The switch to a presidential system has breathed new life into Turkey's democracy.
The March 31st local elections in Turkey are arguably among the most closely electoral contests in the country's recent political history. On the campaign trail, both the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, which has been in charge for 17 years, and the opposition which came with extra tricks up their sleeves to score some noteworthy wins.
Ultimately, the AK Party has continued its prevalence over political life in Turkey. The provisional numbers speak for themselves as the AK Party-MHP alliance achieved an overall 51.7 per cent of the votes, whereas the CHP-IYI Party alliance managed to obtain 38 per cent of the total votes. Consequently, 56 per cent of municipalities in Turkey will be run by the AK Party,
Some of the biggest cities did not go the way of the AK Party as the CHP won the mayorship of Ankara for the first time in 25 years, Izmir predictably went the way of the CHP and according to the Supreme Electoral Council of Turkey the opposition CHP is in the lead in Istanbul at the time of writing. The race in Istanbul is one of the closest races in the city for decades.
Despite losing mayorships in these big cities the AK Party picked up a lot of district mayorships and Erdogan stated in his speech last night: "Even if the people have voted for an [opposition] mayor, the districts have been given to the AKP.”
While there will be many analyses about these elections’ results, there are - in my view - three key takeaways that can be captured from this electoral contest.
Firstly, this hotly contested election campaign reflects the spirit that infused the country’s leadership and lawmakers when they changed the political system. The switch from the parliamentarian system to the presidential system, which was spearheaded by the AK Party, has changed the political equation in favour of a more closely contested democracy.
As academic and political scientist Fuat Keyman observed, with the presidential system entering into effect, Turkey's electoral demographics witnessed substantial transformations.
“Turkey has incrementally moved from a situation whereby Turkish citizens would give 65 per cent of their votes to the centre-right, and the remaining 35 per cent to left-leaning parties. This political equation has changed with the new system where the centre-right would, at best, get 52 percent of the votes.
He added that “while this has created a polarisation, at the same time, it has made winning elections increasingly harder, forcing parties to develop political strategies and to form political alliances.”
Secondly, stemming from the first point, these elections are undeniably a victory for democracy. President Erdogan echoed this reality in his speech when he said that "Turkey has completed March 31 local elections with democratic maturity." In fact, two of the most critical measures of a functioning democracy are voter turnout and contestation.
Both factors skyrocketed in these elections, which is an undeniable win for the entire Turkish nation, as these are fundamental indicators for a healthy democracy. Low voter turnout has become a worldwide phenomenon in modern democracies with several major countries recently reaching their lowest voter turnout rates ever. Therefore, many governments will look with envy to Turkey’s 83 percent voter participation.
Thirdly, among the critical victories for the AK Party are the massive wins in Kurdish-dominated east and southeastern regions. The HDP, which has played the card of divisive ethnic identity politics all too often, has lost several of its former strongholds, including Bingol, Bitlis, Agri and Sirnak.
This win is first and foremost a tribute to the AK Party’s constructive approach, which has managed to make a very positive impact, in many ways, on the political sociology of the country, not just in terms of political behaviour and participation but also in respect of balanced dialogue, inclusiveness, and interdependency.
The AK Party has campaigned using constructive pledges and realistic manifestos. President Erdogan held an impressive 82 rallies and visited 57 provinces and 30 districts throughout the country. The presidential message to the voters in the east and southeast was one that pledged more efforts to attract investors and mend infrastructural deficiencies throughout the area.
By bringing those region up to speed, especially in the domains of transportation, education, and health, such an endeavour would elevate the status and attractiveness of the region and reinforce stability, security and prosperity.
In turn, this would establish those areas in the east and southeast as beacon of economic progress, and by the same token, shape an attractive model that will be the pride of Turkey trans-regionally.
In contrast, the HDP had nothing new to offer in these elections besides the usual divisive xenophobic and communitarian discourse in addition to its long-standing apologia for the PKK’s terror. Such a narrative has revealed its limitations and proved ineffective, as Kurdish voters expressed their exasperation with HDP’s counterproductive politics with a punishment vote via the ballot box.
The rejection of the HDP approach is a noteworthy milestone for Turkey’s social cohesiveness and the robustness of the nation’s societal system, especially in light of the looming and multiple external threats. The connotation of this vote was evident in the pesident’s speech, in which he said: “I would like to thank all my citizens, especially our Kurdish brothers, for showing sensitivity toward the issue of survival."
Electioneering is now over. Nonetheless, the campaign represented the perfect occasion for the decision-makers to implement a democracy of proximity, get closer to the voters, and hear their concerns. For the next four years, strong with the current support level, Turkey’s leadership will focus on the challenges lying ahead whether geopolitical, economic, or security-wise.
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