People in Turkey casting their vote at the general elections held in 2018. (Photograph: Firat Topal)

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stepped up his already inflammatory political rhetoric ahead of March 31 local elections that some analysts predict may deliver a power shift in favour of the opposition.

Erdogan’s aggressive oratory has become a traditional feature of all pre-election periods, and it seems to resonate with his constituency. Analysts say that his tactic of focusing campaigns on supposed enemies threatening Turkish society has been effective in distracting public attention from real problems such as high inflation and unemployment.

During this year’s campaign, Erdogan has repeatedly shown graphic footage of the recent New Zealand mosque massacre at rallies for his Justice and Development Party (AKP). He has also accused the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, of being “hand-in-hand with terrorists” because of comments that terrorism had its roots in the Islamic world.

But polls held in recent weeks show that Erdogan and his party may lose support in some major cities including Istanbul and Ankara, which they currently control. Some of these surveys were even conducted by agencies close to the AKP.

“I don’t have confidence in surveys,” Erdogan said during a recent television interview, in response to poll results indicating that the opposition was leading in some major urban centres.

Following his comments, the ruling coalition of conservative AKP and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) also began criticising polling firms for manipulating public opinion.

Baris Yarkadas, a former CHP lawmaker, says that the AKP previous enthusiasm for these polls had suddenly been replaced by distrust.

“The results are not as the AKP would want them to be,” Yarkadas said. “They panic when they see these results.”

Ibrahim Uslu, general manager of the ANAR research agency, said that this time Erdogan’s tactics of using external enemies – real or imaginary – to mobilise his voters may not work.

“A political discourse focusing on the survival of Turkey and accusations targeting the opposition does not have the same impact on voters as it did in the past because people are mostly concerned with the problems in the economy,” he said.

Semih Turan, head of the Bulgu Arastirma research agency, agreed that falling purchasing power and rising prices may have a big impact on the local elections, although he warned this may be manifested more in low turnout than in changed political allegiance.

“In these elections, living costs, unemployment and poverty are the main problems that people want to be addressed by the candidates,” he continued. “All other issues are far less important.”

Food prices have increased by 30 to 40 per cent since last August, which Erdogan and AKP officials have blamed on shadowy external powers as well as the greed of supermarkets and stallholders alike.

Erdogan has explicitly described these rising prices as “a terrorist attack” and vowed that the government will fight them as fiercely as they do acts of violence.

Assistant Professor at a university in northern Turkey, Fatih Yasli, says the current economic crisis in Turkey will be a real test of the loyalty of AKP voters. (Fatih Yasli’s own photo).

In a bid to combat these high prices and to score points with their electorate, municipal AKP officials have organised mobile kiosks selling vegetables, fruits and beans at lower-than-market price. Although such produce costs only a few Turkish lira less, people stand in long queues in front of these kiosks hoping to save some money.

Assistant Professor Fatih Yaşlı at the International Relations department of the Abant İzzet Baysal University in northern Turkey points out that the current economic crisis will be a big test for the AKP and will show how loyal its voters really are.

“AKP came to power in 2002 as a result of people’s dissatisfaction with the economic crisis in 2000 and 2001. After 16 years, we now have a serious problem with inflation and unemployment again that might affect even the voters who have been very loyal to AKP. They might decide to give a lesson to AKP and vote for other parties, or abstain from voting”, Yaşlı said. “That would certainly increase the opposition’s chance to win in some bigger cities, including Ankara”, he added.

A food market in Istanbul.  Food prices have increased by 30 to 40 per cent since last August making life very difficult for ordinary citizens in Turkey. (Photograph: Firat Topal)

In his campaign this year, Erdogan has been particularly vituperative about the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is supported mainly by Kurdish voters. Having received six million votes in the 2018 general elections, the HDP is currently the third largest party in the parliament.

Erdogan regularly brands the HDP as terrorists and traitors and warns that they plan to create a Kurdish state-within-a-state.

‘There is no such place called Kurdistan in Turkey. There is Kurdistan in northern Iraq, so get the hell out of here and go there,” he told a recent rally.

Observers note that the president has a very practical reason for targeting the HDP because their voters may be able to shift the balance of power not only in major cities such as Istanbul, but also in areas including Adana and Mersin in south-western Turkey.

During the state of emergency imposed after the failed coup attempt in July 2016, elected municipal officials in nearly 100 municipalities ruled by HDP were dismissed and replaced by state-appointed trustees. Many local HDP politicians, as well as members of parliament, were arrested.

The HDP intends to try and win back some of these areas, an outcome Erdogan has already warned will not be acceptable.  

“If people involved with terror are chosen in the ballot boxes in these elections, we’ll immediately do what’s necessary and continue on our path by appointing trustees,” he said last October.

In addition, the HDP has allied with seven smaller political groups in a strategy that aims to deliver HDP votes to a CHP partnership with the Good Party (IYI) that may seriously challenge AKP control.

HDP spokesman Saruhan Oluc said that these verbal attacks on the party reflected AKP fears of losing several cities to the opposition.

“Also, Erdogan is trying to prevent a shift among nationalist voters by using ‘Kurdophobia,’” he said.

Opposition figures have called for unity ahead of what they hope will be a historic opportunity to shift AKP control.

At a March 17 rally, IYI leader Meral Akşener warned that Erdogan was also trying to divide the opposition with his inflammatory rhetoric.

“We are heading to local elections, but it is as if we are heading to a war,” she said. “[Erdogan] managed to win every time over the last 17 years by making us fight each other.”