The Erbakan Election
In the wake of June’s Gezi Park protests and the almost-weekly protests and tear-gassings that have followed—and considering the endless corruption allegations of the past three months—one could be forgiven for assuming that the March 30 Istanbul mayoral elections might reflect these developments and deliver a rebuke, however slight, to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Clearly, such a result did not come to pass: AKP incumbent Kadir Topbaş was reelected with 3.7% more of the vote than previously. Nationally, the AKP actually gained mayoralties and all of the opposition parties—with the exception of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP)—lost localities they had previously held.
In retrospect, it was not the shadow of Gezi Park that hung over the election, but rather that of Necmettin Erbakan and his Islamist “National View” movement.
For decades, Erbakan was the preeminent Islamist politician in Turkey. In the 1960s, he broke with the ruling center-right Justice Party and set out on his own; in the 1970s, he partnered with the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) in order to enter the governing coalition; for much of the 1980s, he was banned from politics, but could take comfort in the fact that Turgut Özal, the brother of his ally, Korkut Özal, was the prime minister (and later president). By the 1990s, Erbakan had returned to politics as leader of the Welfare Party. In 1994, a new generation of party leaders won elections in major cities like Istanbul and Ankara. National elections in late 1995 gave the Welfare Party more seats than any other party and allowed it to form Turkey’s first “Islamist” government in mid-1996.
The Welfare Party government lasted only seven-months before the military moved against it, forcing Erbakan to implement a series of polices he could not accept before finally closing the party altogether and once again barring him from politics.
Over the following five years, members of Erbakan’s National View movement formed new parties only to see these parties shuttered by government authorities. With Erbakan unable to take direct leadership, different factions struggled for dominance until “reformists” led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül broke away to form their own party—the AKP. Emphasizing their break from the “traditionalists” in the movement, Erdoğan declared, “We have removed our National View shirts.”
But what of those who had not? In the 2004 municipal elections, the AKP’s Kadir Topbaş, running for the first time, received 45.3% of the vote—but the National View candidate, running under the banner of the Felicity Party (SP), garnered 5.4%. The dynamic repeated itself in 2009 with Topbaş winning the election with 44.2% of the vote and the SP candidate securing 4.9%. The enduring strength of Erbakan’s party was even clearer at the municipal level: in five of Istanbul’s ten largest municipalities, the SP won more than 10% of the vote. In Bağcılar, for example, the AKP won 49.2% and the SP won 13%—CHP support was a mere 18.7%.
In the past five years, however, the National View movement fractured again. From 2000 (when the reformists broke with the movement) until 2008, it was led by either Erbakan or his right-hand-man Recai Kutan, but in 2008, Erbakan turned over the SP leadership to Numan Kurtulmuş, a peer of Erdoğan’s who had remained loyal to the National View movement. Erbakan hoped that Kurtulmuş could reenergize the movement. Unfortunately, Erbakan was unwilling to relinquish his grip on the SP. At the 2010 party congress, he submitted an alternative slate of party leaders. Though Kurtulmuş fought off this attempt to undermine his authority, he and his allies ultimately chose to resign and form their own party—the People’s Voice Party. Erbakan briefly returned to the leadership of the diminished SP before his death in 2011.
In 2012, Kurtulmuş and his party merged with the AKP. Though, at the time, there was the possibility of a cabinet post, this has not yet come to pass. Although Kurtulmuş had been mentioned as a potential minister during the recent reshffle, it was rejected by President Gül on the grounds of “internal party balance”—though at least one commentator suggests that Kurtulmuş’ support of Recai Kutan over Gül in the factional struggles of 2000 may be a more significant reason.
By leaving the SP, Kurtulmuş reduced the party to nothing more than a personal party gathered around Erbakan—and with Erbakan dead there is nothing even left to gather around. Through absorbing the People’s Voice Party, Erdoğan co-opted the only real alternative religious voters had to his party and this strategy of uniting the religious vote has paid dividends in the recent elections.
The following statistics show percentages won by the AKP and SP at the municipal level in 2009 and 2014. (It is important to keep in mind that these do not show votes for the greater metropolitan mayor’s race, but rather for the municipal races. Nonetheless, they give a sense of relative party strength at the local level):
|2009 Municipal Elections|
|Municipality||% of Total Istanbul Population||AKP %||SP %||“Religious-Conservative Vote” %|
|2014 Municipal Elections|
|Municipality||AKP %||SP %||“Religious-Conservative Vote” %||% Change From 2009|
At the Istanbul mayoral level:
|Istanbul Greater Metropolitan Municipality|
Stripping aside political developments and simply treating the election as one of party allegiance, the Istanbul election results suggest a very stable religious-conservative voting block that remains unconvinced that parties that orient themselves around the nation or ethnicity (rather than religion and culture) have anything to offer.
Nor are these voters convinced by merely cosmetic measures: in Istanbul’s conservative Fatih municipality, the CHP nominated Erbakan’s nephew Sabri as its candidate. Despite incumbent Fatih Demir’s recent arrest on charges that he allowed construction projects to be built above subway lines, endangering lives, in return for kick-backs, Sabri Erbakan’s presence on the ballot only raised the CHP vote 2.2%.
Since the 2009 municipal elections, Erbakan has died and his personal party has fallen apart. Yet the movement he led lives on and, after a decade of fractures, Erdoğan has emerged as its undisputed leader—even if his shirt claims otherwise.
In 2009, the CHP won 13 provinces; the DSP (which is essentially a splinter of the CHP) won 2; the MHP won 10; the BBP (which is essentially a splinter of the MHP won 1; the BDP won 8; the AKP won 46; and the province of Şanlıurfa was won by Ahmet Eşref Fakıbaba, a local politician and former AKP member. In 2014, the CHP won 13, but the DSP province of Ordu was lost to the AKP; the MHP won 8, but the BBP lost Sivas to the AKP; the BDP won 9, plus the province of Mardin was won by Ahmet Türk, a former party leader who had been banned from party politics in 2009; the AKP won in 50 provinces.
“Recai Kutan veda ediyor,” T24, 10/25/08. Accessed: 4/1/14; Mustafa Peköz, “Tayyip’in Numan ata!ı Cemaat’in 2014 planını bozma çabasıdır,” Sendika.org, 6/14/12. Accessed: 4/1/14