The Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan have received a slap in the face by the electorate. If we were to summarize the local elections of March 29, 2009, this would be it: The AKP won 39 per cent of the municipal vote, but the results were below its 47 per cent target and the worst since the party came to power in the elections in 2002. Actually, the worrying factor of this election was the success of the Islamist Saadet (Felicity) Party, that has nearly tripled its votes in the short period of only one-and-a-half years.
U.S. President Barack Obama is going to be soon in Turkey. He has already declared that his aim is to strengthen relations with Ankara, but he should also take into consideration the Turkish electoral vote and do not help Erdogan strengthen his position, Obama should promote the secular opposition in the country.
We should not declare this the end of the AKP, but Erdogan should not think that it can continue business as usual. The March results are a wake-up call for a party grown comfortable in office and a prime minister allergic to criticism. Erdogan, who made the local polls a referendum on his seven-year rule, thought that lambasting Israel over Gaza and making alliances with Iran would be enough to made him become a sort of “leader”. Clearly, he misjudged voter dissatisfaction over the AKP’s corruption and the government’s handling of the economy, going into recession in 2009 after years of growth.
The drop in support for the country’s ruling party is due to the party’s stumbling on its three chosen fronts - corruption, poverty and bans. The results of the local elections may mean greater change in the Cabinet than in the cities as ministers in office failed to carry their own constituencies. Appearing stunned by the results, Prime Minister Erdogan first convened with his ministers and then held a larger meeting with the party to evaluate the reasons for the decline in support. "We will study the results closely and see why we have ended in this position," Erdogan said early Monday in his first statement on the elections. He also hinted at a Cabinet reshuffle and other changes within the party.
Since the formation of the AKP, the party top brass has loudly voiced its fight against corruption. As such, much damage was caused by last year’s corruption cases against party officials. The corruption case of the Lighthouse organization in Germany - a charity run by Turks whose links with the AKP were revealed.
Like corruption, the eradication of poverty was another AKP target. However, although Erdogan argued that the global crisis would incur minimal damage, unemployment rose by nearly 30 percent in one year. Discrepancies in the implementation of the party’s third strategy to fight state bans was also important. On the one hand, the AKP exerted efforts to remove certain bans, such as the start of the 24-hour state broadcast Kurdish channel. On the other hand, the government oppressed the media and increased bans on Internet sites.
AKP held its mayoral seats in the largest city, Istanbul, and the capital, Ankara; however, the race against candidates of the main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, ran neck and neck. The ruling party lost key cities where Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had campaigned hard. The biggest surprise came from Antalya where the AKP mayor, Menderes Turel, lost to CHP candidate and former rector of the city's university, Mustafa Akaydin.
Yes, the AKP remains the strongest party and yes, the votes of the two opposition parties, the CHP and MHP, do not even add up to its votes. But now 60 percent of the electorate has openly declared that it does not support the AKP. Hence Erdogan lost the referendum game he built. From now on, Erdogan does not have the support of one in every two people in Turkey, as he said after the general elections in July 2007, when the AKP got 47 percent of the vote. In contrast, we could push this a little and say that now only one in three supports the AKP. Erdogan cannot dismiss this result as "local elections"; he called for a referendum and he lost it. He learned that he does not possess the power of a "sultan" and that he will never rise to that position. Erdogan's claim as a regional leader has received a blow. This result will be read as such, not only in Turkey but also around the world.