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Turkey after 2024 municipal elections: enthralled by political paradox

30 June 2024
Amur GadzhiyevAmur Gadzhiyev

Amur Gadzhiyev

Candidate of historical sciences, CISS expert

In anticipation of domestic policy transformation

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey, at the very height of the local election campaign (shortly before of 31 March 2024) suddenly stated he was no longer planning to run for the Presidential office or participate in any campaigning.

«My duties keep me busy non-stop; we are running and do not have time to recover breath. For me these [municipal] elections are the final play, they will be my last ones according to the power given to me by law, but the outcome of these elections will be something I will entrust and hand-over to my brothers who come later», R.T. Erdogan stated in his speech in front of the young people on 8 March in Istanbul.

Such an unexpected twist in the political career of the all-time front runner of the Turkish campaigns of the two recent decades forced the analyst to pay special attention to the current geopolitical situation in the country, to assess the existing distribution of political forces, and to weigh the potential of the most probable candidates at the presidential elections of 2028.

The municipal elections of 31 March significantly adjusted the direction of political history of the Republic of Turkey. R.T. Erdogan called their outcome a «turning point», and the Chairman of the main opposition Republican Peoples Party Ogzur Ozel called them a «milestone». Indeed, for the first time during the entire period of its existence the ruling Justice and Development Party (the AK Party) headed by the incumbent President suffered the defeat across the country, and the Republican Peoples Party became the leader for the first time since 1989. This situation caused stormy debate in the Turkish society, on one hand about the causes of such change in the distribution of political forces, on the other about possible forthcoming transformation of the country.

The following factors are most often named as the main causes of such change on the domestic political balance and certain decline of the popularity of the AK Party: the persisting economic problems and the continuing growth of the inflation rates; the pension system reform; the response of the voters to the authorities policy with respect to the situation in the Gaza Strip; the growing popularity of the New Welfare Party (the RP) as an alternative to the AK Party; organization problems inside the AK Party; nomination of unpopular candidates by the AK Party and erroneous campaigns; transformation of the policy of the Republican Peoples Party after the retirement of its Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu (headed the party from 22 May 2010 until 8 November 2023); the activities of the key political forces with respect to building different coalitions, etc.

Current distribution of political forces

Clearly, all the above-listed problems to that or another degree impacted the municipal elections outcome, which in turn pre-defined the future events in the political life of Turkey. At the same time, we need to remember that R.T. Erdogan is still the head of the state, and the AK Party is the most numerous and influential political group in the parliament. The table below reflects the distribution of political forces in the Turkish Majlis.

Forming political alliances

Is the current atmosphere of expectations the precursor of radical transformations in Turkey? Will there be extraordinary elections? To which extent the implications of the current political revival impact the distribution of political forces?

To answer these questions, let us turn to the history of political alliances in Turkey. It is especially relevant, because many Turkish analysts link the current situation in the country to the attitude of the key political forces to coalition-based interaction with various formal and informal groups. Over the recent several years, tactical alliance turned into an inalienable peculiarity of the election campaigns in Turkey. Even the inveterate opponents started forming political blocks (which used to be believed inconceivable) to achieve their political goals and objectives. The emerging coalitions were both inside one party (mainly in the pro-Kurdish  Peoples Equality and Democracy Party) and between different parties the Peoples Alliance, the National Bloc, the Labor and Freedom Alliance, the Felicity and Future Alliance, etc.

The inter-party coalitions are not something new in the Turkish political culture. At the same time, we should be paying attention to the motivation of the different participants of the current political configurations. For example, the ruling AK Party was afraid of defeat and agreed to unite with the Nationalist Movement Party, hence, it is advocating for maintaining the Peoples Alliance. At the same time, the main opposition Republican Peoples Party refused to form any coalitions and dismissed the National Bloc being based on the previous years practices, the candidates popularity and ideological incompatibility with its partners.

Coalition policy of political parties

One of the main reasons for dismissing the opposition bloc was the fact, that its participants were united based on tactical objectives and not on the long-term goals. For example, it is absolutely obvious that the Felicity Party (previously was part of the National Bloc) is much closer in its ideology to the ruling AK Party, than to the Republican Peoples Party or to the Good Party. The story of forming the AK Party also proves that, because the initial group, which proclaimed the «renewed course» for developing the country on the basis of conservative values, traditional Islam and European integration, actually split from the Felicity Party. Necmettin Erbakan, one of the founders and the spiritual leader of the Felicity Party claimed that Turkey was not part of the Christian world, but the Islamic world, and that the «Islamic Common Market» was what Turkey needed instead of the European integration, because Turkey would have a special position in such market. Hence, the attitude towards the European integration was one of the main causes of conflict between the AK Party and the Felicity Party. As for the Republican Peoples Party and the Good Party, on the contrary, they are advocating for the rapprochement with the EU.

Having split from the National Bloc, the Felicity Party, nevertheless, did not join the Peoples Alliance calling the leaders of the ruling AK Party separationists. It chose to form a new political coalition with the Future Party headed by rather well-known Ahmet Davutoglu, one of Erdogans most dedicated associates in the past. At the same time, we can observe the growth of popularity of the New Welfare Party founded and headed by Fatih Erbakan, the son of N. Erbakan, who used to be the tutor for R.T Erdogan and other founders of the ruling AK Party. Thus, we can see an attempt of the political Islam trying to unite within a single wing. The logical continuation of this trend would be the New Welfare Party joining the new Felicity and Future Alliance. That could create a powerful platform for uniting all the political forces based on the «national vision» ideology shaped in the end of 1960s on the basis of the Turkish interpretation of the fundamental ideas of political Islam. Naturally, this political platform would become a new center of attraction for all the supporters of the «national vision» including those making a significant element of the political nucleus of the ruling AK Party.

Obviously, one of the main tasks for the incumbent leaders of Turkey is  prevent such a scenario, or at least to delay it to the maximum extent and to slow down this trend, which started back in July 2016 after the break causing political and institutional transformation in the country. It was then, during the transition period, when Turkey undertook the re-formatting of the parliamentary republic into the presidential republic, that the ruling elites started seeing the political alliances as their main supports in transforming the key mechanisms of the machinery. The main political blocs of the country were formed under the guidance of the ruling AK Party, the main opposition Republican Peoples Party and the pro-Kurdish forces.

Paradoxical outcomes of interaction through coalitions

As for the AK Party, the most important outcome of bloc-shaping policy was the Partys role in consolidating the conservative forces around President Erdogan, which made the transformation of the national political system possible and successful by introducing the key elements and mechanisms of the presidential republic. However, the really critical moment was overcoming the possible negative effects of the split between R.T. Erdogan and the AK Party, which became evident for the voters after the Constitutional referendum in 2017 and general elections in 2018. Thanks to the bloc-shaping policy of R.T. Erdogan supported by Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, the voters, even dissatisfied with the ruling AK Party, continued to support the Peoples Alliance. In other words, R.T. Erdogan succeeded in keeping the voters which started to disengage from the AK Party and winning the presidential race. The outcomes of 2018 and 2023 elections were the most illustrative in this regards.

The main opposition Republican Peoples Party also followed the bloc-shaping policy, which had its specifics, however. Initially, the strategy of the Republican Peoples Party was focused on expansion of the opposition bloc, not of the Partys supporters. In the context of forming political alliances, the Republican Peoples Party headed for certain softening of the strict «rules» defining the ideology and the identity of the Partys supporters for decades. The leaders of the Republican Peoples Party started being more active in communicating with different stakeholders. However, they could not achieve the intended political success. One of the main reasons for that was the failure to develop common strategy and agenda due to the need to keep the balance between the participants of the opposition bloc. Mainly there were only two things uniting the participants of the National Bloc: 1) absolute anti-Erdogan policy in each and every aspect from the unspoken rules in the state machinery system to announcing the open doors for the refugees; 2) the intent of the reverse transformation to the parliamentary republic.

In the context of interaction within the coalition, the Republican Peoples Party preferred to focus on the criticism of the ruling elites and offered not radical change, but superficial adjustments targeted not at efficiency improvement, but at preventing the possibility for corrupt practices. The Party was basing its campaigns on continuous blaming of the acting government. There was an impression that the supporters of the Republican Peoples Party were busy only with revealing the unpopular actions by the government and publicizing them counting that the uncommitted voters will vote for the opposition candidates not because they really support them, but because they are against the ruling bloc   thus trying to «mount» the protest voting.

Probably, the over-indulgence with the protest voters became one of the main mistakes of the leaders of the Republican Peoples Party in the course of campaigns of the previous years. For example, when the nationalists started gathering momentum, the supporters of the Republican Peoples Party began to use the nationalistic arguments, which, in turn, caused the concern of the Kurds and of the socialists, which were also part of the opposition bloc. However, during the last municipal elections, the situation changed drastically the candidates nominated by the Republican Peoples Party performed as the candidates representing the Republican Peoples Party only with their own ideology and agenda without any connection to the political bloc with such mixed members.

Thus, the 2024 municipal elections actually became another split in the political history of Turkey, which, on one hand, demonstrated the lack of prospects for uniting the political forces to assure a broad coalition against the third party in the context of absence of common ideological basis, on the other hand set the vector for new cooperation between the political forces, which may soon get united under new common command. Time will show, to which extent the current model of the Turkish political system will turn out stable, and how long will this period of political transformation last.

Detente in the context of the growing political activity: on the way to new Constitution

One way or the other, despite the growing activity of the opposition forces in Turkey, the period of dtente can be observed between the key political adversaries. The meetings and discussions between the leaders of the AK Party and the Republican Peoples Party over the recent three months contributed to such paradoxical situation in the political landscape of the country. The political dtente gave a new impetus to the discussion about the possibility of adopting the new Constitution. From all appearances, this issue will stay in the focus of Turkish domestic policy for a long time.

It is clear that there are serious challenges for development of the new Constitution. First of all, we need to remember that the parliament formed as a result of the elections on 14 May 2023, is the most «disorganized» for the last twenty years. Fourteen political parties have obtained seats in it. Neither the ruling party, nor the opposition have sufficient seats in the Majlis to initiate the new Constitution.

On the other hand, significant differences persist between the main political forces of Turkey with respect to the key ideas for the new Constitution. Thus, the Peoples Alliance proposed to include the provisions about preserving the presidential system adopted at the 2017 referendum. On the contrary, the opposition is advocating for radical change of the existing system of governance and for the return of the parliamentary republic. However, despite all these difficulties, no one should forget that the political life in Turkey is quite dynamic and may change within some short time. The potential for the rapid changes was on full display in the process of the rapprochement of the political parties after the recent municipal elections.

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Caspian Institute for Strategic Studies
Publications

Turkey after 2024 municipal elections: enthralled by political paradox

30 2024
Amur Gadzhiyev

Amur Gadzhiyev

Candidate of historical sciences, CISS expert

In anticipation of domestic policy transformation

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey, at the very height of the local election campaign (shortly before of 31 March 2024) suddenly stated he was no longer planning to run for the Presidential office or participate in any campaigning.

«My duties keep me busy non-stop; we are running and do not have time to recover breath. For me these [municipal] elections are the final play, they will be my last ones according to the power given to me by law, but the outcome of these elections will be something I will entrust and hand-over to my brothers who come later», R.T. Erdogan stated in his speech in front of the young people on 8 March in Istanbul.

Such an unexpected twist in the political career of the all-time front runner of the Turkish campaigns of the two recent decades forced the analyst to pay special attention to the current geopolitical situation in the country, to assess the existing distribution of political forces, and to weigh the potential of the most probable candidates at the presidential elections of 2028.

The municipal elections of 31 March significantly adjusted the direction of political history of the Republic of Turkey. R.T. Erdogan called their outcome a «turning point», and the Chairman of the main opposition Republican Peoples Party Ogzur Ozel called them a «milestone». Indeed, for the first time during the entire period of its existence the ruling Justice and Development Party (the AK Party) headed by the incumbent President suffered the defeat across the country, and the Republican Peoples Party became the leader for the first time since 1989. This situation caused stormy debate in the Turkish society, on one hand about the causes of such change in the distribution of political forces, on the other about possible forthcoming transformation of the country.

The following factors are most often named as the main causes of such change on the domestic political balance and certain decline of the popularity of the AK Party: the persisting economic problems and the continuing growth of the inflation rates; the pension system reform; the response of the voters to the authorities policy with respect to the situation in the Gaza Strip; the growing popularity of the New Welfare Party (the RP) as an alternative to the AK Party; organization problems inside the AK Party; nomination of unpopular candidates by the AK Party and erroneous campaigns; transformation of the policy of the Republican Peoples Party after the retirement of its Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu (headed the party from 22 May 2010 until 8 November 2023); the activities of the key political forces with respect to building different coalitions, etc.

Current distribution of political forces

Clearly, all the above-listed problems to that or another degree impacted the municipal elections outcome, which in turn pre-defined the future events in the political life of Turkey. At the same time, we need to remember that R.T. Erdogan is still the head of the state, and the AK Party is the most numerous and influential political group in the parliament. The table below reflects the distribution of political forces in the Turkish Majlis.

Forming political alliances

Is the current atmosphere of expectations the precursor of radical transformations in Turkey? Will there be extraordinary elections? To which extent the implications of the current political revival impact the distribution of political forces?

To answer these questions, let us turn to the history of political alliances in Turkey. It is especially relevant, because many Turkish analysts link the current situation in the country to the attitude of the key political forces to coalition-based interaction with various formal and informal groups. Over the recent several years, tactical alliance turned into an inalienable peculiarity of the election campaigns in Turkey. Even the inveterate opponents started forming political blocks (which used to be believed inconceivable) to achieve their political goals and objectives. The emerging coalitions were both inside one party (mainly in the pro-Kurdish  Peoples Equality and Democracy Party) and between different parties the Peoples Alliance, the National Bloc, the Labor and Freedom Alliance, the Felicity and Future Alliance, etc.

The inter-party coalitions are not something new in the Turkish political culture. At the same time, we should be paying attention to the motivation of the different participants of the current political configurations. For example, the ruling AK Party was afraid of defeat and agreed to unite with the Nationalist Movement Party, hence, it is advocating for maintaining the Peoples Alliance. At the same time, the main opposition Republican Peoples Party refused to form any coalitions and dismissed the National Bloc being based on the previous years practices, the candidates popularity and ideological incompatibility with its partners.

Coalition policy of political parties

One of the main reasons for dismissing the opposition bloc was the fact, that its participants were united based on tactical objectives and not on the long-term goals. For example, it is absolutely obvious that the Felicity Party (previously was part of the National Bloc) is much closer in its ideology to the ruling AK Party, than to the Republican Peoples Party or to the Good Party. The story of forming the AK Party also proves that, because the initial group, which proclaimed the «renewed course» for developing the country on the basis of conservative values, traditional Islam and European integration, actually split from the Felicity Party. Necmettin Erbakan, one of the founders and the spiritual leader of the Felicity Party claimed that Turkey was not part of the Christian world, but the Islamic world, and that the «Islamic Common Market» was what Turkey needed instead of the European integration, because Turkey would have a special position in such market. Hence, the attitude towards the European integration was one of the main causes of conflict between the AK Party and the Felicity Party. As for the Republican Peoples Party and the Good Party, on the contrary, they are advocating for the rapprochement with the EU.

Having split from the National Bloc, the Felicity Party, nevertheless, did not join the Peoples Alliance calling the leaders of the ruling AK Party separationists. It chose to form a new political coalition with the Future Party headed by rather well-known Ahmet Davutoglu, one of Erdogans most dedicated associates in the past. At the same time, we can observe the growth of popularity of the New Welfare Party founded and headed by Fatih Erbakan, the son of N. Erbakan, who used to be the tutor for R.T Erdogan and other founders of the ruling AK Party. Thus, we can see an attempt of the political Islam trying to unite within a single wing. The logical continuation of this trend would be the New Welfare Party joining the new Felicity and Future Alliance. That could create a powerful platform for uniting all the political forces based on the «national vision» ideology shaped in the end of 1960s on the basis of the Turkish interpretation of the fundamental ideas of political Islam. Naturally, this political platform would become a new center of attraction for all the supporters of the «national vision» including those making a significant element of the political nucleus of the ruling AK Party.

Obviously, one of the main tasks for the incumbent leaders of Turkey is  prevent such a scenario, or at least to delay it to the maximum extent and to slow down this trend, which started back in July 2016 after the break causing political and institutional transformation in the country. It was then, during the transition period, when Turkey undertook the re-formatting of the parliamentary republic into the presidential republic, that the ruling elites started seeing the political alliances as their main supports in transforming the key mechanisms of the machinery. The main political blocs of the country were formed under the guidance of the ruling AK Party, the main opposition Republican Peoples Party and the pro-Kurdish forces.

Paradoxical outcomes of interaction through coalitions

As for the AK Party, the most important outcome of bloc-shaping policy was the Partys role in consolidating the conservative forces around President Erdogan, which made the transformation of the national political system possible and successful by introducing the key elements and mechanisms of the presidential republic. However, the really critical moment was overcoming the possible negative effects of the split between R.T. Erdogan and the AK Party, which became evident for the voters after the Constitutional referendum in 2017 and general elections in 2018. Thanks to the bloc-shaping policy of R.T. Erdogan supported by Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, the voters, even dissatisfied with the ruling AK Party, continued to support the Peoples Alliance. In other words, R.T. Erdogan succeeded in keeping the voters which started to disengage from the AK Party and winning the presidential race. The outcomes of 2018 and 2023 elections were the most illustrative in this regards.

The main opposition Republican Peoples Party also followed the bloc-shaping policy, which had its specifics, however. Initially, the strategy of the Republican Peoples Party was focused on expansion of the opposition bloc, not of the Partys supporters. In the context of forming political alliances, the Republican Peoples Party headed for certain softening of the strict «rules» defining the ideology and the identity of the Partys supporters for decades. The leaders of the Republican Peoples Party started being more active in communicating with different stakeholders. However, they could not achieve the intended political success. One of the main reasons for that was the failure to develop common strategy and agenda due to the need to keep the balance between the participants of the opposition bloc. Mainly there were only two things uniting the participants of the National Bloc: 1) absolute anti-Erdogan policy in each and every aspect from the unspoken rules in the state machinery system to announcing the open doors for the refugees; 2) the intent of the reverse transformation to the parliamentary republic.

In the context of interaction within the coalition, the Republican Peoples Party preferred to focus on the criticism of the ruling elites and offered not radical change, but superficial adjustments targeted not at efficiency improvement, but at preventing the possibility for corrupt practices. The Party was basing its campaigns on continuous blaming of the acting government. There was an impression that the supporters of the Republican Peoples Party were busy only with revealing the unpopular actions by the government and publicizing them counting that the uncommitted voters will vote for the opposition candidates not because they really support them, but because they are against the ruling bloc   thus trying to «mount» the protest voting.

Probably, the over-indulgence with the protest voters became one of the main mistakes of the leaders of the Republican Peoples Party in the course of campaigns of the previous years. For example, when the nationalists started gathering momentum, the supporters of the Republican Peoples Party began to use the nationalistic arguments, which, in turn, caused the concern of the Kurds and of the socialists, which were also part of the opposition bloc. However, during the last municipal elections, the situation changed drastically the candidates nominated by the Republican Peoples Party performed as the candidates representing the Republican Peoples Party only with their own ideology and agenda without any connection to the political bloc with such mixed members.

Thus, the 2024 municipal elections actually became another split in the political history of Turkey, which, on one hand, demonstrated the lack of prospects for uniting the political forces to assure a broad coalition against the third party in the context of absence of common ideological basis, on the other hand set the vector for new cooperation between the political forces, which may soon get united under new common command. Time will show, to which extent the current model of the Turkish political system will turn out stable, and how long will this period of political transformation last.

Detente in the context of the growing political activity: on the way to new Constitution

One way or the other, despite the growing activity of the opposition forces in Turkey, the period of dtente can be observed between the key political adversaries. The meetings and discussions between the leaders of the AK Party and the Republican Peoples Party over the recent three months contributed to such paradoxical situation in the political landscape of the country. The political dtente gave a new impetus to the discussion about the possibility of adopting the new Constitution. From all appearances, this issue will stay in the focus of Turkish domestic policy for a long time.

It is clear that there are serious challenges for development of the new Constitution. First of all, we need to remember that the parliament formed as a result of the elections on 14 May 2023, is the most «disorganized» for the last twenty years. Fourteen political parties have obtained seats in it. Neither the ruling party, nor the opposition have sufficient seats in the Majlis to initiate the new Constitution.

On the other hand, significant differences persist between the main political forces of Turkey with respect to the key ideas for the new Constitution. Thus, the Peoples Alliance proposed to include the provisions about preserving the presidential system adopted at the 2017 referendum. On the contrary, the opposition is advocating for radical change of the existing system of governance and for the return of the parliamentary republic. However, despite all these difficulties, no one should forget that the political life in Turkey is quite dynamic and may change within some short time. The potential for the rapid changes was on full display in the process of the rapprochement of the political parties after the recent municipal elections.