The local elections held last March 25 decided the political future of Turkey — barring any further military intervention — until 1988, when the next general election is scheduled. This is why these elections were more important than the general election of November 6, 1983. This time all the political forces in Turkey were able to participate: SODEP (the social democratic party), the True Path and the Welfare Party were able to test their strength against the three parties represented in Parliament, namely, Motherland, Populist and Nationalist Democracy. People here thought that if the three new parties succeeded in winning more than 50 percent of the popular vote, the position of the parties in Parliament would become politically untenable and the ruling party would be forced to hold an early general election.
Turgut Özal, prime minister and leader of the Motherland Party, was sufficiently alarmed by this prospect to call the local elections as early as possible, before the opposition could mobilize its supporters and gather momentum. Thus elections which had to be held by law before November 24, 1984, and were expected to be held in June, were moved forward to March 25. But Özal need not have worried. Neither the opposition of the right nor the left had any constructive alternative to offer to the ruling party’s program except criticism and a promise to return to old and tired policies. At the same time, Özal manipulated with skill the power and patronage wielded by the government to his party’s advantage. He was able to offer deeds to owners of illegally constructed shantytown dwellings. He promised a higher minimum wage for workers and the immediate repayment of the percentage of pay withheld since 1972 to the civil servants. Moreover, Motherland was now the richest party since business councils had virtually abandoned the Nationalist Democracy Party since its November 1983 failure. This wealth was amply reflected in the campaign: Motherland was the only party rich enough to place full-page ads in the press and short feature films about the party in the cinemas. Özal himself introduced an effective innovation to electoral campaigning. He toured cities district by district rather than holding mammoth city-wide meetings as was the traditional practice.
Although Motherland received only 41.5 percent of the vote compared with over 45 percent in the general election, the results of the local elections were an overwhelming victory for Turgut Özal and the Motherland Party. Özal’s party won 54 of the 67 strongholds of social democracy — including Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Adana — won by the Republican People’s Party in 1977. But the real threat to the Motherland Party was thought to come from the True Path Party, the successor to the defunct Justice Party. The results showed that Ozal had contained this threat most successfully; his party won even in Isparta, the home province of ex-premier and Justice Party leader, Süleyman Demirel. For the moment, Özal’s party has emerged as the party of the right. The NDP is probably destined to merge with the TPP, to which it lost most of its votes — if the True Path is not dissolved by the Constitutional Court for violating the political parties law. The Islamist Welfare Party’s future remains uncertain, but no more promising than that of the National Salvation Party it replaced.
Whether Motherland can remain the party of the right depends on whether the right can remain sufficiently united to be represented by a single party. The situation in Turkey today resembles the situation that existed in 1965, when the Justice Party won the election. In the years that followed, Demirel’s economic policies split the right and led to the formation of a number of small parties. Özal seems to be pursuing similar policies, and the political consequences could be the same, despite the difficulties for small parties in the political system created since September 1980.
The social democrats did not fare as well as expected in these elections; they did not achieve their 40 percent potential. For one thing, SODEP and the Populist Party fought each other rather than their ideological opponents. Nevertheless SODEP has emerged as the second strongest party, and it might not be long before the Populist Party merges with it. Meanwhile, another social democratic party, describing itself as on the “democratic left,” is about to announce its formation. This can only help confuse the situation, if only temporarily. In reality, the immediate future of SODEP and social democracy in Turkey depends on whether a constitutional formula can be found enabling SODEP to represent left forces in parliament. The law, as interpreted at present, does not permit members of parliament to switch parties. Unless it obtains such a national platform, it is difficult to see how SODEP can grow during the next four years until the election of 1988.