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Rethinking Turkish Politics: Analyzing the March 31 Elections and Their Implications for Democracy

Zafer Yilmaz*

Thesis 1- The March 31 local elections have cracked open the doors to the future for democracy by demonstrating the electorate’s tendency to balance the system based on the president’s absolute authority with opposition local power.

There is no doubt that the March 31 elections mark a critical turning point for Turkish politics. At a time when it was thought that everything was over in terms of the government changing hands, especially following the 2023 defeat, the outcome of the current local elections, contrary to expectations, created a widespread atmosphere of optimism in the opposition. A similar positive atmosphere had formed in the opposition after the 2015 general elections and the 2019 local elections, but this positive atmosphere gradually gave way to pessimism again after the government’s counter-moves. Signs showing that the AKP has indisputably weakened, the inability of the presidential regime to consolidate itself, and the negative effects of the cost of living crisis on society suggest that it might not be so easy for Erdoğan to recover this time, and thus the positive mood may last longer. At least, this is the opinion of a group of opinion leaders, media intellectuals, and academics. Whether this expectation will materialize depends as much on how we interpret these results as on the steps the social opposition will take, but the comments on the election results and the quickly developed suggestions based on these results seem to have fundamentally taken the wavering of Turkish politics and especially the opposition, between excessive pessimism and hasty optimism, to a new level.

In this series of articles, I will evaluate the fundamental issues that will shape the political and social future of what I call the New Turkey under the plebiscitary presidential regime. I think the March 31 election results are misinterpreted in terms of serving certain political goals due to the interests underlying the emerging new political alliance among the current academic, political, and economic elites. There has always been a relationship between the content of a country’s intellectual world and the interests and structure of its intellectual elites, but in places like Turkey, where intellectuals have started to derive almost all of their recognition, social capital, and the value of their thoughts from political grouping, representing a certain group identity, and engaging in certain political interests, this relationship often obscures our ability to see and discuss the essence of the issue. Although quite good evaluations are written about the elections and election results, especially a dominant perspective centered around election survey conductors and opposition media elites, honored with the status of being New Turkey’s favorite opinion leaders, is being gradually built.

This dominant perspective and the evaluations that completely overlook local and general election dynamics emphasize the following:

(i) The CHP management has fundamentally been successful in the elections, and the change in party management has played a very important role in this success; (ii) understanding and guiding voter behavior from now on is sufficient. Therefore, the main issue of Turkish politics now is to understand why voters voted or did not vote for someone in the short term and to determine a political strategy and campaign accordingly; (iii) Erdoğan and the AKP have entered a process of irreversible decline due to the bad economy and the lack of a party organization compared to the past; (iv) The opposition should generalize successful city policies like those in Istanbul and Ankara by distancing itself from the polarization and conflict politics imposed by the government, maintain the opposition alliance formed at the grassroots, and become the noble actor of local service politics; (v) The social opposition has found its political leader in Ekrem İmamoğlu or Mansur Yavaş, and the most important task from now on is to align behind these figures.

We cannot say that these emphases are entirely wrong, especially the local successes and the spreading of socially supportive municipal governance nationwide, distancing from the current polarization politics, and understanding changes in voter behavior are very important for the future, but focusing solely on these elements prevents us from discussing the structural issues that need to be discussed and developing policies within a long-term process to solve these issues. The problem with this approach is not just that it reduces politics to voter behavior, but also that it fails to include in the analysis and discussion the fundamental issues that define voter behavior, elections, and Turkish politics, and the need to develop a comprehensive democratic project concerning these issues. As a result of these deficiencies, it essentially depoliticizes us and dooms us to a short-term political perspective. The reactions to Erdoğan’s new constitution move and the leadership debate in the CHP right after the elections also once again demonstrate that this approach, precisely because of the issues it focuses on and advertises, has significant limitations in changing and transforming the current situation in the long term.

So, what are the most fundamental elements that will determine the long-term effects of the March 31 election results, perhaps even on the presidential elections to be possibly moved to an earlier date in 2028? In this series of articles, I will address these elements one by one and discuss the possible effects of the elections on Turkish politics and the fundamental structural elements that will determine these effects. It is certainly possible to expand the list below, but I think the following are the most fundamental structural elements that need to be focused on separately, both to determine the positive effects of the local election results in the long run and to affect whether the future of New Turkey will be democratic and whether a republican democratic project can be implemented in the future:

The strategies and steps Erdoğan and his allies will follow to consolidate the plebiscitary presidential system after the election results

The strategy and policies Erdoğan and his allies will implement to revive the plebiscitary moment through polarization politics, reducing politics and voting behavior to trust and approval of the leader

The transformation that the destructive emotional political polarization and new partisanship, which have long dominated Turkish politics, will undergo in the coming days

The organization, political projects, and capacity to act that the political opposition will develop both at the party level and at the level of social movements

The scope, content, and quality of the projects that Erdoğan and his allies will implement to manage the negative political, social, and economic effects of the social problem and increasing cost of living crisis centered on paid labor, and the counter-projects that the opposition will develop at least at the municipal level regarding the social issue

The sustainability of strategic legality, based on using, not applying, and exploiting the principles of the rule of law and laws whenever necessary to achieve the “legitimate” political goals seen by the political power, and reducing the rule of law to the mere existence of legal norms through strategic manipulation and exploitation of legal power, processes, and rules by Erdoğan and his allies. In other words, what will be the future of the opposition in the clutches of the suspended rule of law and possible security operations

The moves Erdoğan and his allies will make and the economic policies they will follow to prolong the life of political capitalism in Turkey, which operates through the direct creation of profit-making opportunities by politics and the direct mobilization of political power and violence to create rent-based profit opportunities

The social response to the corruption and decay we are experiencing today in social, political, institutional, and economic dimensions and the scope and content of the new Republic project to be developed to solve this corruption and Turkey’s fundamental political problems, especially the Kurdish issue

It is not the job of political scientists to make predictions, but it is clear that our efforts to interpret the situation cannot be separated from our efforts to transform or preserve it. Therefore, if Turkey’s democratic social forces want to be well prepared for 2028, they must analyze well the political, social, and psychological effects created by the main opposition becoming the leading party in the elections, the CHP winning the majority of metropolitan municipalities, and the significant loss of votes by the AKP, and prepare for the future around a long-term strategy. If we do not perform this analysis correctly, do not start to organize the necessary long-term political strategy and struggle step by step, and continue to be dragged along by the bluster of the opponents of the established order towards those outside their perspectives and networks, as has been the case so far, we will continue to be tossed between hope and fear, failing to carry forward the positive effects of these long-desired results. As those who desire to implement democracy at every level, we must make good use of the times when the will’s optimism has begun to breathe and hope has been refreshed. Otherwise, as has happened many times before, we will find ourselves in a similar state of anxiety following brief moments of hope. Therefore, we must have the courage to confront the truth itself and strive to understand, explain, and make comprehensible the fundamental political issues that will determine our future, with correct reasoning, finding and seeing the common solutions hidden in the concrete situation, however oppressive it may be, and displacing the outdated beliefs that prevent us from seeing these solutions.

*Dr. Zafer Yılmaz received his PhD from Ankara University. He has been a researcher and visiting scholar at Freie Universität Berlin, Brunel University London, the University of California Berkeley, and Universität Potsdam. His work currently focuses on the rise of authoritarianism, transformation of the rule of law, and citizenship in Turkey.

*This article originally was published at Birikim Magazine and translated into English by Politurco.com.

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