04/01/2009, 00.00
TURKEY
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Local elections highlight Turkey’s contradictions

by NAT da Polis
Erdogan’s ruling party loses votes because of a campaign marked by arrogance, Kurdish and Alevi disillusionment over unfulfilled promises and fears over the Islamisation of Turkish society. Now the prime minister could reshuffle his cabinet or create a new party.
Istanbul (AsiaNews) – In spite of a high turnout, recent local elections in Turkey did not radically change the positions of the various parties. They did never the less put a break on the growth of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). And in so doing they highlighted the country’s many contradictions. Let us see how.

First of all, even if it dropped to 38.7 per cent of the total vote, the AKP remains the largest party in the country, the only one present in every region and whose support is equal to the two runner-ups combined, i.e. the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), both of which managed to increase their share of the vote.

The party of Prime Minister Erdogan also remains the major political force in the most industrialised areas of the country, which have been hard hit by the economic crisis and rising unemployment.

As many Turkish analysts have pointed out these elections seem to confirm that Erdogan’s arrogant campaign is the cause of the AKP’s drop in popularity. Since Turks tend to be reticent voters, shying away from arrogant leaders, they have a habit of punishing them at the ballot box.

What is more, surveys indicate that about 70 per cent of voters are more likely to be swayed by appeals to emotion than logic.

When Erdogan faced off the Dogan media conglomerate, which is in the Kemalist camp, he came across as arrogant, and gave his adversaries ample opportunity to play this up, which probably cost him many votes. And among diplomatic circles, this election constitutes a first victory by Turkey’s old establishment.

But Erdogan equally lost the battle for support among Kurds and Anatolia’s Alevi. By taking 99 municipalities in Anatolia the Democratic Society Party (DTP), “took back votes on loan,” said DTP chairman Ahmet Turk, because of voter “disillusionment and broken promises”

The election, according to pro-government newspaper Sabah, also sowed “confusion” in the ranks of the AKP and this despite the party’s overtures, the creation of a Kurdish-language TV channel (TRT 6) and the success in solving some outstanding crimes in these areas.

The rise of the MHP, a nationalist party which controls the Grey Wolves, is food for thought. Thanks to a methodical and systematic campaign, the MHP was able to present itself as the only centre-right alternative to the Islamists, drawing support among college students, who are fearful of the AKP and are unhappy with the CHP. As young Turks experience an identity crisis many find refuge in the nationalist ideals that were instilled in school and which brook no alternative to unadulterated Turkishness.

The growth of another Islamist party, the Felicity or Saadet Party (SP) of Necmettin Erbakan, which took 5 per cent of the vote, especially in the poorest areas, and which replaced the Welfare Party in which current Prime Minister Erdogan began his political career, shows two things. First, the vote signals dissatisfaction among some AKP supporters that Erdogan and the AKP have become too secularised. Secondly, it also indicates that Turkey’s Islam is not radical.

Still when the next round of parliamentary elections takes place, protest voters will come home to the AKP since under Turkey’s electoral law parties need 10 per cent of the nation-wide vote to elect members of parliament.

But there is another factor that must be taken into consideration, namely what Hurriyet calls the culture of the coast, in reference to the coastal region along the Aegean Sea, an area still imbued with memories of a bygone era when the West was at home here, whose residents still cling onto that lifestyle. Cities along Turkey’s Aegean coastline have in fact resisted the AKP, fearful of the creeping Islamisation of Turkish society.

The question now is, what Erdogan will do?

The prime minister himself did not rule a cabinet shuffle. But for pro-government Today’s Zaman the government’s agenda is clear; it must accelerate reforms and pursue certain priorities, liking finding a solution to the Kurdish question, disarm the PKK, re-open the border with Armenia, find a way out of the impasse in Cyprus, seek a custom union with Europe to speed up talks with the European Union, and abolish Article 35 of the Turkish Armed Forces Internal Service Act which stipulates that the Turkish Armed Forces are responsible for “guarding and defending the Turkish republic as defined by the constitution.”

From all this it is clear that the old cleavage in Turkish society still obtains. As in the past the political arena is divided between Turkish Islamists (who are different from their Arab and Middle Eastern counterparts) and Turkish nationalists, as diplomatic analysts have observed.

In light of this situation, Erdogan has another card to play, an old dream of his, namely create a new party that brings together Islamists and nationalists with a neo-Ottoman model in the background.

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