The mediocre performance by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in coastal provinces in the West and the South in past elections was not necessarily the result of a purported threat to the way of life for residents in those regions. Some analysts had based their reasoning on a misconstrued perception that their way of life was at risk because of what they called the “Islamist roots” of the AK Party. However, two major reasons for the lackluster support by voters in these provinces are the economic woes in local markets and the Kurdish problem in southeastern Turkey.
Good macroeconomic indicators and impressive economic performance during the eight-and-a-half years the AK Party has been in government has failed to lift some industries or agricultural sectors that are vital to the economy of the coastal provinces. In some provinces, structural problems in the economy have lingered, and continue to keep hurting local businesses.
In the northwestern province of Balıkesir, for example, farmers are furious at the government over the losses they are experiencing due to record low prices for milk and fluctuating red meat prices. When an oversupply of milk drove prices downward farmers were forced to slaughter their dairy cows to benefit from rising red meat prices, which then pushed milk prices upward because of a shortage of milk cows. The structural imbalance is being blamed on the government.
The western province of Denizli was hit hard during the crisis in textile industry, losing tens of thousands of jobs during the global financial crisis. About a dozen textile companies in the region went bankrupt. Although the province has now bounced back to pre-crisis levels, and there have been new jobs created in other industries such as food and tourism, residents still blame the government for the job losses in traditional industries.
In another western province, Aydın, where cotton production is crucial to the local economy, the price of cotton is an important consideration at election time. Low prices in the local elections of 2009 helped a Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate win the mayoral race. The price of cotton has now stabilized and AK Party candidates are feeling more comfortable in winning over voters from the rural areas of Aydın in these elections. Although the price of cotton is determined globally in New York by ICE Futures US, farmers in Aydın still blame the government if the price falls dramatically. They are asking for subsidies and purchase price guarantees from the government.
Grape growers in the western province of Manisa, which also has a huge industrial base in consumer electronics and appliances, complain about high fuel and fertilizer prices in agriculture — neither of which are controlled by an energy-dependent Turkey. The opposition party is promising to slash fuel and fertilizer prices for farmers as well as waiving taxes and fees on these commodities, which is appealing to voters in rural areas.
Across all provinces in the Aegean and Mediterranean regions the number of agricultural inputs such as pesticides, fertilizers and plant hormones used in farming is higher than other regions. Therefore, higher input prices compounded with low produce prices are the main reasons why farmers in coastal areas are unhappy about government policies.
Developments in rural areas also have an impact on voters in urban areas. Most people in cities have managed to keep their ties to rural areas either through kinship or migration. Whatever is being talked in villages are also a subject of conversation in city coffeehouses.
The AK Party government also suffers from incorrect populist policies implemented in the past which are haven’t been in line with the realities of today’s world. Politicians used to view farmers as voting blocs at elections and offered huge subsidies and incentives to gain their votes, even if that meant the central budget would lose huge amounts of money. The transformation of agricultural policies in Turkey to reflect the changing dynamics of world commodities markets has not been completed yet. Agricultural producers are accustomed to expecting similar policies from this government as well, which has failed to live up to these expectations and disappointed them.
Added to this is a rise in Kurdish nationalism in the Southeast, which has turned a considerable number of voters against the AK Party, whom they blame for appeasing Kurdish violence after launching a Kurdish initiative two years ago to address the decades-old Kurdish problem. They say the AK Party government exacerbated the Kurdish problem, paving the way for secessionist movements and thereby creating a security risk not only in predominantly Kurdish regions but also in Western provinces where Kurds represent minority groups.
The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has been the primary beneficiary of pumped-up fears about Kurds in the coastal provinces. Recently, while I was speaking with a leading MHP candidate, Ali Uzunırmak, in a downtown coffeehouse in Aydın, a minivan decorated with posters of independent candidate endorsed by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) passed by. When I asked him how he felt about that, he said he was happy to see the BDP making appearances on the streets of Aydın. “The more they [BDP candidates] are visible, the more votes we will get,” he noted.
Nevertheless with the exception of three provinces, the AK Party is still the number one party in provinces located along the coastline in the Marmara, Aegean and Mediterranean regions. It picked up more deputies than any other single party in 2007 national elections. In İzmir and Muğla the AK Party was the second largest party after the CHP and in Mersin, the MHP became the first party, followed by the AK Party. The comfortable lead of AK Party candidates in the northern Black Sea region, in the eastern provinces or in the Central Anatolian heartland was not seen in the coastal regions of the Aegean or Mediterranean. But the AK Party is still expected to pick up at least half of the deputies available for any province in these provinces.
The threat to people’s way of life by the AK Party government is an old argument now. Even the main opposition party CHP, which used to campaign on that platform in past elections, has abandoned this argument. CHP candidates are now concentrating on the economic challenges faced by voters, especially farmers, in these provinces. Not a single candidate from the CHP that I have spoken with during a regional tour voiced any concern about the way of life. Instead they are talking about policy changes the party will implement if they come to power.
This is a strong sign that Turkish politics is on the way to normalization, running away from ideological conflicts that have no bearing in the preferences of voters.