Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Türkiye’s Municipal Elections: Why was Erdogan Defeated?

Türkiye's municipal elections signal a potential shift towards more decentralized governance and diverse political representation as opposition parties gain influence.

Türkiye’s Municipal Elections
Turkish President and leader of Justice and Development (AK) Party Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech after the Turkish local Municipal elections. Adem ALTAN / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

The Justice and Development Party (AK Party), under the leadership of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, faced its most significant political setback since assuming power in 2002, as evidenced by the results of the municipal elections announced on April 1, 2024.

In contrast, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), carrying the secular Ataturk legacy, achieved its best electoral performance in over 47 years. Consequently, Erdogan was promptly forced to acknowledge the defeat, pledging to rectify errors and honor the results as a clear message from the electorate.

These polls, taking place roughly 10 months after Erdogan’s reelection, went beyond mere assessments of the popularity of his policies. They underscored Erdogan’s inability to monopolize all sources of influence within the country, particularly given the substantial local and decentralized authority held by Turkish municipalities.

The ramifications of these elections extend to the upcoming Turkish presidential elections in 2028. This follows the renewal of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu’s term by the Republican People’s Party, who aspires to lead the opposition camp in the next electoral cycle.

A Landslide Victory for the Republican People’s Party

Erdogan initially banked on the fragmentation of the opposition in the recent municipal elections and its failure to coalesce into a unified coalition, unlike in the 2023 presidential elections. He also relied on the internal turmoil within the CHP following its defeat in the presidential race. The ruling AK Party anticipated better results in the municipal elections than in the presidential one, which it had essentially won.

However, the outcome took a starkly different turn. The CHP, which hadn’t secured a victory since 1977, emerged as the frontrunner this time in terms of the percentage of votes it obtained, garnering 37.76 per cent of the votes. Conversely, the AK Party, accustomed to dominating elections for the past 22 years, trailed behind with only 35.48 per cent of the votes.

This dramatic reversal in party standings marked a “turning point,” as Erdogan bitterly acknowledged, conceding that the elections revealed a decline in his party’s popularity nationwide.

Meanwhile, the CHP recognized the significance of its victory. The party’s leader, Özgür Özel, hailed it as a transformative moment, declaring that it had “changed the face of Türkiye.”

For the first time in over two decades, the opposition reveled in jubilant street celebrations, having achieved a sweeping triumph across Türkiye, challenging the ruling party’s dominance.

Other Opposition Parties’ Results

However, Erdogan’s defeat wasn’t solely marked by his concession to the secular opposition. The most significant indicator was the New Welfare Party’s unprecedented progress, garnering over 6.19 per cent of the votes, a notable surge from its previous 2.8 per cent in the 2023 parliamentary elections.

The New Welfare Party, an Islamist party opposing Erdogan, espouses nationalist ideologies. Led by Fatih Erbakan, son of the late Islamic leader Necmettin Erbakan, who laid the groundwork for modern political Islam in Türkiye, the party poses a direct threat to Erdogan’s leadership. Its ability to appeal to conservative social segments, pivotal to the AK Party’s support base, underscores this threat.

Moreover, the Turkish opposition successfully diverted votes from right-wing nationalists, with the nationalist Good Party securing 3.77 per cent of the total votes. This deprived Erdogan of crucial support within the nationalist movement. Furthermore, the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party, representing Kurdish interests, garnered 5.7 per cent of the vote.

Overall, Erdogan’s opponents, spanning diverse ideologies, collectively amassed over 54.5 per cent of the Turkish vote, elucidating the AK Party’s failure to retain its traditional strongholds. However, the most severe blow came from the decline in support among Erdogan’s accustomed voter base, coupled with a portion defecting to the New Welfare Party.

The Opposition’s Positions of Influence are Expanding

The shifting landscape of municipal influence mirrored the fluctuations in electoral support for each political party. In this recent election cycle, the AK Party experienced setbacks, losing control of 15 major municipalities out of the 39 it previously held. Conversely, the CHP saw significant gains, expanding its grasp from 21 to 35 major municipalities.

Notably, the CHP made inroads into conservative and eastern regions, such as Adiyaman, broadening its reach beyond its traditional strongholds along the western coast. This strategic expansion helped the secular party overcome longstanding regional and cultural barriers, particularly in less urbanized areas. Following the municipal elections, the party consolidated its influence across central Anatolia, the Aegean Sea and much of the Marmara region.

While it’s no secret that the CHP already held mayoral positions in Ankara and Istanbul prior to this election, what’s remarkable in the recent results is that it attained a majority in both municipal councils. This strengthened the party’s control over these key cities. In addition, the party secured victories in other major urban centers like Izmir, Adana, Mersin and Antalya.

Meanwhile, the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party emerged as the successor to the Peoples’ Democratic Party in regions with a significant Kurdish population. Formed essentially as a Kurdish alternative following legal challenges against the Peoples’ Democratic Party’s alleged ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party inherited its predecessor’s foothold in these areas.

Erdogan, the Economy and the War on Gaza

Numerous factors contributed to Erdogan’s resounding defeat, with economic conditions following the recent presidential elections being the most prominent.

Following the elections, Erdogan appointed a new economic team tasked with devising a plan to reduce inflation rates to below 65 per cent by the end of 2023, and further down to 36 per cent in 2024. Subsequently, Türkiye reverted to conventional monetary policies, overseen by the new Minister of Finance Mehmet Simsek.

However, 10 months after the conclusion of the presidential elections, efforts to curb inflation and stabilize the local currency exchange rate by raising interest rates to 50 per cent have yielded limited success. Despite these measures, inflation rates persist at levels exceeding 85 per cent.

Consequently, Turkish citizens continue to grapple with the ramifications of high interest rates, reflected in the costs of housing, consumer goods and commercial loans, all while the objective of inflation control remains elusive. Erdogan’s newly formed economic team has thus far fallen short of significantly improving living standards following the recent presidential elections.

Moreover, observers widely speculate that the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip has directly influenced the outcomes of the recent municipal elections. A substantial segment of the conservative and Islamic populace, upon which Erdogan’s support heavily relies, perceives the Turkish government’s response to the Gaza conflict as inadequate. Calls for action include popular movements urging the severance of trade ties with Israel or the restriction of Azerbaijani oil flow to the Israeli port of Ashdod via Türkiye.

From this particular perspective, one can grasp the increasing traction of Islamic parties opposing Erdogan. They have criticized the AK Party’s inability to address the demands of the populace concerning the Israeli offensive in Gaza.

In addition, Erdogan’s divergence from the Muslim Brotherhood movement has driven a segment of the Islamic populace toward alternative conservative factions. Consequently, the departure of some AK Party supporters from the electoral fold could be seen as a punitive response to the party’s actions.

The CHP has finally begun to see the fruits of its efforts in recent years. By embracing conservative social segments and adopting a new, moderate and tolerant form of secularism, the party has undergone positive transformations.

Former President Kemal Kilicdar took a significant step in 2022 by issuing a heartfelt apology and seeking forgiveness from veiled women who were unjustly barred from working in government institutions and attending universities during the 1980s due to decisions supported by the CHP.

These courageous decisions have enabled the party to effectively engage with conservative communities that it had previously struggled to represent.

In the upcoming period, Erdogan will undoubtedly focus on assessing his party’s performance in office leading up to the 2028 presidential elections. It’s evident that Erdogan will strive to address any shortcomings in his government’s economic agenda, particularly regarding anti-inflation measures.

However, the outcome of the recent municipal elections clearly indicates that an absolute monopoly of power in Türkiye is no longer feasible. It underscores the Turkish people’s enduring determination to hold the ruling party accountable.

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