AKP lacks ideas as election fight hots up

With weeks remaining to Turkey’s March 31 local elections, the ruling party is having trouble staying on message, or in some cases even delivering a credible message at all. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been painting the elections as a matter of survival for the Turkish nation, with warnings that the ruling party is facing an opposition alliance with links to terrorist groups. 

Yet one of the Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s main players in the elections, Istanbul mayoral candidate Binali Yıldırım, has contradicted his own president and party chairman, playing down the importance of the elections.

“They’re just local elections, not a matter of life and death,” he told civil society organisation representatives in Istanbul on March 4.

At least Erdoğan has the country’s supposedly autonomous institutions on his side. Turkey’s economy has been hit by high inflation and a weakened lira over the past year, and higher food prices have been a particularly striking problem, forcing the government to set up stalls selling discounted fruit and vegetables.

Erdoğan has blamed this on stockpilers intent on price gouging, and after the president expressed a desire for food prices to fall until the elections, Turkey’s Competition Authority stepped in to begin an investigation into prices at 23 supermarket chains across the country.

Polling companies have also come under scrutiny for alleged attempts to manipulate public perceptions. The results of surveys by one company, Gezici, have predicted heavy losses for the opposition in every major city except Bursa, a city in western Turkey. The manner of its questions, however, has sparked calls for legal action against the company.

Gezici asked voters whether they would vote for the People’s Alliance, the official name for the ruling Justice and Development Party’s partnership with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, or an opposition alliance of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, the nationalist Good Party, and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

More than 100 Good Party politicians announced their intention to take Gezici to court as no formal alliance has been agreed with the HDP, which is mistrusted by many Turks due to the party’s association with the Kurdish political movement.

With between 17 percent and 25 percent of voters are still reported as undecided, a fierce election battle will be on the cards right up to polling day.

Candidates have been trying to pull in votes with vows of large-scale projects and services if elected, and the ambitious promises made by opposition politicians have angered Erdoğan, who has demanded they reveal how they plan to fund their projects.

The CHP’s candidate for Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, took exception to this reprimand from a president whose party’s municipal government has transferred hundreds of millions of lira to AKP-friendly charitable foundations in recent years.

“I’m going to fund (the projects) with the money from the citizens of Istanbul ... I won’t put their budget to waste. I won’t spend it on meaningless foundations, but on babies and their mothers,” İmamoğlu said in response. 

In Ankara too opposition candidates are offering voters a list of new projects after a quarter century of rule by Islamist mayor Melih Gökçek, who was stripped of his role in 2017 after falling out with his AKP superiors, and his successor Mustafa Tuna. 

Ankara residents have been deprived when it comes to services over that period, and there is little sign the situation will change if the AKP’s mayoral candidate, Mehmet Özhaseki, wins on March 31.

Arbitrary and poorly planned construction in Ankara under Gökçek has led to a profusion of unnecessary overpasses – including some built over the city’s historic parks – as well as other severe infrastructure problems. Traffic is notoriously bad throughout the city, tapwater is undrinkable, and every year inadequate drainage means parts of the city are subject to flooding after heavy rainfall. 

AKP founding member and former deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç found reports of Gökçek’s corruption intolerable, and it was after a widely publicised spat between the two veteran AKP politicians that Erdoğan demanded the Ankara mayor step down.

The ruling party therefore has a credibility problem as it attempts to convince voters in Ankara who have lived under AKP mayors for the past 25 years that this time things will be different. Their response has been to simply copy slogans and promises made by the CHP.

There are many examples of this, including the AKP’s sudden shift to promise voters public gardens and reading houses after years of pushing through massive construction projects that have wiped out green spaces from Ankara’s city centre.

Yet, this time, the appropriation of opposition projects is far less likely to work, because voters now have declared as their priority the provision of services, something ruling party municipalities have consistently failed to deliver.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.