Turkey's Islamic-rooted governing party looks set to solidify its hold over domestic politics in local elections on March 29. The campaign season has been marked by apparent voter apathy, fueled by the lack of a convincing alternative to the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Most polls predict the AKP will win about 47 percent of votes, roughly the same level of support it enjoyed in general elections of July 2007. That would translate into a 26-point lead over its nearest rival, the secularist Republican People's Party, or CHP.
On the face of it, the continuing high levels of support for AKP are a surprise.
First elected in 2002, the government had been boosted until 2007 by years of stellar economic growth. When they turn out on March 29 to vote for neighborhood representatives, city councilors and mayors, Turkish voters will be doing so against a backdrop of an economy severely hit by the global crisis.
While the AKP continues to predict 4 percent economic growth this year, economists expect Turkey's GDP to shrink by around 3 percent. In all, 840,000 people lost their jobs in 2008 as industrial production slowed by a fifth, according to figures released by the Turkish Statistical Institute. "Given the global economic crisis you could have expected a dramatic fall in support for the government", says Adil Gur, director of the Istanbul-based polling company AG. "But voters simply cannot see an alternative."
One of tens of thousands of Istanbul residents attending CHP's March 22 rally in Istanbul, retired teacher Saim Sayman ruefully agrees. "I came out today to support the party I've supported all my life," he said. "But I know that as long as this guy is in charge, we don't have a hope."
He is referring to the man pacing the podium ahead of him, CHP leader Deniz Baykal. A former academic who has led the CHP to four successive electoral defeats since he became party leader in 1992, Baykal is jokingly referred to by AKP supporters as their "best asset." Polls show barely a fifth of CHP supporters approve of him. "What this country really needs is a coup inside the CHP", says Ahmet Komurcu, a waiter also in the crowd, in an ironic reference to on-going investigations into an alleged plot to overthrow the government. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Like many at the rally, Komurcu is angered by the fact that it is Baykal, rather than the much more popular CHP candidate for Istanbul mayor, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is doing all the talking.
Yet, while many analysts think Baykal's refusal to give space to his subordinate has weakened CHP's already slim chances of success in Istanbul, he was behaving no differently from any other party leader.
A formidable orator who hails from a poor inner-city district of Istanbul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spent the last three weeks rushing from rally to rally across the country. His performance in the southeastern city of Sanliurfa on March 6 was emblematic of the strongly centralized nature of Turkish politics. At the rally, Erdogan rebuked a local politician who evidently had stepped out of line.
"When I made you mayor, the AK Party was good, so why are you complaining now," Erdogan said in front of a crowd of at least 80,000. "If you stand now as an independent, how are you going to find qualified people to fill the town council? How are you going to find the force and the financial backing you used to have?"
He was referring to Ahmet Esref Fakibaba, elected AKP mayor of Sanliurfa at local elections in 2004. Hugely popular locally, Fakibaba was in conflict with most of AKP's seven deputies for Sanliurfa Province, many of whom are scions of powerful rural clans mistrusted by residents of the city.
Told that Erdogan had decided to pass him over in favor of a more docile candidate, Fakibaba opted to run on March 29 as an independent. He has the support of most of the local media.
Director of the Ankara-based polling institute MetroPoll, Ozer Sencar, thinks Fakibaba is one of barely half a dozen local candidates popular enough locally to have a chance of winning in the face of party opposition. "Generally speaking, though, Turks vote for the candidate the party bosses put up," he says.
It is a phenomenon analysts ascribe to on-going imbalances between the financial resources and responsibilities of Turkish municipalities. Since the AKP passed a local government law in 2004, municipalities in Turkey have, on paper at least, the same powers as European municipalities, says Fikret Toksoz, a governance expert at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, an Istanbul-based think tank. "What the law fails to do is to fulfill European directives that say municipalities should be given revenue in relation to their responsibilities," he says. "Instead, mayors here have to make do with a 1984 law that requires 5 percent of taxes raised at a national level to be pumped back to the areas where they were collected."
In a well-managed trade and financial center like Istanbul, such budgetary limitations do not cause much of a problem: international money and highly-valued state land provide mayors with an alternative source of income. In the less well-off cities of inner Anatolia, municipalities often find themselves "dancing between the two lips of their party chiefs," Toksoz says.
In Diyarbakir, a mainly Kurdish city a hundred miles east of Sanliurfa that is controlled by a Kurdish nationalist party, municipal officials have long complained that the central government deliberately withholds funding for crucial infrastructure projects. Toksoz gives a different example of the way Ankara can hobble independent-minded municipalities. "Say a mayor wants to knock down an illegal shanty-town," he says. "If the state refuses to provide police to oversee the operation, there's no way the municipality is going to be able to get the inhabitants out."
The ironic aspect of such cases, he adds, is that municipalities often end up being blamed for turning a blind eye to illegal settlement.
Slowly, he says, local municipalities are beginning to flex their muscles. Perhaps more importantly, they too are opening up the notoriously non-transparent workings of city councils to oversight at a neighborhood level.
In the meantime, and with some justification, Erdogan looks set to interpret his party's expected victory on March 29 as a public vote of confidence in his running of the country.
If it manages to increase its vote percentage over the 2007 elections, the AKP may feel confident enough to accelerate efforts to end a 25-year war against former Kurdish separatists, and to normalize relations with Armenia, as well as with the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq, analysts say.
International financial circles have been slightly unnerved by AK Party talk of changing the constitution after elections, however. While most Turks agree the country's current authoritarian constitution needs to be adjusted, the government's incompetent handling of constitutional reform plans late in 2006 contributed to the deep polarization of the country between secularists and government supporters.
Though less striking today, tensions remain high.
Nicolas Birch is a freelance journalist who specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.