Turkey’s Local Elections Forces Reconsideration of Domestic and Foreign Policies

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 62

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan casts a vote in the recent elections (Photo: DPA)

The mixed results of the Turkish local elections on March 29 raised questions over the future direction of the governing Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) policies (EDM, March 31). The government is unlikely to call a snap election, but the relative decline in the AKP’s share of the vote will have significant implications for Turkey’s political landscape, compelling more recognition of public opinion and limiting the scope for assertive domestic and foreign policies.

Turkey’s local elections directly affect national politics, and have been traditionally considered as a de facto vote of confidence for the incumbent government. Moreover, prior to the March 29 elections, the AKP pursued an aggressive campaign, which effectively turned the local elections into a national referendum on its policies (EDM, December 3). Now, having fallen below the thresholds it set for itself, the AKP is seeking to redefine its priorities in Turkish politics.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan convened meetings with his cabinet ministers and party members to assess the causes of the decline, while considering a cabinet reshuffle and other changes within the party (Star, March 31). Beyond these short term changes, the elections are likely to have an enduring resonance on the AKP’s domestic and foreign policies. Though it remains to be seen what path it will choose, there appears to be two alternatives: either the AKP will follow a reformist line and initiate major change, or it will prefer prudence and avoid proactive policies.

The AKP’s core supporters, conservative center-right voters and liberals, expect the government to abandon its complacency, and resume domestic reforms. The EU and western observers also share similar views. They believe that the AKP owes its past electoral success to the pro-democratization agenda, which it adopted at the outset. For them, the AKP’s recovery depends on its ability to revive its former reformist image. If the AKP chooses this alternative, it will have to refocus on constitutional changes, and intensify the EU membership process in order to satisfy the reformists’ demands (Sabah, March 30).

Reformists also want the AKP to pursue a more proactive foreign policy. Many observers had argued that following the local elections, the government would press ahead with ambitious foreign policy initiatives, including normalizing its relations with Armenia. EU officials have suggested Turkey might take further steps in this process, such as opening the border with Armenia following President Barack Obama’s visit to Turkey on April 6-7 (Hurriyet, March 30).

It is unclear whether the AKP can fufil these expectations. The AKP was founded as a party representing diverse interests, and, since its establishment, Erdogan’s charismatic leadership has united the various factions within the party. The sense of over-confidence imbued by successive election victories and the presence of a strong leader, led the AKP to develop a top-down approach to politics. The party’s largely unchallenged dominance enabled it to conduct domestic and foreign policies in an unrestricted manner.

The new voting patterns, however, are a stark reminder to the AKP that the Turkish electorate is sensitive to the implications of the government’s policies, and may withdraw their support when necessary. The pre-occupation with re-election in the next national elections, slated for 2011, will be the AKP’s main concern. Equally, it will tread a fine line between satisfying the demands of its core constituencies and responding to the challenges posed by the opposition. Since the AKP cannot take its popular support for granted, it might be more circumspect in its domestic and foreign policies. These pressures, in turn, might curb the AKP’s activism, and force it to adopt more conformist policies.

The government will need to form broad based coalitions with opposition parties in order to implement its domestic reforms. However, having gained ground on the AKP, major opposition parties such as the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), have little incentive to cooperate with the government. Moreover, Erdogan’s antagonistic attitude during the election campaign will complicate building coalitions with his rivals, who have already announced their opposition to his position on constitutional amendments (EDM, March 4). Against this background, relations between the government and the opposition are likely to remain tense, and it is questionable whether the AKP can deliver radical democratization reforms (Radikal, March 30).

The AKP’s leftist, nationalist, secularist and Islamist opponents are united in their objection to its foreign policy. They view the AKP’s policies as a "betrayal of Turkey’s national interests," and they are critical of the AKP’s policy of rapprochement with Armenia. Previously, the AKP largely ignored any negative public reaction and the opposition, in its efforts to normalize relations with Yerevan. However, now that the AKP is more vulnerable to public scrutiny, faced with pressure from a stronger opposition, it may adopt a cautious approach and avoid foreign policy risks. Therefore, although normalizing relations with Armenia will continue, it may be premature to expect radical steps, such as opening the border or establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia (ANKA, March 30).