Can Erdoğan’s AKP win Ankara again?

Can Erdoğan’s AKP win Ankara again?

Resistance to the will of President Tayyip Erdoğan from within his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) has started from where it should have actually been expected: The municipalities.

When the mayor of the capital Ankara, Melih Gökçek, who has been holding the post since 1994, did not obey the call of Erdoğan, who is now also chairing the party thanks to the vast powers he gained in the April 16 referendum, it was first considered a simple “bargain behind closed doors,” which is not very rare in Turkish politics. But as time went by, with Gökçek’s reluctance leaving its third week behind despite repeated calls by Erdoğan, pro-government media have started to denounce it as a “resistance.” 

But ironically, both the denouncement and Gökçek’s silent stance started giving the impression of a real inner-resistance. Some other mayors from the AK Parti in the western cities of Bursa and Balıkesir, Recep Altepe and Edip Uğur, refused the resignation calls by Erdoğan. Altepe told the press that he had his own power base in Bursa and could win the municipality as an independent candidate as well.

That is the crucial point of the debate. Municipal elections are perhaps the most democratic elections in Turkey, relatively speaking; unlike the parliamentary elections, in which candidates are named by the party’s headquarters, mainly the chairman. (With the exception of the Republican People’s Party [CHP] which gives partial independence to grassroots groups.) Voters usually cast their ballots for the party of their choice in parliamentary elections and not for individual candidates. But in municipal elections, the candidate matters.

Like Altepe and Uğur, Gökçek in Ankara has his own power base. All three did not make their debuts in politics with Erdoğan or the AK Parti; they have their own political backgrounds. Kadir Topbaş, who resigned from being the mayor of Istanbul late September, has his own political background; in fact, older than Erdoğan’s. But the fact that his resignation came earlier than expected by the AK Parti headquarters, with complaints of not being treated appropriately, has been the first blow to the game plan of Erdoğan to have a smooth in-house cleaning to secure unquestioning loyalty to the leadership.

Now almost every potential dissident in the AK Parti have been encouraged by Gökçek’s “resistance,” and if it is correct to say, are hiding behind him. If not a proper resistance, Gökçek’s stance demonstrated that Erdoğan was not irresistible to other AK Parti fellows. The debate has demonstrated a number of other fault lines within the AK Parti. The heroes can turn into traitors the next day, depending on the leader’s will. Topbaş and Gökçek are examples of that. It also raised questions about the priorities of Erdoğan and the AK Parti: The leader’s choice versus the people’s vote. Political commentator Ruşen Çakır said in his column on Medyascope that the debate cast a shadow over Erdoğan’s slogan of “Whoever comes with an election, should go with an election.”

As the debate - which is highly corrosive to the AK Parti - continues, it can be said that the AK Parti can lose Ankara in the March 2019 municipal elections, unless:

1- Erdoğan makes peace with Gökçek, keeping him at the helm despite all accusations. But that is not very likely after the intimidation campaign. However, nothing in politics is completely impossible.

2- Erdoğan convinces a pragmatist figure like Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım for Ankara after getting rid of Gökçek. A candidate like Ali Babacan could mean that Erdoğan needed his predecessor Abdullah Gül’s help.

3- The opposition makes a huge mistake (if Gökçek goes) and does not join powers against an AK Parti candidate. A possible scenario of the CHP showing its 2014 candidate Mansur Yavaş and Meral Akşener’s new party on the right supporting him could be a winner. 

Because it is not likely that Gökçek and his team would sacrifice themselves for the victory of Erdoğan, if Gökçek either resigns, gets fired, or is put in prison. 

Erdoğan has said a number of times that winning Istanbul and Ankara again in the March 2019 elections would be the key to win the parliamentary and presidential elections of November 2019. In both cities, “No” to Erdoğan’s extensive powers prevailed in the referendum. Referendums are not like elections, but in Turkey the party that wins both Istanbul and Ankara usually wins the general elections. İzmir, the third largest city, is a CHP stronghold anyway; and Bursa is the fourth most populated city.

If the row within the AK Parti continues in such a manner, and opposition parties do not commit a huge mistake, the AK Parti might lose Ankara in the next elections. The outlook for Istanbul is even more complicated, which deserves another analysis.

Opinion, Murat Yetkin,