Ankara - The wind was chilly and it had been snowing lightly here when a company manager allowed himself to be interviewed outside a polling station.
“I’m fed up with (President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan using the language of war against the 50 percent of Turks who don’t vote for him,” he said, declining to give his name because “there is no rule of law”.
“Erdogan calls the others ‘terrorists’ or ‘collaborators with terrorism’, but we all pay our taxes; we all serve in the army.”
On the other side of the city, a woman wearing a green headscarf and heavy black coat explained why she had switched allegiance to vote for the opposition this time. “When I go to the market, I pay five lira for the potatoes and onions that used to cost one or two lira, and they are grown in Turkey,” she said, also declining to give her name.
The voters provided the basic reasons why Erdogan suffered his most embarrassing defeat in his 17-year rule on Sunday when Turks threw his Justice and Development Party (AKP) out of city hall in Istanbul, Ankara and several other cities.
The opposition now controls the biggest three cities in Turkey. Together they comprise about 30 percent of the population. But the AKP and its rightwing ally still hold a majority in parliament. Erdogan is still president. And the question is: how much will the voters’ rejection cause Erdogan to change?
“Economic improvement is a necessity,” said Dogu Ergil, retired professor of politics from Ankara University. The economy is in recession; inflation is 20 percent, unemployment 13.5 percent, and people queue at specially-erected stalls to buy limited quantities of vegetables at subsidised prices.
“But change otherwise is very hard,” Ergil continued. Erdogan has so monopolised power that “he can control anything and make decisions on every issue. So (to change that) would be a total reversal of the existing system, and he won’t do it.”
In the election, the second biggest opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), did not field candidates in the cities of western Turkey so as not to split the opposition vote. The party’s former leader, Selahattin Demirtas, issued a statement from prison, where he is serving time for spreading terrorist propaganda, urging his supporters to “vote No to fascism”.
This tactic by the pro-Kurdish party gave victory to the opposition in Istanbul, a city with an estimated 2 million Kurds where the opposition’s candidate won by little more than 20 000 votes.
Erdogan branded the HDP as “terrorist”, repeating his charge the party is aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) _ a claim the HDP denies. And he accused the alliance of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Good Party (Iyi) of “collaborating with terrorism”. Iyi leader Meral Aksener ridiculed the allegation when she addressed a huge crowd in the town of Denizli last month, saying: “You citizens of Denizli that the president calls terrorists, how are you?”
Ergil said Erdogan was unlikely to stop such talk. “In his mind, this is an essential mechanism for rallying people,” he said.
However, Erdogan has clearly been affected by the election results. When he appeared on the balcony of the AKP headquarters in Ankara, defeat was in the air. The crowd was only about 2 000 people, far fewer than the 10 000 that normally arrive on election nights. Erdogan sensed the sombre mood and began by singing a song. Gone was the stirring rhetoric that provoked a cheer at the end of every second sentence. Gone too were the scores of cars cruising the nearby highway, horns blaring and young men leaning dangerously out of the windows to wave flags.
“We will see how they rule the cities,” Erdogan told the crowd.
Erdogan will still hold levers of power on Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. The cities get most of their funds from the central government. And while the mayors of the cities are now all CHP members, the AKP will enjoy a majority on the city councils of Istanbul and Ankara.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the director of the German Marshall Fund think-tank in Turkey, said the government’s allocation of funds to the cities is fixed according to a formula written into law. But when the cities appeal for extra funds for big projects, such as building an underground railway, Erdogan will be able to exercise his control over the ministries that would pay for such projects.
“The central government will likely invest less in the (CHP-controlled) cities, but how do you invest less in Istanbul?” Unluhisarcikli asked rhetorically. The city’s 15 million people account for a fifth of the population. “You can’t do that.”
The former editor, Murat Yetkin, said the AKP majorities on the city councils in Istanbul and Ankara will give Erdogan a “limited influence” on the mayors. But the newly elected mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavas, has already declared his intention to appoint AKP councillors to the budget committee of the city council.
“A very clever move,” Yetkin said in an interview, adding that the new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, had also reached out to the AKP on his city council. “These kinds of reconciliatory moves will perhaps ease the hands of the mayors,” he said.
During the campaign, Erdogan warned Kurdish voters that if they returned the HDP to the town councils of southeast Turkey, he would again dismiss the elected mayors and appoint trustees. In the past two years, the president has dismissed more than 90 HDP mayors and replaced them with government-appointed administrators.
On Sunday, the HDP captured eight cities and provinces, including Diyarbakir, the virtual Kurdish capital of Turkey. Many people are asking whether Erdogan will follow through on his threat to reverse the elections.
“It all depends on what his advisers say,” Ergil said. The decision will be a political calculation on whether “alienating the Kurds is good for the AKP” or “winning them back” would be a better idea as between 30 and 40 percent of the Kurds used to vote for the AKP.
Whatever policy Erdogan pursues, analysts believe he has to make good one flaw that the election exposed. The CHP won the big cities, Ergil said, not because it promised the people a better future but “because of a loss of faith in Erdogan.”