Towns and cities across Turkey are festooned with political party paraphernalia as the country’s main political parties go all out in the final days of the 29 March municipal elections campaign. To an outsider the intensity of party leader involvement, media coverage, and political debate about these elections can be surprising. These are after all local elections, yet political leaders and high level government officials, from the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan down, have been actively hitting the campaign trail for weeks.
Sunday’s election is a continuation of the struggle between traditional secularists and moderate Islamists that threatened Turkey’s political stability in summer 2007 when the Constitutional Court ruled that the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) attempt to elect its foreign minister, Abdullah Gül, as president was unconstitutional. The AKP then took the issue to the people with an early general election in July 2007. Voters renewed the AKP’s mandate with 46.7 per cent support. With this vote of confidence, Gül resumed his presidential candidacy and was elected to the post. A year later, on 5 June 2008, the Constitutional Court struck down an amendment on the headscarf promoted by the AKP and passed in March in the Parliament. On 30 July, ten of its eleven judges found the AKP guilty of being a “focal point of anti-secular activities” but did not go as far as banning the party as requested by the opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and the Chief Prosecutor.
Since summer 2008, Turkey has been hit by the global economic crisis and the murky investigation and trial of the so-called Ergenekon conspiracy to overthrow the government. Unemployment has risen to 13.6% and the Turkish lira has lost about 40% of its value compared with the US dollar. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects Turkey’s once booming economy to shrink 1.5 % in 2009 and assessments by its Central Bank predict inflation rate to be between 5-8% by the end of 2009. Tensions have also risen between the government and one of the country’s main media holdings, Dogan Group which has been criticized openly by the Prime Minister for its alleged anti-government stance and was given on 18 February 2009 a record financial penalty of $534 million for a delay in tax payments.
While the AKP is likely to win big and retain control of all or most of the municipalities it currently runs, all eyes are on three races whose outcomes according to polls remains uncertain: Ankara, Izmir and Diyarbakir. Izmir has traditionally been run by the CHP and Diyarbakir is a bedrock of the Democratic Society Party (DTP). But the most crucial race is undoubtedly in the country’s capital where three candidates have chances to win: Melih Gökçek-AKP, Mansur Yavas-Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Murat Karayalçin-CHP. The AKP candidate is the incumbent, the MHP candidate the successful mayor of an Ankara town, and the CHP candidate a previous Ankara mayor and Vice Prime Minister. For AKP it would be a significant blow if their firebrand candidate lost the race for the country’s governmental center.
Turkey has historically had free and fair elections in a region where clean polls are a rarity. This time the opposition is accusing the government of election gerrymandering, tampering with voter lists, and buying votes through the allocation of goods and services especially to the economically disenfranchised. The accusations are yet another demonstration of the highly polarized environment in the country.
From Brussels, where President Gül is visiting on 26-27 March and meeting with President of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso for the first time in this post, the hope is that the elections will take place without any incidents and that once the electoral test passed, the government will engage with more fervor in the constitutional reform effort. Gül’s decision to be in Brussels at the eve of this crucial vote demonstrates the importance that Turkey gives the Europe Union and its candidacy perspective. Turkey has made all the EU related reforms International Crisis Group recommended in its December 2008 report, except constitutional change. The EU and its member states carried out none of our suggestions so far. Once all the campaigning, voting and counting are over, hopefully Brussels will also look more eagerly to Turkey and together the candidacy effort can be revived.