Sunday's local elections in Turkey might have yielded results, but they offered very little in the way of resolution for a deeply divided Turkey -- far from it, in fact. Considering that the opposition is challenging the vote's final tally in several spots, most importantly in Ankara, and that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees his party's strong showing in the polls as an affirmation of his divisive brand of politics, Turkey, with presidential elections coming up this summer and parliamentary ones in the beginning of 2015, is looking at a near future filled with more polarization and further domestic upheaval.
Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) won an estimated 45 percent of the total vote and held on (unless recounts prove otherwise) to Istanbul and Ankara, set the tone for the upcoming long election season with a victory speech that promised vengeance for those who targeted his party before the election with leaks of recordings that linked the PM and his inner circle with high-level corruption. "From now on, we’ll walk into their dens. They will pay for this," Erdogan said in a speech that was dismissive of the entire opposition in general.
The AKP's share of the national vote this time around actually decreased by some five points compared to the previous election, in 2011, but Erdogan, who had gone into Sunday's poll facing the most serious political crisis of his career, appears to be looking at his party's success as vindication for the kind of polarizing politics and vitriolic language he used on the campaign trail. Writes Turkey observer and Lehigh University professor of international relations Henri Barkey in The American Interest:
Increased polarization, with each side vilifying the other, is likely to intensify Erdogan’s already pronounced authoritarian tendencies. It remains to be seen how wide and deep his post-election revenge will be. He may further punish businesses, as he has already done in selective cases, for supporting the opposition, whether in the March elections or in the earlier anti-government demonstrations of May and June 2013.
Turkey is in for a rough ride as both sides mobilize for a “war to the end.” Suspicion, fear, and retribution are likely to be the dominant themes of the coming months.
The AKP's victory does come with several large question marks attached to it, particularly with regards to the very close vote in Ankara, which was marked by numerous irregularities, from some polling stations registering more than 100 percent turnout to votes from one party being incorrectly registered to another. The opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate there, Mansur Yavas, is asking for a recount and still has a chance to pull off an upset.
But the furor over government efforts to manipulate the vote in Ankara and some other places shouldn't obscure the fact the the CHP, Turkey's main opposition party, has some serious soul searching to do. Following Sunday's vote, party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu pointed out to the fact that the CHP managed to increase its overall share of the national vote (almost 29 percent) and that the result "shouldn't be seen as a failure." But a look at the electoral map shows that the CHP remains stuck pretty much where it was during the previous local elections, as something of a regional party whose strength is mostly limited to Turkey's more liberal Thrace and Aegean areas and which has limited support in the Anatolian heartland and almost zero support in the predominantly-Kurdish southeast.
Where the party scored a clear upset, in the city of Hatay, near the Syrian border, the CHP won by running a former AKP member, while in Ankara it ran a very competitive campaign by fielding a candidate whose roots are in the right-of-center Nationalist Action Party (MHP). For a party long associated with the Turkish left, it would appear that winning future races will involve finding more candidates from the right side of the political spectrum, a move that could face resistance from the party's old guard.
Even more soul searching, though, should be done by the Islamic Gulen movement, described by many as the biggest loser in Sunday's elections. Once an ally of Erdogan's, the civil society movement had a very public falling out with the Turkish leader late last year and has since been accused by the AKP and others as being behind the corruption probes and leaks targeting the PM. Prior to the election, Gulen-affiliated media ran articles and columns that were very critical of the Erdogan government and movement officials hinted their membership would punish the AKP at the ballot box. At the end of the day, though, the support of the Gulenists made very little difference for the opposition, leaving the movement looking ineffectual and facing the danger of Erdogan's revenge. (As if to give the Gulen movement a taste of what's to come, the websites of several of its media outlets, including the English-language Today's Zaman, were subject to a crippling, several-day-long cyber attack that started on Sunday.)
That one of the few clear outcomes of these elections is that a significant segment of society should now be in fear of being the target of serious political retribution gives an indication of just how divided Turkey is right now and how toxic its politics have become. Erdogan and his party showed on Sunday that they can win. Whether they can govern responsibly is another question.