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How Turkey’s Opposition Won Big

Less than a year after a bitter loss, the opposition dealt Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling party their largest electoral defeat in decades. The question is whether they can now build on their success.

By Berk Esen and Sebnem Gumuscu

April 2024

On 31 March 2024, Turkish voters turned out to vote in local elections across the entire country. Choosing who would fill mayors’ offices and municipal councils was far from the only thing at stake, however. Amid the autocratization of the last decade, local governments have become the only platform available to the opposition as it strives for a way to compete with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s long-ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Since winning the November 2002 parliamentary election, the AKP has incrementally subverted democracy and created an uneven playing field on which elections are real yet largely unfair. Armed with control over the media, the courts, and the state bureaucracy, the president and his party have been trying to lock in his electoral advantage and cut off any chance that the opposition can ever triumph at the polls.

That is why the opposition’s success on Sunday surprised so many. The ruling party lost control of fifteen municipalities while its junior partner, the nationalist MHP, lost another three. The opposition-mainstay Republican People’s Party (CHP) held most of its cities and won an additional fourteen, while a pro-Kurdish party captured another two. The CHP notched its best electoral performance since 1977 and surpassed the AKP for the first time in decades. The CHP outstripped the AKP by more than a million votes (17.4 to 16.3 million), good enough to claim a 37.8 percent vote share to the AKP’s 35.5 percent. The CHP is now the governing party in six of Turkey’s seven largest and most economically vibrant cities, and controls 35 of the 81 provinces.

Most of the cities that changed hands had been typical Erdoğan-supporting municipalities. Less than a year earlier, in May 2023, he had managed to win the twinned presidential and parliamentary elections despite an economic downturn and the destruction caused by the February 2023 earthquakes. He had kept his ruling coalition mostly together while the opposition alliance, demoralized by its defeat, began to fragment. With all this still so close in the rear-view mirror, how did the seemingly divided Turkish opposition pull off its local-elections win over Erdoğan’s so recently victorious coalition?

Let us begin with turnout. It dropped from around 90 percent in the 2023 elections to 76 percent on March 31. Many voters decided not to vote. Turnout has consistently been high in both national and local elections — 85 percent in 2019 and 89 percent in 2014 — so this steep drop was unusual. Most of these voters were in the Kurdish provinces in the east, while the remainder were likely longtime AKP supporters who decided to send a message by sitting this one out. Then, the AKP vote split. Many AKP voters chose a recently established Islamist formation, New Welfare, which became Turkey’s third-largest party on Sunday. Finally, despite the seeming fragmentation, opposition voters rallied behind major opposition candidates as the only credible way to defeat the AKP coalition.

What explains lower turnout and defections among longtime Erdoğan’s supporters? His economic performance has been dismal for some time, with the Turkish lira depreciating rapidly and inflation remaining persistently high in recent years. Before the May 2023 voting, Erdoğan made concessions and appeased voters by hiking the minimum wage and passing an early-retirement scheme. The costs of these policies burdened the public budget and left the president with limited resources going into the 2024 local races. With control of the national government at stake, in 2023 Erdoğan pulled every political and economic trick he could think of. Loyal conservative voters gave him another presidential term despite the declining economy. With less at risk in 2024 and the presidency his for another four years, he carried through on his switch to orthodox economic policies and placed the burden of inflation-control measures squarely on the middle and lower classes. This had the effect, however, of driving voter defections from the AKP.

The rise of an alternative within Turkish Islamism made defecting easier for some of his supporters. Fatih Erbakan’s New Welfare, founded in 2018, backed Erdoğan in 2023 but insisted on staying in the 2024 local races despite Erdoğan’s bullying. In most of Turkey’s cities, New Welfare candidates appeared on the ballot. Fatih Erbakan’s father, Necmettin Erbakan (1926–2011), was the godfather of Turkish political Islam, the only Islamist to serve as premier during the Kemalist era (he lasted a year in the late 1990s), and Erdoğan’s mentor. New Welfare is Fatih’s attempt to revive his father’s legacy and reintroduce unadulterated Islamic politics motivated by social justice, anticorruption, and solidarity with Palestine. Amid economic hardships and a sense of alienation from Erdoğan’s policies, Erbakan’s message appealed to many longtime Erdoğan supporters.

The opposition splits that followed May 2023 seemed to hand the AKP coalition a huge advantage, all the more so given the unlevel playing field that the ruling party (with its control over state resources) has crafted for itself. During a contentious party conference, the CHP changed leaders. Longtime standard-bearer Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (a septuagenarian who had lost to Erdoğan in 2023) gave way to Özgür Özel, who had been leader of the CHP’s parliamentary caucus and was still in his forties. Rancor tore at the CHP’s elites, but the base was energized. High-profile figures who had been close to “KK” sat out 2024 and refused to campaign, leading us to wonder whether the CHP might have done even better had they taken part, or whether their self-sidelining even mattered. At any rate, their decision to opt out in 2024 may have constrained the CHP effort, but did not sink it.

Why was that effort such a surprising success? First, the CHP consolidated behind a younger generation of able candidates with ties to their respective cities. Some, including İstanbul’s Ekrem İmamoğlu and Ankara’s Mansur Yavaş, were already popular mayors who ran effective campaigns fueled by an incumbent’s advantage. Others were popular parliamentarians who had large personal followings in their respective provinces. By giving up their seats in the Grand National Assembly in Ankara to run for local posts, these politicians underlined parliament’s declining importance in an increasingly authoritarian regime. They also acted on a new expectation, namely, that political parties’ prospects now depend on their ability to run honest and effective local governments.

Although the opposition alliance disintegrated, CHP candidates were still able to spread an anti-Erdoğan message that had appeal beyond the party’s base. Many opposition voters outside the CHP realized that their parties had little chance of winning and shifted their support to the main opposition party. Meanwhile, the economic downturn had split AKP voters even as opposition voters were (for the most part) lining up behind the CHP candidates despite the lack of a formal opposition alliance.

It is too early to predict the demise of Erdoğan’s regime. After more than twenty years as premier and then president, the 70-year-old Erdoğan retains much of his popularity. It is Turkey’s fate to live in one of the world’s most geopolitically turbulent neighborhoods, and the carefully cultivated image of strong leadership that he takes pains to project is probably enough to bring him considerable voter support on national-security grounds alone. To the AKP’s voters, their longtime leader continues to represent a safe and steady hand on the steering wheel. Voters who cast their ballots for regime-supporting parties still make up almost half of the electorate. Then too, Erdoğan’s competitive-authoritarian regime remains intact at the national level: His coalition runs both the executive and legislative branches and routinely exerts undue influence on the state apparatus and the judiciary.

The March 31 local-polling defeat is going to cost him, however. The loss of municipal governments in so many provinces will deprive the AKP of public resources crucial for maintaining its alliance. Ever since Erdoğan won the Istanbul mayor’s election in 1994, local governments have been wellsprings of patronage with numerous contracts to award to politically friendly businesses. In a down economy, such municipal resources become even more important to a president eager to reward his allies and keep his electoral base from splitting (as it did in a limited but still damaging way on March 31).

Municipalities that the opposition now governs will furnish it fresh resources and a platform for reaching millions of voters. These mayors will provide municipal services to nearly two-thirds of the electorate in times of growing poverty and inequality. If they do their jobs well, they will present a viable alternative to the AKP, which had until recently been the party most associated with good governance and support for lower-income families.

The March 31 local-election results also bear significance for the future of democracy in Turkey. First, they confirm that elections, even if unfair, are real. Opposition control of the major cities not only makes future opposition election wins more likely, but also offers a chance for subnational democratization under a competitive-authoritarian regime. The results raise the profiles of mayors Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, respectively, and should make them figures to be reckoned with when the CHP chooses its candidate for the 2028 presidential election. In addition to this springboard effect, the CHP municipalities’ direct access to two-thirds of the population and expanded resources can balance the uneven playing field and become the basis of a well-rounded campaign that year.

These challenges will increase the pressure on Erdoğan to reconsolidate his divided base. His tight control means that he “owns” the poor economy even more than a national chief executive normally would. He must find a way to alleviate the hardships of millions without making the economic situation even worse both now and down the road. He must also neutralize the Islamist appeal to his base that comes from Fatih Erbakan and New Welfare. To do that, he may adopt a more religiously conservative tone and make policy concessions to Islamic constituencies. This, however, is likely to intensify polarization and may cause further defections among his urban and younger supporters in a changing Turkey. But the AKP once “owned” both the good-governance appeal to Turkish voters and the appeal to political Islam, and is now watching the ruling coalition be chipped away at from both those directions. This is a new situation; the March 31 local elections have made its existence clear.

Berk Esen is associate professor of political science and international relations at Sabancı University. Sebnem Gumuscu is associate professor of political science at Middlebury College. Their essay “How Erdoğan’s Populism Won Again” appeared in the July 2023 issue of the Journal of Democracy.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images




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