Millions of voters in Turkey will cast their vote in the upcoming local elections which have now turned into a vote of confidence for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and its embattled authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, following a fierce election campaign overshadowed by massive corruption allegations about Erdoğan and his inner circle.
Since a corruption scandal broke out on Dec. 17, costing the government four ministers due to their alleged involvement in money laundering with Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, there has not been a single day that a voice recording has not been leaked onto the Internet allegedly depicting the government meddling in the judiciary and engaging in fraud in public tenders.
It is an open secret that the government requested a ban on Twitter last week to prevent any further dissemination of voice recordings of corruption allegations although it cited violation of privacy as the reason. Erdoğan had signaled the closure of social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube on a live TV show earlier in March, but the ban was expected to take effect after March 30, in the post-election period.
Despite growing opposition and frustration among the urban and educated, Erdoğan still remains popular, especially in rural Anatolia. Thanks to the support of the extensive government-controlled media, the masses are not informed about the details of the charges against the government. In an effort to distract attention away from the serious accusations against himself, his son and his ministers, Erdoğan chose to create an adversary and fight against it throughout the local elections: the Hizmet movement and its leader, Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Avoiding referring to him by name, Erdoğan has constantly blamed “Pennsylvania” as being the root cause of almost all “evil” in Turkey and the force behind the graft investigation without presenting any concrete evidence.
The local elections, which will determine the metropolitan mayors of 30 cities and the mayors of 81 provinces, have effectively been turned into a referendum on the prime minister. Erdoğan announced his party would be cleared of corruption charges if the AK Party becomes the number one party in the polls on March 30. He has also described the elections as a “war of independence.”
Although there have been several polls ahead of the elections, their reliability is problematic in the country, where polarization is high. There is consensus that the AK Party will maintain its position as the number one party, but a reduction in the number of votes is expected. The question on everyone’s minds is the same: How much of a drop? Erdoğan’s party has pointed to the 39 percent it received in the 2009 local elections as a benchmark.
Aside from the general result of the local elections, the outcomes in Ankara and particularly İstanbul will be key. Being aware of the significance of a victory in İstanbul, Erdoğan is paying special attention to keeping İstanbul under his control. The race in İstanbul will be a competitive one between the AK Party and popular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Mustafa Sarıgül. The latter has criticized Erdoğan for governing İstanbul despite having current Mayor Kadir Topbaş and promises to govern İstanbul from İstanbul.