Saban Kardas

Jamestown Foundation
April 1 2009

The mixed results of the Turkish local elections on March 29 raised
questions over the future direction of the governing Justice and
Development Party's (AKP) policies (EDM, March 31). The government
is unlikely to call a snap election, but the relative decline in the
AKP's share of the vote will have significant implications for Turkey's
political landscape, compelling more recognition of public opinion
and limiting the scope for assertive domestic and foreign policies.

Turkey's local elections directly affect national politics, and have
been traditionally considered as a de facto vote of confidence for
the incumbent government. Moreover, prior to the March 29 elections,
the AKP pursued an aggressive campaign, which effectively turned
the local elections into a national referendum on its policies (EDM,
December 3). Now, having fallen below the thresholds it set for itself,
the AKP is seeking to redefine its priorities in Turkish politics.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan convened meetings with his cabinet
ministers and party members to assess the causes of the decline, while
considering a cabinet reshuffle and other changes within the party
(Star, March 31). Beyond these short term changes, the elections are
likely to have an enduring resonance on the AKP's domestic and foreign
policies. Though it remains to be seen what path it will choose,
there appears to be two alternatives: either the AKP will follow a
reformist line and initiate major change, or it will prefer prudence
and avoid proactive policies.

The AKP's core supporters, conservative center-right voters and
liberals, expect the government to abandon its complacency, and resume
domestic reforms. The EU and western observers also share similar
views. They believe that the AKP owes its past electoral success to
the pro-democratization agenda, which it adopted at the outset. For
them, the AKP's recovery depends on its ability to revive its former
reformist image. If the AKP chooses this alternative, it will have
to refocus on constitutional changes, and intensify the EU membership
process in order to satisfy the reformists' demands (Sabah, March 30).

Reformists also want the AKP to pursue a more proactive foreign
policy. Many observers had argued that following the local elections,
the government would press ahead with ambitious foreign policy
initiatives, including normalizing its relations with Armenia. EU
officials have suggested Turkey might take further steps in this
process, such as opening the border with Armenia following President
Barack Obama's visit to Turkey on April 6-7 (Hurriyet, March 30).

It is unclear whether the AKP can fufil these expectations. The AKP
was founded as a party representing diverse interests, and, since
its establishment, Erdogan's charismatic leadership has united the
various factions within the party. The sense of over-confidence imbued
by successive election victories and the presence of a strong leader,
led the AKP to develop a top-down approach to politics. The party's
largely unchallenged dominance enabled it to conduct domestic and
foreign policies in an unrestricted manner.

The new voting patterns, however, are a stark reminder to the
AKP that the Turkish electorate is sensitive to the implications
of the government's policies, and may withdraw their support when
necessary. The pre-occupation with re-election in the next national
elections, slated for 2011, will be the AKP's main concern. Equally,
it will tread a fine line between satisfying the demands of its
core constituencies and responding to the challenges posed by
the opposition. Since the AKP cannot take its popular support for
granted, it might be more circumspect in its domestic and foreign
policies. These pressures, in turn, might curb the AKP's activism,
and force it to adopt more conformist policies.

The government will need to form broad based coalitions with opposition
parties in order to implement its domestic reforms. However, having
gained ground on the AKP, major opposition parties such as the
Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP),
have little incentive to cooperate with the government. Moreover,
Erdogan's antagonistic attitude during the election campaign
will complicate building coalitions with his rivals, who have
already announced their opposition to his position on constitutional
amendments (EDM, March 4). Against this background, relations between
the government and the opposition are likely to remain tense, and it
is questionable whether the AKP can deliver radical democratization
reforms (Radikal, March 30).

The AKP's leftist, nationalist, secularist and Islamist opponents
are united in their objection to its foreign policy. They view the
AKP's policies as a "betrayal of Turkey's national interests,"
and they are critical of the AKP's policy of rapprochement with
Armenia. Previously, the AKP largely ignored any negative public
reaction and the opposition, in its efforts to normalize relations
with Yerevan. However, now that the AKP is more vulnerable to public
scrutiny, faced with pressure from a stronger opposition, it may
adopt a cautious approach and avoid foreign policy risks. Therefore,
although normalizing relations with Armenia will continue, it may
be premature to expect radical steps, such as opening the border or
establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia (ANKA, March 30).