AK Party bleeding in Samsun over economic hardships, corruption woes

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) continues to suffer in Samsun, a northern province of 1.3 million residents in the Black Sea region, as a result of unfulfilled pledges, economic woes and corruption scandals.

Although the AK Party is still the favored party in the province, its campaign lacks enthusiasm and AK Party candidates are effectively absent from the field, confining themselves to hall meetings with screened guests, according to the several accounts provided by the opposition candidates.

“They do not want to expose themselves to backlash from voters on the streets that may hurt their campaign,” Aslan Karanfil, a former bureaucrat and an active campaigner on behalf of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), told Today’s Zaman.

“There is renewed vigor in the opposition parties’ campaign this time around in contrast to the 2011 parliamentary election,” he added.

Corruption investigations that implicated senior government officials have also taken a toll on the popularity of the AK Party, he underlined.

Karanfil acknowledges that the opposition is facing an uphill battle because the ruling party is illegally using state resources for campaign purposes.

Not only have the government’s resources been supporting AK Party candidates at taxpayers’ expense, so have the governor, mayors and local civil servants who are closely affiliated with the AK Party.

The AK Party has plastered ads over some 10,000 square meters of billboard space, which is quite unprecedented, Karanfil says.

Nevertheless, both the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) vigorously renewed their campaigns in this province in contrast to the AK Party.

The MHP has top-notch economist Erhan Usta as the leading candidate in Samsun province. A graduate of Northeastern University, Usta served as the deputy undersecretary at the Ministry of Development.

“Samsun has been performing very badly in economic terms and [is] way below the national average,” Usta told Today’s Zaman.

Unemployment is on the rise, the capacity utilization in industry is low and migration outflow is increasing, he said.

According to the Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat), the rate of net migration in 2014 was -2.7 percent for Samsun.

Usta predicts the national economy will grow around 2 percent this year, way below the 5 percent average among emerging economies.

“It will be difficult to find financing with this slow growth,” he warned.

The CHP brought new enthusiasm to the campaign in Samsun by conducting primaries to determine its candidates as opposed to party leadership handing down names.

The CHP’s economic program also energized its campaign in Samsun, according to Dincer Soylu, the CHP provincial chairman.

“What we offer in terms of increased benefits to pensioners, laborers, farmers, the unemployed, students and families that struggle with low income and heavy debt has not been emulated by other parties,” he said.

Soylu criticized the government for wiping out the industrial base in the province and reducing the whole economy to shopping malls and a coal-fired power plant.

Predictions for the June 7 general election are often based on the results of local elections in March 2014 which determined, among others, the distribution of seats in provincial councils. The percentages political parties obtained in provincial councils are generally accepted as the best indicator of how people will vote in national elections.

In Samsun, the AK Party received 49.8 percent of the vote in provincial council elections, a drop of some 12 percentage points from the results of the 2011 national election.

The ruling party won six deputy seats out of nine available in Samsun in the 2011 election. The CHP got two seats with 21.7 percent, while the MHP received one seat with 11.3 percent.

The AK Party is expected to lose one seat to the MHP, as the nationalists are picking up more support for the June election.

The AK Party’s popularity has been eroding in the predominantly center-right province, as the party is no longer seen as representing progress.

The decrease in the AK Party’s popularity will depend on the performance of the party’s leadership nationwide. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoilu has so far failed to stem the decline, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rushed to the scene to keep voters from defecting.

In Samsun, this seems to be backfiring, as many people question the partisan attitude of the president, who is supposed to be impartial and independent according to the Constitution yet is campaigning actively on behalf of the ruling party.

Former Sports and Youth Minister Suat Kilic, who has a strong base of supporters in the province, was alienated by the party’s leadership. He has not been campaigning on behalf of the party despite being asked by the leadership to work in the field.

His successor, caiatay Kilic, also from the province, is a low-profile member of the Cabinet and does not command the same clout as Kilic in local politics.

If one thing is clear in Samsun, the ruling party is on the retreat, as the opposition parties have been galvanized to make inroads into the traditional support base of the AK Party.