Losing its shine
The JDP suffered its first ever decline in its overall vote, notes Gareth Jenkins
On Sunday evening, after the polls had closed in the nationwide Turkish local elections, officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) began erecting crowd control barriers outside party headquarters across the country. Some had even hired professional drummers in anticipation of JDP supporters partying late into the night in celebration of another famous election victory. But, as the first results began to come in, it rapidly became clear that, although it remains the most popular party in the country, the JDP had suffered a surprising decline in its support. The anticipated celebrations turned into bewildered soul- searching as the streets remained empty and the drummers sat idly beside their silent drums, before quietly heading home.
After being founded in 2001 by a young generation of politicians who had begun their political careers in the Turkish Islamist movement, the JDP swept to power in the general election of November 2002 with 34.3 per cent of the popular vote. In each subsequent election, it had increased its share of the popular vote to 41.7 per cent in the local elections of March 2004 and 46.6 per cent in the last general elections in July 2007. Few in the party doubted that Sunday's local elections would be another triumph.
"We have been conducting opinion polls with different companies, at least once a week," confided a JDP minister in early March. "Of course, the precise figures vary, but they all suggest we should get at least 50 per cent of the vote on 29 March."
But, when the unofficial results were announced late on Monday afternoon, the JDP had won only 38.9 per cent nationwide, ahead of the Republican People's Party (RPP) with 23.1 per cent and the Nationalist Action Party with 16.1 per cent. Even though the JDP had retained control of the major metropolises of Istanbul and Ankara, albeit with a reduced margin, it lost the Mediterranean resort of Antalya to the RPP and the eastern Mediterranean city of Adana to the Nationalist Movement Party.
"I am not satisfied with our vote," an ashen- faced Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan announced at a press conference on Sunday night. The disappointment was made more acute by the JDP's unprecedented expenditure of time, money and effort on the local election campaign. Starting in early January, the election campaign completely dominated the Turkish domestic political agenda as the JDP distributed vast amounts of food and fuel to the poor in what it regarded as target areas, and refused to take potentially unpopular political measures to address the deepening economic recession. Erdogan himself put aside other government business to crisscross the country, addressing election rallies in town and city squares. Even on the eve of Sunday's polls, JDP officials were still predicting gains, particularly in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country, the stronghold of the pro- Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), which is accused by its opponents of being affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party.
The JDP's main target was the city of Diyarbakir. In the months leading up to the elections, in addition to aid distributed by the state, pro-JDP charities and NGOs worked tirelessly to try to boost the JDP's grassroots support, while local DTP officials complained of intimidation and harassment by state officials. Yet, when the results were announced, the DTP Mayor Osman Baydemir had not only retained his seat but increased his share of the vote to 65.4 per cent, up from 58.3 per cent in 2004; while the JDP vote fell to 31.6 per cent from 35.3 per cent in 2004.
It is unclear why the massive JDP election campaign failed. It is likely that the economic downturn, which had begun even before the global crisis broke in October 2008, was responsible for some of the decline in support of the JDP. In some towns and cities, local factors probably also played a part although they cannot explain the JDP's losses nationwide.
However, there is no doubt that in the southeast of the country many Kurds have been frustrated by the JDP's failure to follow up on the easing of some of the restrictions on the expression of a Kurdish cultural identity during its first years in power by, for example, lifting the ban on education in Kurdish and the expression of a Kurdish political identity.
In the rest of the country, the JDP has probably been more damaged by a change in the strategy by the RPP in late 2008. Previously, the RPP had tended to attack the JDP on what it claimed were the party's long-term plans to establish an Islamic state. However, starting in September 2008, it began to publish details of allegations of corruption involving senior members of the JDP. Despite the overwhelming evidence, the JDP responded with a policy of denial. Erdogan told party members not to read newspapers which carried reports of such corruption allegations. In February, the Ministry of Finance imposed a $500 million fine for alleged tax irregularities on the Dogan Group, which is the largest media group in Turkey and whose newspapers had frequently published corruption allegations involving AKP members.
Erdogan is not renowned for admitting his own shortcomings. In his press conference on Sunday evening, he promised that the party would assess the lessons to be learned from the election results, although it remains to be seen whether the result will be a relaxation or an intensification of the authoritarianism which has recently come to characterise the JDP government.