Turkey has entered into an election atmosphere ahead of its provincial elections on March 29. The strongest party in the election is the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The opposition party, secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) does not want to lose its stronghold in cities such as Izmir, Cankaya district of Ankara and some other coastal cities. The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) may win in some cities within central Anatolia, while the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Society Party (DTP) will compete with the AKP in the Kurdish region.
Unlike the previous election in July 2007 when the ideological polarization over the issues of neo-nationalism, anti Americanism and Islamism determined the political discourse of the election campaigns, this time accusations of corruption made against the AKP dominates the election discussion. Recently, the CHP’s candidate for Istanbul Mayor, Kemal Kilictaroglu accused Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s son Bilal Erdogan, of being one of the shareholders of Turkey’s largest jewelry company (ntvmsnbc.com, February 10). In 2008 Kilictaroglu gained infamy because he shared some documents with the media showing that two former Vice Chairmen of the AKP, Dengir Mehmet Firat and Saban Disli, and the Mayor of Ankara from the AKP, Melih Gokcek, were involved in corruption. After these accusations, due to public pressure Firat and Disli had to resign from their posts and Gokcek’s image was severely damaged.
Because Kilictaroglu earned his reputation for uncovering AKP’s corruption activities, the CHP hopes that Kilictaroglu will win in Istanbul. However, recent opinion polls show that it is almost impossible for CHP to win in Istanbul. For instance, the Sonar opinion survey showed that the AKP may receive 49.6 percent of votes while the CHP is expected to receive 36.7 percent in the upcoming election (Milliyet, February 9).
In addition to bringing to light the AKP’s alleged corruption, the CHP has also taken additional steps to convince the conservative majority that it is not a party that is against religion. To erode the established secularist image of the CHP, Deniz Baykal the Chairman of the CHP has accepted women who wear headscarves into the CHP’s membership (Sabah, November 23, 2008). This symbolic gesture sparked major controversy among traditional secularist CHP supporters, but the CHP leadership seems to be determined that in this election, at least, it will use the "religion card" for its benefit. CHP’s candidate for the Mayor of Kocaeli city has proposed his project that includes opening Koran courses in every neighborhood of Kocaeli (ntvmsnbc.com, February 3).
Against the CHP’s strategy of portraying the AKP as the party of corruption, the AKP has developed its election strategy to win in cities considered to be CHP’s strongholds, such as Izmir and Eskisehir and in the Kurdish cities of Diyarbakir and Batman, where the DTP is considered the dominant party. Erdogan has mentioned several times that the AKP’s next goal is to win in Diyarbakir, Eskisehir and Izmir (Vatan, February 10). Erdogan’s declared intention to win in Diyarbakir has even caused some friction between DTP and the AKP. Although it is very difficult for the AKP to win in Diyarbakir, where Kurdish nationalism is still dominant, recent opinion polls show the AKP gaining ground on the DTP. According to the ANDY-AR Social Research Center on January 31, the DTP’s share of the vote in Diyarbakir was projected as 42.5 percent, while the AKP’s share was 39.6 percent (Samanyoluhaber.com, January 31).
In order to secure victory in Kurdish cities the AKP has also developed a strategy to help poor people in those cities. It is one of the common AKP tactics to provide food, clothing, and even coal for distribution to poor people, to raise its electoral profile there. Recently however, Mustafa Yaman, the governor of Tunceli, another Kurdish city, started distributing refrigerators, ovens, and washing machines, to poor people in the middle of winter, where even the roads are closed due to severe weather conditions. It was reported that 3,300 households in Tunceli, where approximately 90,000 people reside, will receive at least one of these household appliances (ntvmsnbc.com, February 5).
The significance of the upcoming election is that it will show whether the AKP still retains strong public support after receiving 47 percent of the vote in the 2007 election. Given the presence of potentially dissatisfied voters in Turkey, including the military, secularist elite, and neo-nationalist circles, the AKP could lose public support allowing its opponents to question its legitimacy. Thus, the upcoming election will be a cornerstone for Turkish domestic politics to determine the future direction of the country. If the AKP once again wins decisively, it could subdue the opposition groups trying to question the AKP’s legitimacy. Otherwise, even if the AKP wins over 40 percent of the vote the hardcore AKP opposition will start questioning its legitimacy. At an international level, after the Gaza crisis the pro-Israel lobby in Washington is disappointed about the AKP’s policies towards Israel and may prefer the AKP to lose the election. Therefore, it is crucial for the AKP to win the upcoming election to maintain its undisputed power in Turkish politics. In case the AKP loses, even by a small margin, the election will be a milestone that changes the future of Turkey; a future without the AKP.