EU should not underestimate the anti-populist message from Turkey
It has been a month since the local elections were held, and we still do not know the official result of Istanbul - Turkey’s most populated and economically-important city. Once again, the governing coalition is missing out on a tremendous opportunity to govern for four consecutive years without the disruption of an election.
The period without a change in leadership provides a golden opportunity for the ruling coalition to accomplish reforms, especially focusing on the ailing economy.
Yet instead of a “back-to-business” mood, the country stands in limbo especially on the question over a possible renewal of elections in İstanbul. The insistence of the ruling coalition on its objection to the results in Istanbul and the visit of a Justice and Development Party (AK Party) delegation to the Supreme Election Council reinforces the negative perception in the West over the credibility of institutions in Turkey. That conviction plays an important role in the erosion of confidence in the Turkish economy.
That’s the downside of the elections, especially looking from Europe. But there is also an upside. Following an electoral campaign period marked by unequal playing field, the results have been clearly disappointing for the ruling coalition even if its leaders claim otherwise. The more than 50 percent of the votes the governing coalition got is a very serious accomplishment especially in times of serious economic strains.
Still, when you consider that the main opposition party won several big cities - including the political and economic capital, this is a major election victory for the opposition, especially in view that they won on an unequal playing field.
Following the election victory of Mark Rutte in Holland and Emmanuel Macron in France against populist parties, election results in Turkey can be considered as a third major setback for populist and anti-liberal trends.
Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, who is recognized overwhelmingly by Europe as a populist and authoritarian leader, won a third term in April 2018 elections.
Elections last year in Italy brought a populist coalition to government. Local elections last February in two regions considered swing constituencies showed that far right is in charge of Italy.
The election outcome in Turkey is a major challenge to a government whose populist decisions have been blamed for the ailing economy. The government’s security-focused policies, which makes it a target of European criticism for having a democratic deficit, might still be inadequate to shift voters towards the opposition. Still, it shows a desire for normalization in a country that wakes up each morning to news of new detentions.
The European community, therefore, should not underestimate Turkey’s democratic resilience.
Current signs may diminish optimism that the government will take up a reform agenda that includes fundamental freedoms. As a result, official relations between Turkey and the EU will most likely remain at a standstill.
However, a perfectly legitimate channel of cooperation could open between EU institutions and local municipalities especially those under the control of the opposition parties.