argued that there are clear reasons of vote losses of AKP. First of all, it is believed that the government, PM Erdogan and his ministers did not pay enough attention to the consequences of global economic crisis in Turkey. They delayed to understand the importance of the situation and take effective measures to deal with it. On the other hand, the increasing strict and intolerant behavior and tone of PM Erdogan, especially after 2007 general election’s AKP victory, towards any kind of opposition in the country including media, journalists, academicians, opposition parties and even to citizens, have impacts on the results of elections. Not just in economic policies, in many domestic policy changes and reforms, including the ones related with EU accession process, delays and even in some cases stops, have ended the exciting and dynamic period of AKP.
In addition to these, it is important to note that in these local elections Turkish citizens showed that they vote more for a mayoral candidate rather than his/her party. In some areas of the country, where AKP was the victorious party in 2007 general elections, this time candidates of other parties, such as Republican People’s Party (CHP), Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Democratic Society Party (DTP), won the elections. Moreover, it is also started to be understood that arrogant vote-buying system, including passing out subsidized coal and some foods, vegetables in urban centers, distribution of free refrigerators, televisions, washing machines in rural areas, all with impunity and which were so common and acceptable in Turkish political culture for decades, can not be acceptable and guarantee for victory anymore in all areas of the country. Additionally it is important that the victory of Democratic Society Party (DTP), almost in all of the cities of the very Southeast of Turkey by taking 5.41% of all votes in general, shows the acceptance of DTP as an ethnic party of the country, which makes impossible to see it out of recent Turkish politics. In the previous local elections of 2004, candidates of DTP had coalition with Social Democratic People’s Party (SHP) to guarantee their election and in 2007 general elections, all recent DTP parliamentarians were elected as independent candidates and then they became under DTP umbrella in the parliament.
Even though, this election can be considered as an important part of Turkey’s path to democratization, the significant role of existing centralist ruling tradition and lack of decentralization in governance still shape Turkish political culture and election system. Although, since mid-1970s and especially by the role of its EU accession process, since the end of 1990s, there have been many changes in regards to decentralization of local governance and decrease of the impact of central government on local governments and municipalities in Turkey, 2009 local elections proved once again the existing power of center on local administrations.
During the election campaign, several declarations of representatives of ruling AKP, including PM Erdogan without any hesitation, about the control and usage of resources of the state and how it could be easier to transfer these resources to the municipalities which would be under ruling party organization, were the proofs of the existing power of central government on local governments in decision-making and implementation processes, which is considered as a misfortune for democracy. There is no doubt that because of the significant effect of central ruling tradition, all campaigns of all parties for local elections turned into campaigns for general elections. People saw and listened party leaders instead of mayoral candidates on the streets and televisions. However, democracy begins from local and spreads to general and in this situation it can not be possible for democracies to accept the notion that “if you vote for the ruling party, you can get the service”. Therefore, it is clear that these elections also reminded Turkey that there is an urgent need to change its political culture from its centralized ruling tradition to more multi-level governance system. In that regards, the role of EU accession process can not be denied in Turkey.
One last point regarding to Turkish political culture, that 2009 local elections in Turkey reminded, is the existence of very low amount of female candidates for both general and local elections, and therefore not surprisingly, very low amount of female parliamentarians and mayors in Turkey. Even though the half of the population is female in the country, only 2 of 81 main cities – Aydin and Tunceli – of Turkey are going to have female mayors for next five years, who are from CHP and DTP.
Now, just after local elections and the emergence of its significant results in Turkey, there are questions of whether the ruling party, AKP and PM Erdogan are going to continue to keep the same intolerant tendency towards their opponents, the slow pace of reforms and democratization, which fade Turkey away in its EU accession process, and continue to lose power, or going to take some lessons from the decisions of citizens and be able to carry the responsibility of being Turkey’s dominant party by renewing itself until the next elections.