With two weeks left until the March 30 local elections, tensions remain high in Turkey.
Every day, unusually large crowds gather at political leaders' rallies. Campaign events, however, are not the only reason Turkish streets are crowded nowadays. Urban youth across the nation constantly receive unsolicited invitations to take to the streets where violence prevails over common sense as new sound recordings find their way to the Internet to smear Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AK Party. Meanwhile, concerns over a new wave of street violence following young Berkin Elvan's death, the release of some Ergenekon defendants from prison as well as attacks against the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) offices in western cities add to existing political tensions. Simply put, recent developments have activated the entire set of Turkey's many political faults.
Such unusual activity almost exclusively aims at decreasing the AK Party's popular appeal to prevent the prime minister from running for president in Aug. 2014. The crowds at AK Party events and a series of recently released opinion polls, however, demonstrate that attempts to distance the people from the political leadership serve to boost the ruling party's popular support.
Various pollsters including Konda, ANAR, PollMark, Denge, Genar and AG that correctly predicted previous elections put the AK Party at 45-49 percent and the Republican People's Party (CHP) at 28-31 percent. While the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is expected to receive 14-16 percent of the vote, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and HDP votes will amount to 6-7 percent. The distribution of votes indicates that voters increasingly perceive the upcoming local elections as part of national politics as opposed to localized races.
Another important fact to keep in mind is that the AK Party traditionally performs worse in local elections than in parliamentary elections as electoral support becomes more vulnerable to local factors, candidates' popularity and competitors that fail to pass the 10 percent national threshold in parliamentary elections. As a result of such factors, the party received 42 and 39 percent of the vote, respectively, in the 2004 and 2009 local elections. Each time, the party did considerably better in subsequent parliamentary elections, 47 percent in 2007 and 50 percent in 2011. Therefore, it would not be wrong to assume that the AK Party benefits from voters disassociating the upcoming elections from the local political contexts.
Surely, the AK Party's primary advantage here is its ability to curb the negative effects of local dynamics on its performance in local races. As local elections come to have broader repercussions, the ruling party finds itself unoccupied by local problems, where supporters are more likely to leave aside their criticisms toward their local candidates and stand with the leadership to serve a greater political purpose. As such, voters seem to increasingly cast their votes for the prime minister as opposed to local AK Party candidates.
Another advantage for the AK Party is that recent attempts to wear down the government led voters to associate the prime minister and his party with a broader political agenda and objective. In other words, extra-parliamentary forces working against the government have effectively resulted in Erdoğan's association with democracy, the ballot box and popular will. Meanwhile, the anti-Erdoğan camp's political, ideological, sectarian and class identities refreshes conservative voters' memories of their century- old struggle against secularist elites.
As such, Erdoğan at once embodies the periphery's challenge to the establishment, the silent majority's participation in the mainstream and the promise of equality for previously oppressed groups such as pious Muslims and the Kurds. By extension, many voters continue to launch attacks against the Erdoğan administration within this framework and offer their support to the AK Party. In other words, AK Party supporters today leave aside their criticism toward Mr. Erdoğan's performance, vision and priorities to protect him from attacks due to the historic mission the prime minister embodies today.
Briefly put, the March 30 local elections' transformation into a dress rehearsal for the presidential race and a vote of confidence for Erdoğan and his party seems to work to the ruling party's advantage by restricting the influence of local factors on voter behavior.