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Türkiye’s municipal elections deal a significant blow to Erdoğan’s two-decade rule

As the election dust settles, will the current government address Türkiye’s democracy deficit with an eye to remaining in power?

By: /
13 May, 2024
'Tam Yol İleri' or 'Full Speed Ahead'.  Turkish backers of Istanbul's CHP Mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, gathered earlier this year to support a second term in office for him. İmamoğlu, one of Türkiye's most popular politicians, went on to easily win in the March municipal elections held across the country. Image: Wikimedia Commons Hilmi Hacaloğlu
Leyla Batu
By: Leyla Batu
Freelance journalist based in Türkiye

It has almost been a year since Türkiye’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (the CHP), suffered defeat in the country’s presidential and parliamentary elections, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan remaining in power until at least 2028. However, it was the turn of the CHP to claim victory during pivotal nationwide municipal elections held at the end of March this year.

The municipal elections were pivotal because at the highest level a total of 30 metropolitan and 1,363 district municipal mayoral positions were up for grabs in a contest fought among political parties, unlike the case in Canada. And while the voter turnout was close to 79% it was nevertheless the lowest-participating local election in the past 20 years for a number of reasons discussed below.

A largely CHP win in these municipal elections marked the most severe electoral setback for the ruling Islamic-based conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), and its leader, President Erdoğan, since the AKP came to power in 2002, following the electoral defeat of the CHP and its coalition partners. 

The AKP’s defeat was arguably not a huge surprise and came against a background of widespread public discontent in Türkiye, driven by a worsening economic situation that has impacted the pocketbooks of people from every walk of life, especially retirees and minimum wage earners. In addition, there have been gross violations of the rule of law by the government, and the encouragement of societal divisions pitching Islamists against secularists.

Furthermore, and due to their own discontent, a large number of AKP supporters did not cast their votes thereby punishing the party. Indeed, their turnout rate dropped by 10% compared to the May national elections. 

Erdoğan himself conceded on 17 April that a lack of support from AKP voters largely contributed to his party’s loss.  Before, he had limited the factors for defeat to the poor  economy alone. 

While conceding the AKP’s loss, Erdoğan, at the same time, and in an helpless effort, argued that the municipal elections actually resulted in the People’s Alliance, with the ultra-right wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP),winning with 40.5% of the votes. Certainly, the AKP retained a narrow margin in the number of district mayoralties won but it was hardly enough to make up for the overall disappointment he and the AKP must have felt.

Perhaps less of a disappointment for those who closely watch what happens in Türkiye, and in particular the validity of Turkish elections, was Erdoğan’s statement to the Turkish people and his supporters that “whatever comes out of the ballot box is valid and must be respected.”

Why was the CHP successful in these latest elections? It came down to having fresh leadership and capable candidates that attracted backers from its former allies and in the words of CHP Chairman Özgür Özel, not all votes going to the CHP were from CHP supporters. He described these votes as coming from“nationalist democrats, conservative democrats, and Kurdish democrats,” which he then described as a new “Türkiye alliance”.

In terms of numbers, the total metropolitan and provincial mayoralties won by the CHP increased from 21 to 35 across 81 provinces with the CHP gaining control over most major cities as well as many former AKP strongholds throughout the country, including in the Aegean, central Anatolia and the Black Sea regions. Meanwhile, the number of municipalities won by the AKP decreased from 39 to 24.

Overall, the CHP garnered about 37.77% of the vote, compared to the AKP’s 35.49%.  

The CHP’s Ekrem İmamoğlu, now widely touted as a likely presidential challenger in the 2028 national elections, was also re-elected as the metropolitan mayor of Istanbul, the country’s biggest city and economic hub, winning 51.14% of the vote and defeating the  AKP’s candidate.

Yet İmamoğlu could be banned from holding his mayoral position, or any political office, if a pointless lawsuit that resulted in a sentence and political ban for insulting a public official in 2019, is upheld by an appeals court. 

The CHP’s Mansur Yavaş, in the capital city of Ankara, also defeated his AKP rival by about 30 points and was re-elected.

Moreover, around 1.5 million young Turks, voting for the first time preferred the CHP while local elections nearly tripled the number of female mayors to 11, with 10 of them coming from the opposition.

The CHP victory also came despite controversial electoral conditions including the government’s continued exploitation of state funds in favour of its candidates, many widely  perceived to be out of touch with voter sentiment, strong state control over the national media, and intimidation and sometimes violence against opponents. 

The AKP also lost out to the strict Islamist New Welfare Party (YRP), who were angered by Erdoğan’s Gaza policy, which up until recently avoided punitive measures against Israel such as cutting diplomatic and economic ties. Indeed, the YRP ended up in third place, once the votes were tallied, with the 6.19% of all votes.

The AKP’s partner, the nationalist MHP only received 4.99% of the votes cast while the nationalist Good Party took another 3.77% , losing its claim to become a key center right party in the political spectrum. 

Despite Erdoğan’s efforts to undermine Kurdish politicians, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM), parliament’s third largest party, also performed well in the mainly Kurdish southeast, receiving 5.70% of the votes. And no doubt angering the AKP, the DEM’s support base largely voted for the CHP in the main cities including Istanbul. 

The election outcome signalled a potential shift in Türkiye’s political landscape while bringing increased attention to the country’s worsening economic outlook with real inflation running at around 125%.

And on this file, President Erdoğan undoubtedly faces a serious challenge on how best to further address economic difficulties now the municipal elections are over. As for Finance and Treasury Minister Mehmet Şimşek, he reiterated a continuation of a tight monetary policy although noting in a social media post that the government would continue to deliver comprehensive structural reforms, increase public sector savings, and prioritize investments.

Certainly, and since last June, the new Central Bank team has launched an aggressive monetary tightening policy, increasing the interest rate from 8.5% to 50%, so far, mainly to ease demand, the main driver of inflation. Previously, interest rates had been held at a low level largely due to Erdoğan’s unorthodox monetary policies in which he insisted that lower interest rates would cool inflation.

However, Mahfi Eğilmez, former Treasury Undersecretary and an economist, told Halk TV in  April that, “the government is currently implementing an unrealistic policy with an inflation rate of 60%, but actually the inflation rate is 125%. This seriously affects policy structures.”

Nevertheless, the Turkish Central Bank announced on 9 May that Türkiye was on track to reach its 38% inflation target by the end of the year after it would peak at around 75% in the coming months. As for the IMF, its 2024 year-end inflation forecast for Türkiye is 45%.

Meanwhile, the Turkish Lira, which has lost more that 80% of its value against the dollar over the last five years, is currently trading at just over 32.00 TRY per USD and is expected to be 38.00 TRY per USD by the end of the year. Looking at matters from a Canadian perspective this means 1 Canadian dollar buys 23.5 TRY today compared to five years ago when 1 Canadian dollar was only worth 4.2 TRY.

Despite everything that has happened in Türkiye recently, from the devastating earthquakes in 2023, which killed over 50,000 people to the faltering economy, the ruling AKP still retains a majority in the Parliament and President Erdoğan, also the party’s chairman, who slid Türkiye towards authoritarianism, has four more years ahead of him, until the 2028 national elections to fix matters. 

An early election is not ruled out though. 

Erdoğan, however, has so far failed to read the recent election results correctly raising question marks over whether he and his ally, the MHP, will make a U-turn on a series of harsher moral and security policies and address the many rule-of-law issues the AKP has created. 

Bekir Ağırdır, a leading pollster, wrote in his Oksijen weekly article in April that looking at the political styles of the AKP and MHP so far, optimistic expectations that change is coming do not seem very realistic. 

In fact, just hours after the elections, Erdoğan exerted pressure on the Supreme Election Council (YSK) to present the mayorship of the eastern city of Van to the ruling AKP’s candidate who finished second. In the face of violence that broke out because of this decision, and strong opposition even from some AKP members, the YSK quickly reversed course, recognising Abdullah Zeydan, the DEM candidate who won 55.5% of the vote, as mayor. 

Similarly, in April, the Interior Ministry launched investigations into the Mardin and Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipalities, won by the DEM Party, to examine claims that the Turkish national anthem was not recited during the inauguration ceremony and the Turkish flag was removed from municipality offices. The DEM Party described the claims as baseless and a conspiracy to target municipalities that had been under AKP trustee administrators since the last local elections. 

The latest example demonstrating that Erdoğan is unlikely to move away from Türkiye’s harsh authoritarian policies came during the May Workers’ Day celebrations in Istanbul. Festivities in Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square, scene of the large 2013 Gezi Park protest, had been banned by the local Governor including major public transportation and road closures designed to prevent people from gathering. Nevertheless, many did come out and over 200 were arrested for holding an ‘illegal’ Workers’ Day demonstration.

As for what comes next for the CHP, its future success at the national level will depend on its performance at the municipal level.

Importantly, locations around the country that contain three-quarters of the country’s economic capacity passed to CHP local governments. In the words of Özel, the CHP chairman, “now, 62% of the country’s population and 80% of the economy will be governed by CHP municipalities.” 

Moreover, the CHP’s future success will depend on its ability to win over the hearts and minds of religious conservatives in Türkiye who have always been cautious about its strictly secular roots.

Etyen Mahçupyan, a political scientist, told Karar TV in April that the CHP cannot change the government without changing itself. Perhaps Özel recognized this when he recently pledged that “as the party that founded the state, we sometimes stood on the wrong side of the state-nation competition, now we will always be on the side of the nation.” 

Burhanettin Duran, a member of Turkish Presidency’s Security and Foreign Policies Council, said in his pro-government Daily Sabah article in April, that “the CHP could reach out to conservatives through a number of municipalities in the Anatolian heartland that it just won. That some newly elected mayors, not just the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, have been spotted at morning prayers was just a case in point.”

The CHP’s success at the polls also fueled a debate in Türkiye over whether it could win the 2028 presidential elections given the lengthy tenure of 70-year-old Erdogan as prime minister and president that has lasted for over two decades.

Under the current Constitution, Erdoğan is not eligible to run in the 2028 election. But he will definitely seek ways to be re-elected despite his remarks prior to the local elections that this would be his last election he participated in as president. Many believed he was simply looking for the sympathy vote down the road. 

But there are challenges ahead of him if he does deicide to seek re-election. One option involves amending the Constitution. But, for an amendment Erdoğan will need 400 votes in Parliament that the AKP and the MHP combined simply don’t have.

The other option is based on the current Constitution, which says the president can be nominated again if Parliament decides to hold an early election, a possibility that has been speculated upon since the CHP’s local elections win. However, the AKP and MHP combined still do not hold enough seats in Parliament to push through an early election call.

If Erdoğan fails to run again his likely successor could be his son-in-law, Selçuk Bayraktar, a co-owner of Baykar Defence, which has become renowned given its drone sales worldwide. 

And one should bear in mind that the AKP and Erdoğan could exploit existing geopolitical risks in the Middle East to bring back those AKP supporters who abstained from elections and to reinforce an atmosphere of fear in the country that has often worked, at the ballot box, in the government’s favour.

At the end of the day, however, the election results have indicated that Erdoğan and the AKP have been politically weakened, possibly beyond repair.

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