Stakes for the opposition in Istanbul and Ankara mayoral elections
Many say Turkey’s local elections in March will not change anything because power is so concentrated in the hands of the president. However, the Turkish opposition is working hard to mobilise voters and is making bold statements such as “this election will become a turning point,” particularly if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) loses control of the capital, Ankara, or the financial hub of Istanbul.
This brings two important questions:
Can the AKP risk losing Istanbul or Ankara?
One of the most important explanations of the AKP’s electoral success is its clientelist behaviour, namely its provision of material benefits to voters in return for political support. Local administrative units, particularly large municipalities such as Ankara and Istanbul, are critical components of these clientelist networks.
While the AKP directly uses municipal resources such as aid packages, employment opportunities and community engagement programmes to reach its constituency, it indirectly uses pro-government companies, which are granted municipal contracts. Those companies hire party loyalists and support local party activities. This patron-client relationship shapes the voting behaviour of a significant portion of voters in Turkey.
The increasing financial difficulties Turkey is experiencing force the government to take measures to protect the structure of this relationship. Parliament has been discussing a bill on the financing of the municipalities. If enacted, Erdogan will allocate as much as he wants of extra funds to whichever municipalities he prefers. The opposition appears unable to stop the bill from becoming law.
Erdogan apparently wants to secure the flow of cash from central government to the municipalities and then to the contractors and individual party supporters. This is also a signal from Erdogan to the voters: A pro-government mayor will have disproportionately greater financial opportunities. Therefore, a significant portion of non-partisan voters will vote for the AKP or its far-right allies simply because of their connection with the central government.
If the AKP loses any of the large metropolitan municipalities, the opposition may gain access to records in the municipal archives that may be used as evidence of corruption against the government. Erdogan definitely does not want such an outcome.
In these circumstances, it is not realistic to assume the AKP would risk losing either of these two metropolitan municipalities.
If the opposition creates a strong popular wave and has a real chance of winning, then, the following question becomes important.
Does the opposition have any strategy to prevent electoral fraud?
We have not seen anything, yet.
People remember the ballot-stuffing videos from the June 2018 election. After the election, opposition party supporters overwhelmingly lost confidence in their parties because they were ineffective in fighting electoral fraud allegations, despite their bold campaign promises.
It was a discouraging moment when the main opposition candidate announced that Erdogan was re-elected while thousands of his supporters were still in polling stations trying to secure a fair count. Several reports and academic articles, including my own analysis, were published suggesting substantial levels of electoral irregularities.
Ironically, the mayoral election race in Ankara in 2014, in which opposition's candidate Mansur Yavas lost, was one of the first incidences of heightened electoral fraud allegations during the AKP era. Research showed that in those ballot boxes where the turnout was more than 100% of the electorate, the AKP overwhelmingly won. My analysis on the 2018 elections also showed that ballot boxes with more than 100% turnout were overwhelmingly in the east and south-east, the region in which votes for the AKP and its far-right allies rose most sharply, despite losing votes in the rest of the country.
Other remarkable videos from the June 2018 elections showed armed celebrations while counting was still taking place.
In Turkey, it is common to see people celebrate football game victories or weddings by shooting into the air but it is not common to see the same on an election night.
How come this type of celebration happened in several different locations that night? Who organised them? And why? Or did they happen in different locations simply by chance? Was there some threatening purpose? What will opposition parties do if people start firing guns nearby while their candidates object to election results?
Without creating an innovative, convincing, yet peaceful, strategy to deal with electoral fraud attempts or threatening tactics, the opposition will not be able to offer a reliable political solution.
One final note: Even if the AKP loses Ankara or Istanbul, it has judicial power to overthrow or even jail the elected mayors. The AKP has ousted elected mayors from the pro-Kurdish and main opposition parties and its own mayors from Istanbul and Ankara.