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Punishing Erdogan?

Analyzing the defeat of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party

17 April 2024

The Turkish municipal elections held on March 31, 2024, brought about several surprises. The most significant of which was the opposition parties’ success in ending the Justice and Development Party's (AK Party or AKP) control over a predominance of Turkey’s 81 provinces. Turkish voters propelled the Kemalist Republican People's Party (CHP) to the forefront of the political scene for the first time since 1977. The opposition party managed to secure the top spot in the general vote for various major cities and municipalities across Turkey, with 37·77% of votes. Meanwhile, the AK Party came in second with 35.49% of the ballots, which some describe as the party's "biggest political setback" since its establishment, according to Turkey's Supreme Election Council President Ahmet Yener at a press conference on April 1, 2024.

The results of these elections exceeded the expectations of many analysts and politicians. On one hand, the ruling People's Alliance, led by the AK Party and the former opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), failed for the second time in a row to win major municipalities, including Istanbul and Ankara. The latter, which are typically the focal points of local electoral battles and strongholds of the AKP, have now become bastions for the opposition. In addition to its defeat in the majority of municipalities, the AK Party was also unsuccessful in municipal councils, resulting in its worst-ever electoral performance. 

In contrast, the CHP, Turkey’s largest opposition party, managed to gain control over the three largest municipalities in terms of economic significance and population size: Istanbul, the capital Ankara, and Izmir. Additionally, it increased its control over other municipalities and regions. This occurred despite the collapse of the short-lived, six-party Nation Alliance which came into being to challenge Turkey’s general election results in 2023 and the AKP’s People’s Alliance. 

This analysis aims to shed light on various developments that have arisen from Turkey's recent municipal elections. It will explore the reasons behind the shift in the party landscape and examine the potential repercussions of these elections on the future of political and party life in the country.

Electoral Background

The results of Turkish local elections have revealed several key phenomena, including:

1. Decline in voter turnout:

While Turkish voters typically exhibit notable interest in municipal elections, initial analysis indicates that a significant portion, ranging between 12 and 13 million, chose to abstain from the electoral process. As a result, general voter turnout rates in various Turkish municipalities and regions dropped to 78.5% or 48.2 million votes, out of a total of 61.4 million eligible voters. In the 2019 local election, voter turnout was approximately 84.7% or 48 million votes, out of around 57 million registered voters at that time.

Voter abstention is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of local elections in Turkey. Typically, these elections have seen the highest voter turnout rates among all electoral events. The reason for this is the extensive powers and responsibilities granted to the heads of municipalities and provinces by the Turkish constitution and law, especially since 2012. These prerogatives have allowed municipalities to enjoy relative autonomy in organizing their administrative and financial affairs, particularly in relation to basic services. These services include public transportation, housing and urban planning, health and education services, and other vital services that directly impact citizens' daily lives and quality of life.

2. New partisan landscape:

The current municipal elections in Turkey have brought about a significant reshuffling of the political landscape, resulting in a completely different political map compared to the traditional one that has been in place for years. This shift becomes evident when comparing the results of these elections to those held in 2019.

The changes in the political landscape are not solely due to the electoral surge experienced by the CHP, which has surpassed the AK Party to take first place. There are also several surprises revealed by the results. Most notably, the new Islamist New Welfare Party (YRP) has gained increased political influence, despite withdrawing from the People's Alliance. Additionally, the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Equality and Democracy Party has also seen a rise in political influence. These developments stand in stark contrast to the relative decline of the nationalist right-wing Kemalist Good Party, as well as the conservative parties that either support or oppose the AKP.

In this context, the New Welfare Party, led by Fatih Erbakan, secured third place in the 2024 municipal race, receiving 6.19% of the votes. This allowed the party to win the mayorship of a major municipality and another minor one, even though it did not have much political influence in the 2019 local elections. This led some to describe the New Welfare Party as the "dark horse" of the current elections. In a similar vein, the Peoples' Equality and Democracy Party (which was banned in 2005), the successor of the Democratic Peoples' Party, managed to capture three major states and seven minor ones, with a general voting percentage of 5.70%, securing fourth place in the new party landscape.

On another note, the far-right, ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party lost the only major state it had won in the 2019 municipal elections. Additionally, the number of minor municipalities it controlled has decreased from ten to eight, with a general voting percentage dropping from 7.31% to 4.99%. Similarly, the opposition Good Party failed to win any major municipality, similar to its performance in the 2019 elections. However, it managed to win one minor state, its only gain, compared to the 2019 election results, as the party's voting percentage plummeted to 3.77% from 7.45% in 2019. It is worth mentioning that none of the conservative-leaning parties, such as the Future Party led by Ahmet Davutoglu, Ali Babacan's Democracy and Progress Party, and Temel Karamollaoglu's Happiness Party, were able to win 1% of the vote. They experienced losses in densely populated areas, where voters are typically more inclined towards conservative ideologies.

3. Decline in the AK Party’s popularity:

For the first time since its political inception in 2002, the ruling party failed to secure first position in any of the electoral contests. The AKP  has suffered from a significant decline in popularity manifested through fewer votes since 2018. The most recent setback was President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's failure to win the presidential elections in May 2023 in the first round. The recent municipal elections also witnessed several shocks for the party.

Firstly, the AK Party's overall voting percentage in the municipal elections dropped to 35.49%, compared to around 44.33% in 2019. As a result, the party will manage a total of 24 municipalities in the next five years, which is a decrease from the previous number of 35. This includes 12 major municipalities instead of 14, and 12 sub-municipalities instead of 21.

Secondly, Erdogan suffered a significant blow in the recent election. Not only did he fail to regain the mayorship of Istanbul, the most important metropolitan municipality and the country's economic capital, but he also lost control of the city's municipal council. Despite securing a win in only 13 out of 39 municipalities, his defeat is particularly notable because it includes the loss of the Uskudar municipality. This loss is significant because Uskudar is where Erdogan himself resides and is often referred to as the "capital of conservatives" due to the high density of AK Party supporters in the area.

Thirdly, the candidates of the ruling party suffered defeats much greater than those experienced in the 2019 municipal elections. For example, the current mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, achieved a significant victory over his opponent, former Minister of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change and AKP candidate, Murat Kurum, with a margin of over 10%. While Imamoglu garnered 51.14% of the votes, Kurum won no more than 39.59% of the votes. Similarly, the mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavas, dominated the electoral race winning 60.44% of the votes, compared to his closest competitor from the AK Party, Turgut Altınok, who received 31.68% of ballots. Additionally, for the first time since their party’s establishment, AKP  candidates failed to win the municipalities of Adana, Mersin,  and Manisa.

4. Growing support for the opposition:

It could be argued that each loss suffered by the People's Alliance in the 2024 municipal elections has directly and indirectly benefited opposition parties, particularly the CHP. The results of these elections enabled the CHP to retain the top five municipalities, as well as increase the number of major municipalities under its control to 14, up from 11 in 2019. Furthermore, the opposition party had a sweeping victory in municipal by-elections, winning 21 municipalities compared to only ten in the previous elections.

Moreover, the local elections reshaped the CHP’s electoral geography. Traditionally, the party had a stronghold in certain municipalities in the western and southern regions of Turkey. However, in this election, its influence expanded to central Anatolia and eastern Turkey, areas that were previously considered unaffected by its appeal. As a result, the CHP achieved a historic milestone by winning municipalities such as Kırklareli, Kutahya, Killis, and Zonguldak for the first time ever. Additionally, the party secured victories in municipalities like Amasya, Bartın, Giresun, and Kastamonu, marking the first time since 1977 that it had triumphed in these areas. Furthermore, the CHP's success extended to municipalities like Edirne and Afyonkarahisar, where it had not emerged victorious since 1946, when the multiparty system was introduced in Turkey. These remarkable achievements were celebrated by the party's leader, Ozgur Ozel, during a press conference held on the day of the elections.

Interpretations of Election Results

The results of the 2024 Turkish municipal elections sparked widespread debate over their interpretation, and the most important reasons behind the outcome can be outlined as follows:

1- Economic problems:

Turkish citizens are facing economic hardships, leading to increased criticism of the government's policies. Despite efforts to periodically increase wages, the recent increase of the minimum monthly wage to 17,002 Turkish lira in December 2023, a significant 100% surge compared to January 2023, was deemed insufficient. This is due to the continuous erosion of the value of the Turkish lira caused by inflation, which exceeded 67% in February this year. The decrease in the value of retirees' pensions seems to have prompted many elderly citizens, who are a preferred voting bloc for the AK Party, to abstain from participation. As a result, they are "punishing" the ruling party in the municipalities.

2- Conservative Islamists’ dissatisfaction with Erdogan's policies:

The New Welfare Party's unprecedented win of 6.2% of the nationwide votes indicates significant dissatisfaction among a large percentage of conservative supporters with the AK Party's policies. Voters may have supported the New Welfare Party to express their grievances with the AKP, particularly after Erbakan insisted on running in the municipal elections alone and rejected attempts by Erdogan to reintegrate him into the People's Alliance.

This development comes amidst growing criticism from conservatives for Erdogan's approval of Sweden's bid to join NATO, as they believe Stockholm supports separatist Kurds. It also follows Erbakan's condemnation of what he described as close cooperation between Turkish companies and their Israeli counterparts. Erbakan accused Erdogan of double standards and failure to support the Palestinian cause during the war on Gaza, which broke out on October 7, 2023.

The voting behavior of conservative supporters seemed to be punitive, either by voting for the New Welfare Party or by abstaining from voting altogether.

3- CHP’s success in gaining opposition votes:

Despite Ozal's failed attempts to revitalize the main opposition Nation Alliance (also known as the Table of Six), and the decision of various alliance parties opposed to the AK Party's rule to field their candidates in the municipal elections, it seems that the electoral bases of these parties, who reject the AK Party's rule, have chosen to vote for the CHP as the most promising opposition party against the AK Party's candidates. This was evident, for instance, in the resignation of some members of the Good Party in protest against its split from the alliance, as well as in the CHP's ability to attract Kurdish votes in the western regions from the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Equality and Democracy Party.

At the same time, the opposition parties' voting percentages in the 2024 elections, compared to the 2019 elections, show a clear decline in their influence, particularly for the Good Party. This ultimately benefits the CHP. Furthermore, recent opinion polls conducted by Turkish institutions and research centers over the past two months have identified a group of undecided voters split between the AK Party and the CHP. It appears that the majority of these voters have ultimately chosen to support the Kemalist party in the elections.

4- Erdogan's gambles fail:

Erdogan's miscalculations in the Nation Alliance's collapse and the subsequent fragmentation of the opposition were evident. Despite the lack of internal coordination among the Table of Six during municipal elections, the CHP still managed to secure the largest share of votes from those who opposed Erdogan's AK Party policies. Erdogan's use of a nationalist-Islamic discourse appealed to conservatives and intensified criticism against secular and pro-Kurdish opposition parties. However, this strategy failed to rally conservative votes in favor of his party, as some opted instead for the New Welfare Party. Additionally, Erdogan's belief that selecting technocratic and non-partisan candidates, like Murat Kurum, who were interested in urbanization and development, would be well-received by voters proved to be inaccurate, as election results demonstrated.

Potential Ramifications

The results of the 2024 municipal elections have sparked speculations about the future of Turkish politics. On one hand, it appears that Erdogan will initiate a restructuring of the AK Party from within. His acknowledgment of the party's defeat in the local elections is significant, as he has promised it to be a "turning point" for reviewing previous policies and orientations. This is likely to involve a reassessment of party cadres involved in elections, particularly in the post-Erdogan era. Erdogan seems to be sensing concerns about the party's fate, given the increasing calls for radical reforms and fears of widening party defections after the departure of some of its historical leaders.

Moreover, the decline in the popularity of the AK Party, even if only temporary, may hinder Erdogan's plans to amend what he called the "coup constitution." Although he stated in early March that the 2024 local elections would be his last during his presidency, this would not prevent significant political maneuvering and a tug-of-war with opposition parties in the remaining four years of his term. This is especially true because some do not rule out the possibility of amendments that might allow Erdogan to run in the presidential race expected in 2028. Additionally, opposition parties are also aiming to change the constitution and return to the parliamentary system.

As for the CHP, it is expected to prepare steadily for the next presidential race, particularly after successfully implementing a structural change during the annual conference in November last year. This change, which received support and blessings from Ekrem İmamoglu himself, resulted in the removal of former party leader Kemal Kılıcdaroglu following his defeat in the previous presidential elections against Erdogan.

Those recent political developments have solidified the political rise of both Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas. Their remarkable victories over the AK Party's candidates in Istanbul and Ankara have left little doubt that at least one of them could be a potential candidate for the CHP in the upcoming presidential elections. Ekrem Imamoglu seems to have better chances, as he follows the famous Turkish saying: "whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey." Furthermore, his influence within the party has noticeably increased, and he is also younger than Yavas, who will be over 73 years old by then. However, it is important to note that Ekrem Imamoglu might face legal constraints in the coming years. He has been charged with insulting the Supreme Election Council, and although he has appealed the verdict of imprisonment, he still faces a separate corruption charge that has yet to be addressed by the courts.

In conclusion, Turkish local elections have unique circumstances and characteristics that set them apart from other electoral events. Recent indicators suggest that these elections have the potential to shape Turkey's political future, depending on the ability of the two major parties to gain voters' trust. On one hand, the AKP has the potential to quickly regain its popularity. It possesses resilience factors and may achieve an economic breakthrough that reduces inflation and restores Turkey's economic well-being. On the other hand, the CHP could attract more votes by demonstrating the administrative and financial efficiency of its winning municipal candidates. Additionally, improving the conditions of citizens and adopting a balanced discourse that does not alienate conservatives and other opponents could help the party gain support.