How the opposition won

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu waves in front of supporters as they celebrate outside the main municipality building following municipal elections across Turkey, Istanbul, 31 March 2024
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu of the CHP is emerging as a likely challenger to Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after his party obtained its best result since 1977 in last weekend's local elections (image: OZAN KOSE/AFP)

Turkey's economic woes are the reason why so many voters turned against long-sitting President Erdoğan, experts say.

By Elmas Topcu

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan set himself a specific goal in the local elections that took place over the Easter weekend. He wanted his party, the conservative, Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party, or AKP,  to win back the capital cities that they had lost to opposition politicians back in 2019.

But things did not work out according to that plan. In fact, the AKP did not win back the majority in Turkey's major cities and it also lost support in smaller provincial capitals, mostly to its main opposition, the centre-left Republican People's Party, or CHP.

According to preliminary figures, with nearly all ballots counted, the CHP got 37.76% of the vote nationwide.

In 21 smaller cities and 14 larger ones – including Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Bursa, Adana and Antalya – the CHP prevailed. 

The local elections were seen as something of an opinion poll on Erdoğan's current rule. The Turkish leader, who is more accustomed to victory, clearly felt the bad mood that Turkish voters are in. The AKP managed 35.48% of the vote nationwide. For the first time in the AKP's history, it was only the second-most popular party in the country.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (left) acknowledges supporters from a balcony as he stands alongside his wife, Emine, at AK Party Headquarters in Ankara, Turkey on 1 April 2024
Erdoğan seemed somewhat subdued as he addressed supporters as the results of Turkey's elections poured in; he acknowledged that his party had not got the result it wanted (image: Emin Sansar/Anadolu/picture alliance)

Turkey's economic problems to blame for AKP losses

Late on Sunday evening, Erdoğan, 70, spoke to his supporters but he was different from his usual ebullient self, and the crowd was unusually subdued. Erdoğan praised the Turkish elections as a good sign for Turkish democracy and he did not threaten the opposition.

"Unfortunately, we have not obtained the results that we wanted," Erdoğan told the crowd at AKP headquarters in Ankara. "We will of course respect the decision of the nation."

There would be a critical appraisal of the defeat, he added, noting that this was not the end for the AKP. Instead it would be a "turning point".

Turkey has been suffering as a result of Erdoğan's economic policies for several years now, including his insistence on low interest rates. Despite tax increases and other tightening measures, the government has not been able to get a grip on high inflation and the loss of consumers' purchasing power as a result. That meant that the state of the economy played a major role in electoral campaigning.

"It was precisely the tense economic situation that was decisive for the AKP's poor performance," said Salim Cevik, Turkey expert at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, or SWP.

During campaigns for parliamentary and presidential elections a year ago, Erdoğan handed out a lot of sweeteners, including to pensioners and low-income earners.

"This time, with empty state coffers, he couldn't afford it," Cevik told DW, "which led to defeat."

Supporters of the CHP wave flags and set off flares as they celebrate the outcome of Turkey's local elections Istanbul, Turkey, 31 March 2024
CHP supporters (pictured here in Istanbul) had every reason to celebrate: in Izmir, the CHP led by 10%, in Istanbul by 11% and in Ankara, by around 28% – a huge margin (image: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

All eyes on Istanbul

In order to win back Istanbul from the opposition, the Turkish president had even led election campaigning himself, rushing from event to event over the last few months. He also dispatched 17 ministers to do the same all over the country. They were not on the ballot but acted as though they were.

Erdoğan was most worried about Istanbul, a city of 16 million. The city is home to 20% of all employees in the county, and more than half of the country's exports and imports are handled there. Altogether Istanbul, Ankara and the cities of Izmir, Adana, Antalya and Mugla account for almost half of Turkey's economic output.

Istanbul is also a meaningful symbol for the Turkish leader. He was mayor of the city from 1994 to 1998 and he himself said during those years that whoever wins Istanbul, wins the whole country.

No stopping the CHP

Still, despite mobilising the entire state apparatus, the incumbent government didn't succeed in stopping the opposition. In the three most important cities – Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir – the CHP has a large lead, according to preliminary numbers. In Izmir, they led by 10%, in Istanbul by 11% and in Ankara, by around a whopping 28%.

In Istanbul, the city's popular mayor and CHP member, Ekrem Imamoğlu, will remain in his seat.

The election "marks the end of democratic erosion in Turkey and the resurgence of democracy. Istanbul won," Imamoğlu told supporters.

Observers say that the mayor's victory increase the chances of Imamoğlu positioning himself as Erdoğan's main challenger at the next presidential election, due to be held in four years.

"This is Imamoğlu's victory," Emre Erdoğan, a professor of political science at Bilgi University in Istanbul, said. Turkey is politically divided and Imamoğlu has managed to appeal to both the voters of the ultra-nationalist IYI party and those of the pro-Kurdish DEM party (formerly HDP).

"Now both he and the mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavas, can be considered potential presidential candidates," Erdoğan noted.

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Not the end for the AKP

However, the academic doesn't think this is the political end of the AKP. The ruling party still has a lot of seats on local councils and President Erdoğan has until the next elections in 2028 to consolidate his base.

Imamoğlu does pose a threat though, analysts agree. Just like the current president, the 52-year-old mayor originally comes from the more conservative Black Sea region. He too has attended Koran lessons and, just like Erdoğan, he places great emphasis on state mega-projects. He can mobilise voters and he is also considered to be charismatic, authentic and ambitious.

This is why he's an option for many urban Islamic conservatives and Turkish nationalists. He's not a deliberately polarising figure either and would therefore also be an acceptable candidate for many Turkish Kurds in the cities.

According to the SWP's Cevik, there is also another winner emerging after these local elections and that is the New Welfare Party, headed by Fatih Erbakan, the son of the founder of political Islam in Turkey, Necmettin Erbakan.

The father is considered one of the country's most influential Turkish politicians of the 20th century. Anti-secular and anti-Western, he founded the Millî Görüş (or "National Vision") movement in 1969 with the goal of transforming Turkey into an Islamic state and moving it away from Europe and towards other Muslim countries.

The movement is "under observation" by Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, because, although not illegal, it espouses Islamist views. 

In this election, Fatih Erbakan's conservative and Islamist New Welfare Party did not form an alliance with Erdoğan, fielding its own candidates instead. The party won mayoral seats in two cities and quite likely took votes from the AKP in doing so.

"As soon as an alternative to the AKP emerges on the conservative-nationalist spectrum, Erdoğan's room to manoeuvre will become narrower," Cevik explained.

It's quite likely that Erdoğan will try to tie the New Welfare Party more closely to his AKP party in the future. But for that to happen, the Turkish president would likely have to make many concessions.

Elmas Topcu

© Deutsche Welle 2024