Following his controversial remarks about Israel’s policies in Gaza made at the World Economic Forum (WEF) summit in Davos, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has refocused his attention on domestic politics. The municipal elections on March 29 are expected to be a major test of the policies of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). As the elections approach, the government is gearing its economic and foreign policies toward boosting the electoral performance of AKP candidates.
In November Erdogan challenged his opponents, saying that if his party came in second in the elections, he would step down from the AKP chairmanship (Zaman, November 25). An earlier EDM analysis maintained that the March elections would be dominated by national political issues and the AKP might exploit its position as the incumbent to improve the chances of its candidates against their rivals (EDM, December 3).
AKP representatives are capitalizing on Turkey’s new international profile to mobilize popular support. Deputy Speaker of Parliament Nevzat Pakdil told AKP party supporters that the coming elections were not just about voting for mayors or city council members but that the Turkish people would be asked to "approve Prime Minister Erdogan’s noble stance in Davos, which put Turkey on the map worldwide" (www.cnnturk.com, February 1).
Indeed, most Turks view Erdogan’s walking out of the Davos meeting in protest over Israeli policies as a staunch defense of Turkey’s image and the rights of Palestinians in international forums (EDM, January 30). Erdogan’s team was successful in couching his policy in terms of conducting an independent foreign policy, and the Davos incident prompted the Turkish public to "rally ’round the flag." Since the Turkish people historically have the impression of being treated as inferiors in international diplomacy, people from across the political spectrum expressed their support for Erdogan, welcoming him almost like a new national hero. Likewise, most party leaders affirmed Erdogan’s reaction, though expressing some reservations about his style.
While Erdogan’s popularity has been boosted at home following the Davos incident, some critics charge that the government’s policies in the Middle East in general and Erdogan’s attitude in Davos in particular might be driven by populist concerns to secure victory in the elections. They also raise concerns that such short-sighted policies might undermine the country’s long-term interests (BirGun, Cumhuriyet, January 31).
Analysts believe that that Davos incident will improve the AKP’s showing in the municipal elections. A survey conducted by the Metropoll polling company to measure the impact of the Davos incident revealed interesting results. As of January 31 Erdogan’s Davos position was supported by 78.3 percent of the respondents and Turkey’s Middle East policy by 82 percent. Compared with the results of Metropoll’s previous poll on January 24, the share of "those who approved the Prime Minister’s political style" increased from 55 to 74 percent. Moreover, when asked "what party would you vote for if there were an election this Sunday," 49.3 percent said that they would vote for the AKP, in contrast to only 38.9 percent on January 24 (www.aktifhaber.com, January 31).
The immediate impact of the Davos incident might have inflated the AKP’s support. Some analysts, including Tarhan Erdem of Konda polling company, believe that by the time of the elections the impact of Davos might have evaporated. Others, however, expect at least a 5 percent increase in the AKP’s vote in local elections. Observers point out in particular that through his Davos stance, Erdogan would probably undermine the performance of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the Felicity Party (SP). The AKP is likely to prevent its nationalist and conservative voters from switching to the MHP and the SP, respectively, while attracting supporters from these two parties’ (www.haber3.com, January 31).
After his abrupt return from Davos, Erdogan spent the weekend in Istanbul in a bid to throw his weight behind his party’s candidate for mayor of Istanbul, Kadir Topbas. He attended the opening ceremonies of several billion dollars worth of infrastructure investments in Istanbul, as well as AKP gatherings. He opened new lines extending Istanbul’s subway network and attended celebrations for the introduction of new ferries to Istanbul’s transportation fleet (Cihan Haber Ajansi, January 31; www.ntvmsnbc.com.tr, February 1).
Speaking to large crowds, Erdogan touted the government’s successes in foreign policy, economy management, and tough bargaining with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He accused the opposition, especially the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), of populism and empty talk. He presented his own party as the only one that could "talk the talk and walk the walk," noting improvements in the economic indicators.
Although Erdogan promised that the AKP would not resort to populism, several of its policies and their timing raise questions about how sincere he was on that score. Providing free coal to low-income families has been a constant source of accusations that the AKP uses state money to solicit votes. Erdogan has responded to such criticism by claiming that the government was fulfilling the "social state’" requirement laid down in the constitution (Cihan Haber Ajansi, February 1).
Erdogan also announced a price cut for natural gas by 17 percent for residences and 18 percent for industry effective on February 1 (www.cnnturk.com, February 1). In response to the falling energy prices on global markets, the government had been under pressure to reduce gas prices domestically. Although preparatory work on a formula to cut prices had been in progress for some time, the announcement of such a decision during the election campaign is significant.
In a similar move, the Agricultural Minister announced that between January and March, the ministry would pay farmers half of the 5.026 billion lire ($3.023 billion) allocated for agricultural subsidies (www.dunyagazetesi.com.tr, January 31).
It is perhaps unfair to charge the government with basing its economic and foreign policies on the short-term interest of winning the local elections; but undoubtedly the AKP skillfully capitalizes on its position as incumbent to the advantage of its own candidates, which raises the question: How level is the playing field for the opposition parties?