Turkish citizens will head to the polls for the local elections on March 31, the first time since the country formally transitioned to presidential rule. These elections come amid warnings of an economic recession, and analysts are describing them as a referendum on Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The successive electoral victories of the AKP and President Erdogan have enabled ongoing economic prosperity, which has been often credited to social, political and economic reforms. With Turkey’s opposition parties calling on voters to hold the government accountable, the current economic slowdown will become a key influencing factor in the March elections.
The opposition parties’ attempts to blame the government for the crumbling economy have not been effective with some defiant Turkish citizens. Many nationalists depict the economic situation as a political assault on Turkey by foreign powers. Turkey’s relations with the US President Donald Trump were almost on the brink of collapse last year when the US imposed trade tariffs on Turkey in retaliation for the confinement of American pastor Andrew Brunson. As a consequence, Turkey’s economy has suffered, with the lira plunging a quarter in value, embattling the corporate sector and increasing hardships for ordinary Turks.
The sanctions from Washington have damaged the Turkish economy by halting foreign investment, increasing inflation levels to an all-time high and consequently curbing economic growth. This comes at an unfavourable time for President Erdogan. However, nationalism is an incredibly durable force in Turkish politics. For example, the Turkish government grasped an opportunity to gain domestic and international support during Jamal Khashoggi’s murder case, wherein Turkey was instrumental in leading the investigations into the murder. As a result, Turkey’s foreign policy has received strong support from all sides of the political spectrum.
With increasing public expenditure on infrastructure, such as the new Istanbul Airport, and rebalancing the current account deficit both priorities, the government has ruled out taking loans from the IMF, a claim used by the opposition to tarnish the government’s economic management. Turkey paid off its debt to the IMF back in 2013, a success that remains a hallmark achievement for the government. While the stark devaluation of the Turkish lira has adversely affected food prices for locals, it has led to a 63% increase to Turkey’s tourism industry in 2018. Turkey is on target to host 40 million foreign tourists this year, raising its rank to the sixth most-visited nation in the world.
Despite signs of an economic recovery, burdens are being felt by locals who have experienced a 31% increase in food. In response, the government has condemned ‘food terrorists’, suggesting that the rise in grocery prices are an attack launched against Turkey. The ruling AKP Party understands that it must maintain a majority of support on polling day. There are many factors that will influence voters on March 31, with the economy being the most pivotal factor, as the significance of these local elections will reflect the broader attitudes of Turks in a referendum on the leadership of President Erdogan.