- The AKP retains a large core of supporters who will vote for it (or its candidates) in the upcoming elections.
Decades of political science research into voter psychology shows that most voters have a long-term leaning towards one party or ideology. That is rooted in some combination of one's upbringing, of our individual psychology, and possibly even our genes.
This same research also shows that people are better at "motivated reasoning" than at objectively examining the evidence. We tend to fit new facts into pre-existing cognitive schemes. In other words, think about the effect of all the leaked corruption tapes of the past several weeks. For opponents of the Erdogan government, these tapes "prove" what they have known all along: that Erdogan is corrupt and engaged in some seriously dirty dealing. But for AKP supporters, it "proves" what they have known all along: that a nefarious plot of coup-mongers and outsiders is seeking to undermine Erdogan by using dirty tricks. Thus, it's not surprising that journalists have found plenty of (anecdotal) evidence of AKP supporters dismissing the corruption allegations against Erdogan. Our minds work hard to avoid cognitive dissonance, so supporters of Erdogan will tend to reject evidence that Erdogan is a corrupt leader. (To add a further twist, people vary in their preference for maintaining cognitive consistency over updating their beliefs, and my suggestion is that AKP supporters tend to fall into that camp that prefers consistency). Expect this to continue, unless and until the evidence of his corruption either becomes overwhelming or until trusted sources within the AKP validate the charges against him.
- The AKP has an impressive "machine" for mobilizing its supporters, and it uses state resources to enhance these efforts--giving it a considerable advantage over any of the opposition parties.
As a political scientist, I can only admire the AKP's ability to get its supporters out to rallies, to the polls, etc. It is miles ahead of CHP in this regard. One caveat: this has been true for a while. Certainly, it was true in 2009 and 2011. So, the AKP's mobilization advantage is probably more of a constant than a variable in terms of explaining what will happen on 30 March, unless you believe that the AKP has significantly improved its ability to mobilize voters since then.
(The good news for CHP voters? It's impossible to fall off the floor, so the opposition parties can only get better at attracting and mobilizing voters!).
- As a result, the AKP will receive by far the most votes, and control the largest share of mayorships and councils after the local elections.
For the CHP, the target should be 30%. Round numbers don't have any true value, but there would be something symbolic for the party in hitting 30% to show that it can mount an effective challenge as it moves on to the presidential campaign this summer and next year's (presumptive) parliamentary elections. Of course, the national vote doesn't matter in any substantive terms. But it has a lot of symbolic value: a strong showing by the AKP will embolden Erdogan to run for president, while a poor showing may deter him and/or convince AKP members to push for another candidate (and, possibly, another prime minister).
In terms of the three biggest cities, CHP will win Izmir. AKP will likely win Istanbul (though maybe not fairly...more on that). Ankara will be the major battleground, which AKP may well hold on to due to the opposition's failure to coordinate (more on that, too).
- The economy was roaring in 2011. It is still growing now. That will benefit AKP, as it has in every election since 2002.
Millions of trees have died to allow political scientists to document the strong relationship between the national economy and the incumbent's vote share. We call this "economic voting." Mostly, it occurs among that portion of the electorate that is not so closely attached to one party. When the economy is growing, they decide to support the incumbents. When things go badly, they decide it's time to give the opposition a chance.
Long story short: AKP first came to power in part due to economic voting as Turkey was coming out of an economic crisis in 2002. Then it won re-election in every election since due a strong economy. And the economy is still growing at a healthy rate of 3% or so at present.
It may seem unfair, but there are many voters who will not worry too much about corruption or abuses of power as long as long as it does not harm them directly. But that's how it goes. And, remember, this is only among those voters who can even be persuaded that Erdogan has done something wrong (revisit the first point about AKP supporters' motivated reasoning).
Turkey may well be headed towards an economic crisis in the next 2-3 years. But it won't happen before the local elections. So AKP will benefit from positive economic conditions.
- The AKP government will engage in electoral fraud, particularly in Istanbul
The stories are mostly anecdotal, but there are a lot of them: voters falsely registered at people's addresses, phantom buildings full of registered voters, oversupplies of ballots, etc. More to the point, the Erdogan government has demonstrated a willingness to subvert the rule of law to increase its power and get its way. Unless you truly believe that Erdogan considers elections to be too sacred to corrupt, then you would have to expect him to continue the same behavior.
In terms of where, electoral fraud is most likely to occur in contested municipalities that the AKP currently controls. The most obvious is Istanbul. In addition to being the largest city and a true electoral battleground, it also holds a lot of symbolic value for Erdogan.
- CHP and MHP, the two main opposition parties, will end up missing some crucial opportunities by failing to coordinate their candidates.
Prediction: the vote margin between AKP and CHP in both Istanbul and Ankara will be less than the MHP candidate's share of the vote. Meaning, of course, that a concerted effort by the CHP and MHP to unite behind a single mayoral candidate in either city could have produced an opposition victory.
Meanwhile, there are several western municipalities where a MHP incumbent may lose to an AKP challenger. For example: Manisa and Balikesir. If the two opposition parties had been smart and read their Cox, they would have traded candidacies: MHP would have supported CHP candidate in Ankara and CHP would have supported MHP candidates in Manisa and Balikesir. Some opposition supporters are apparently trying to organize this sort of coordination themselves, but it is unlikely to work at this late hour.
- What will turnout be?
Despite having mandatory voting laws, turnout in recent parliamentary elections has been around 80-85%. In the last election, 1 in 6 eligible voters abstained. Normally, turnout results from socioeconomic factors: the poor, less educated, and younger voters (basically, the more marginal members of society) tend to vote less. However, people also don't turn out to vote because they either don't care about the outcome, don't believe that their vote matters, or don't like any of the choices.
One can see how that latter group would matter in light of the Gezi Park protests. Last summer, this was a common claim: the protests had mobilized a group of young, educated, and urban individuals, who had grown up in the increasingly prosperous post-2002 Turkey. As the story goes, these individuals had become more frustrated with life under Erdogan in the years leading up to 2013, but saw no effective outlet for their dissatisfaction in the media or opposition parties. Thus, the Gezi Park protests mobilized large numbers of them into political action for the first time. Now, will these protestors turn out en masse to vote for opposition parties? If so, how much will that matter?
This is a tough question to answer, and it also affects pre-election polling efforts (which make assumptions about turnout rates among different groups of voters). If polling firms fail to predict a surge in protest votes, then they could end up overestimating AKP electoral support. But maybe this surge in votes won't really happen. It is unclear whether the protestors really had been that politically apathetic in 2011 and earlier.
- Just how much will all the scandals and leaks affect voters?
It is surprisingly hard to estimate just how the scandals might damage the AKP's standings. Particularly when you have scandalous leaks being released just days before the election. In the end, the confusing leaks and counter-narratives may confuse voters, it may lead some to rally around Erdogan, or it may lead them to decide it's time for a change. In the end, one would expect that the scandals have had to hurt the AKP somewhat, but it is harder to say how much.
There are, of course, many other things we don't know. To paraphrase Don Rumsfeld, there are things we don't know we don't know. But these are, I think, some of the major questions going in to Sunday's elections.