An end to AKP rule?

Hope for the opposition after the 2024 local elections in Turkey
Hope for the opposition after the 2024 local elections in Turkey (image: Khalil Hamra/dpa/AP/picture alliance)

Last week's local election results in Turkey are a setback for the ruling AKP party and President Erdogan – but do they also herald an end to the party's uncontested power?

Commentary by Tayfun Guttstadt

Local elections in Turkey have brought the worst overall result for the AKP since the party was founded. All the major cities in the west went to the opposition Kemalist CHP. The Islamist New Welfare Party celebrated a few surprise victories, and in the majority Kurdish areas the DEM – formerly the HDP – dominated by a large margin. 

It was only in their traditional strongholds in central Anatolia and on the Black Sea coast that the AKP's results were as good as they had been in previous elections. It remains to be seen whether this seals the end of AKP rule. But the aura of invincibility that surrounded the AKP for a good 20 years has certainly vanished. 
Supporters of the major opposition parties, the CHP and DEM, are walking around Turkey's cities with beaming smiles and shining eyes – the sense of powerlessness has been broken. Though we should remember that in Turkey, local politics has only a limited influence on the national level. 

The Republic of Turkey is a heavily centralised state, and in important matters, Ankara has the last word. The presidential system introduced under the AKP has further reinforced this tendency. There is no comparison with federalised countries like Germany. 

Feiernde CHP-Anhänger in Ankara (am Sonntagabend): Landesweit stärkste Kraft.
In Ankara, CHP supporters celebrated their party's historic victory after the local elections. It emerged as the strongest party nationwide (image: Ali Unal/AP Photo/picture alliance)

But politics cannot be understood through figures and vote shares alone – a lot of it is about psychology. People who think they are in the ascendent grow bolder and infect others with their enthusiasm. 

In the case of the AKP and Erdogan, overconfidence also seems to be a factor: the sheer omnipotence of recent years has led to them getting too comfortable. Bad policies have been blithely allowed to run on, and corruption has been too open, so that even supporters of the AKP and the MHP (its fascist coalition partner) have grown dissatisfied. 

Kemalist nostalgia and new realities

The CHP projects the image of a very modern party oriented towards Europe. Its voters see themselves not only as the ideal representatives of a modern Turkey, but as the true retainers of the republic. Many dream of a return to the past: the election victory was celebrated with images of Ataturk, with people saying that the true spirit of Turkey was back. 

But Ataturk's politics weren't necessarily suited to Turkey even in 1923. And 100 years later, they certainly aren't. Naked nationalism, a strict secularism modelled on France, while at the same time holding up Sunni Islam as a key pillar of the national character, Ataturk's authoritarian Jacobinism – this combination is responsible for many tensions and problems in Turkey (as well as several massacres). 

The new leadership of the CHP gives cause for hope, however: the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, and the new party chair, Ozgur Ozel, have shown themselves to be significantly more prepared to recognise Turkey's cultural, religious and linguistic diversity. The previous chair and presidential candidate Kilicdaroglu had based his campaign on an anti-refugee rhetoric that was a match for anything the AfD's campaign in Germany had to offer. 

Erdogan on the election trail in 2024
Erdogan's AKP party suffered massive losses in the local elections and for the first time in its history is now only the second strongest party at the polls (image: TUR Presidency/Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Anadolu/picture alliance)

Turkey has long been a country of immigration

Large sections of the CHP's base have a similar attitude: they believe Turkey must remain Turkish. Syrians and Afghans should go back to their home countries, they say; these people bring nothing but rape and criminality. The CHP seems to be looking back to a time that never existed – and one that is not desirable, either. 

The AKP has successfully opened Turkey up to the east, to Asia and Africa. Wealthy businesspeople are investing there, tourists from the Gulf States and Iran are spending plenty of money in restaurants and shopping centres, and workers from Africa are keeping the country running. 

Turkey has become just as much of a country of immigration as Germany is. Though unfortunately it is nowhere near as close to accepting this reality. Of all the parties, the CHP seems furthest from acknowledging the facts and being able to offer policies that reflect them. 

There is much talk of a supposed Islamisation of society after the long rule of Erdogan and the AKP. In part, this criticism is correct: large numbers of state contracts and properties are now being given to arch-conservative Muslim orders and fraternities who – like their spiritual brothers in the Catholic Church – regularly make headlines for the sexual abuse of children entrusted to their care. 

The Islamisation of society?

Religious content is being given more room in the education system, too. Though whether these policies will really lead to an Islamisation of society is questionable. 

Many religiously-minded friends whom I've spoken to in Istanbul over the last few days confirm that there is just as much discontent among the conservative and religious section of the population as there is in the secular part. But only a tiny fraction of the population at most has any interest in a religious state. 

“The only difference is whether there's a beer on the table or a cay (tea, editor's note). Otherwise, it's the same topics being discussed around the tables in all these houses,” a friend in Uskudar (on the Asiatic side of Istanbul) tells me. 

The frustrated AKP voters can be divided into three groups: those who once voted for the AKP mainly for pragmatic reasons are now voting for one of the secular alternatives (with Turks tending to choose the CHP and Kurds the DEM). 

Anyone for whom a conservative Muslim outlook is important has gone over to an Islamist party that is even more crude in some areas (The New Welfare Party or Yeniden Rafah Party, which feels it has to follow the tradition of Erbakan), while a not insignificant number of voters probably just stayed at home. 

Istanbul election winner Imamoglu (on Sunday): repeating the election success of 2019
Istanbul's mayor Ikram Imamoglu is the clear winner after the local elections and is already being touted as a promising candidate for the next presidential election (image: OZAN KOSE/AFP)

Imamoglu – Erdogan's great adversary?

Erdogan's hands appear to be tied. He has restructured the AKP and the Turkish state in order to pursue his one goal: securing absolute power. And in the process he has frightened away or lost all his competent allies and colleagues, such as Abdullah Gül, Ahmet Davutoglu, or the short-lived president of the Central Bank, Hafize Gaye Erkan. 

The people he has placed in important jobs come exclusively from his inner circle, and are mostly incompetent – his son is one example. A number of things have contributed to the tricky situation in which Erdogan now finds himself: overconfidence, as with his maverick tax policy (which he stuck to against all the advice from economists, and which is partly responsible for the disastrous inflation crisis); the mismanagement which is evident in many areas; a system of clientelism and patronage; but also the weaponisation of the judicial system, which offends the sense of justice of many core supporters.

He only managed to win the last election by shamelessly exploiting all the resources at the state's disposal, and even that only just got him over the line. 

In a free and fair election, he would surely not have emerged as the victor. If he now tries to repair the damage done to his image and make less use of his all-powerful status, defeat is highly likely. 

If instead he intensifies the cronyism, power displays and repression, the mood threatens to turn against him entirely. Turkey may have been restructured into an autocracy, but it is not yet a full dictatorship, so there is a realistic chance that this predicament will be his undoing. Now everything depends on the opposition, and on one man in particular. 

Syrian refugees in Turkey
Syrian refugees in Turkey: Turkey has become as much an immigration country as Germany. Unfortunately, it is not nearly as advanced in acknowledging this reality. Of all the major parties, the CHP seems to be the furthest away from recognising this fact and offering an appropriate policy (image: Felat Bozarslan/DW)

Ekrem Imamoglu emerged as a great victor in the local elections, and is already being treated as a promising candidate for the next presidential election. And it is no coincidence that so many people are placing their hopes on the mayor of Istanbul.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the CHP's former chair and presidential candidate, was over 70 with an uncharismatic, bureaucratic manner – he was scarcely able to compete with the eloquent Erdogan. By contrast, 52-year-old Ekrem Imamoglu has the necessary charisma and a demeanour that is not dissimilar to the president's.

Like the president, he comes from the Black Sea region, which has gained him the sympathy of many conservative nationalist voters. 

It seems likely that in the case of the HDP politician Selahattin Demirtaş, who was jailed without cause in 2016, it was his charisma as well as his politics that sealed his fate.  

Time for a liberal approach

Many devout, hijab-wearing women have now joined the workforce and entered public life in Turkey. They are working as lawyers, TV presenters, or heading up medium-sized companies. The Kemalists' great fear was that the public visibility of the hijab would encourage the Islamisation of the country. 

But in truth, the AKP's politics has led to many women now refusing to accept a patriarchal social order that keeps them indoors and tries to prevent them from having careers, iPhones and Instagram. Many people from across the religious spectrum – especially women – take a very liberal stance and are fierce critics of the government. 

The task now is to bring this section of society into a modern politics, rather than accusing them of backwardness and doggedly attempting to re-educate them to follow the Kemalist tradition. Large parts of the CHP are still reluctant to acknowledge religious people as having equal rights in a democratic Turkey, and to take them seriously in discussions, in business and political life. 

Movement on the Kurdish question?

At least as important is the issue of minorities, first and foremost the Kurds. The CHP's two most important representatives, Istanbul's mayor Imamoglu and the party chair Ozel, have already shown in various speeches and announcements that on this issue, they are a long way ahead of the traditionally very nationalist elements in the CHP, who go so far as to deny the very existence of Kurds. 

With a potential vote share of 10 to 20 percent, the DEM (formerly HDP) which grew out of the Kurdish freedom movement is the most important opposition party after the CHP. It has managed to make gains despite unbelievable repression, with huge victories both on home ground – in the majority-Kurdish regions – and elsewhere. At the same time, the party took a clever tactical approach in the important large cities, often dealing a crucial blow to the AKP. 

Thousands of people demonstrate in Turkey against the cancellation of DEM candidate Abdullah Zeydan's election victory
Thousands protested in Turkey against the cancellation of DEM candidate Abdullah Zeydan's election victory – with success (image: Murat Kocabas/Middle East Images/AFP/Getty Image)

Instead, the DEM has made it clear time and again that it sees itself as part of a politics that wants to bring human rights and liberal freedoms to the whole of Turkey. And to this end, the party would work with the CHP to build a democratic Turkey. 

The CHP should have the courage and the confidence to take this outstretched hand, instead of trying to appeal to voters on the right and the fascist fringes, as they so often did in the last elections. 

We remember: The AKP's initial success was in large part thanks to its liberal politics. State broadcasters produced programmes in Kurdish, and Armenians, Greeks and Jews were able to open places of worship for the first time, which had not previously been possible under Turkey's supposed policy of secularism.

The CHP now needs to create a similar momentum and present Turkey with a narrative that acknowledges the cultural and religious diversity of the country's history and population, while managing to unlock the country's economic potential in a democratic way. The first decade under the AKP proved in no uncertain terms that this potential exists. 

AKP: omnipotence and overconfidence

The local elections have sent an important signal, in all directions: the CHP and DEM are motivated and full of hope, while uncertainty and disenchantment are spreading within the AKP. But the AKP government continues to exercise an unchecked power, as evidenced by the obvious vote-rigging in many Kurdish areas. 

In Sirnak/Sirnex in the majority-Kurdish region of Southeastern Anatolia, and in other majority-Kurdish areas, huge numbers of soldiers and security personnel were bussed to polling stations. They were told to vote for the AKP, which in many places tipped the balance and helped the AKP or its partner the MHP to an election victory.  

Evidence of this vote-rigging appeared in videos and on social media, and it happened virtually under everyone's noses. Under Turkish law, serving soldiers are not allowed to vote in elections – there is even an authority that could stop this flagrant breach of the law by the AKP. 

But at the same time, we can see that the AKP is performing a balancing act, and has to be careful not to push its power too far: in Van/Wan, which also has a Kurdish majority, Abdullah Zeydan from the DEM won the election by a large margin. He had previously gained state approval as a candidate. 

Here you can access external content. Click to view.

Failed election fraud

Shortly after the election, the Supreme Election Council (YSK) had a sudden, though unsurprising change of heart: Zeydan, they said, had been ineligible to stand, and so could not take up the office of mayor. The candidate with the second highest number of votes should become mayor instead – and that was the AKP candidate.

This blatant and undemocratic attempt to prevent the election of the DEM politician proved to be a miscalculation. It was not just the DEM but the CHP's most important voices who protested against this "coup". The population of Van/Wan took to the streets en masse, images of ruthless police violence did the rounds on social media, and even committed supporters of the government regarded the decision made on election night as an obvious injustice. 

The AKP had to backtrack and Abdullah Zeydan was given the mayoralty with one day's delay. The speed at which the Supreme Election Council made the decision and then reversed it in the face of resistance underlines the arbitrary and political character of what happened here. 

But this story also shows that the AKP fears a serious loss of legitimacy. The already inadequate democratic structures of the state apparatus may have been hollowed out and reshaped into an autocracy, but Erdogan and his party are still reliant on the support of a majority that is at least stable and committed. 

Now everything depends on whether the CHP and Imamoglu are able to seize the moment, read the changes in Turkey correctly and pursue policies that will transform Turkey into a liberal democracy, without scaring off their largely nationalist and elite core voters. Imamoglu seems to have the potential to do it. 

Tayfun Guttstadt

© 2024