Turkey’s local elections – new opposition and the AKP’s ambivalence to the popular will

The results of Turkey’s local elections held on Sunday 31 have inaugurated a completely new political landscape in Turkey. This is not to say the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) has is no longer the most popular in the country, or that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will no longer rule single-handedly through the strong executive presidency established last summer.  

However, as Erdoğan himself insisted the municipal elections would be of crucial importance – a matter of Turkey’s survival in the face of external and domestic threats – the success of opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in winning Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and other bigger cities, is no doubt a major setback for the president. 

One could argue that it is after these elections that the predictions of Erdoğan’s loss of practical and symbolic power by many analysts since the 2013 Gezi protests actually start to become reality.    

It is, however, still too early to say whether we are witnessing a more general trend, or a temporary swing caused by economic recession, inflation and election fatigue. As prominent Turkey analyst Aslı Aydıntaşbaş observed, in these elections, the “modern conservatives”, a religiously oriented urban constituency emerging since the 1980s, rejected the security-based agenda of the AKP-MHP (Nationalist Action Party) bloc, while rural voters remained more loyal to Erdoğan. 

Indeed, the future voting behaviour of these urban conservative constituencies largely determines whether these elections will prove to be the beginning of the end for Erdoğan’s dominance, or just a short-term rupture.   

Another determining aspect concerns the nature of the main opposition CHP. The future characteristics of the CHP as a regime-founding party (its initial organisation precedes the founding of the republic in 1923), is likely to be crucial. During the era of free elections since 1950, only twice has the CHP been able to become biggest party. This occurred in the 1970s, as the party under Bülent Ecevit managed to win the hearts of working class with a left-of-centre agenda.  

In opposition politics, the crucial choice in today’s Turkey thus comes down to the question whether the CHP now finalises its long-lasting transformation from a nationalist regime-founding party to a secular (but not secularist) social democratic party. Nominally it is like that already, but in practice the requirement to keep on board the so-called “Izmir nationalist” and neo-nationalist (ulusalcı) wing of its support base has maintained the party’s more exclusionary stance, thus obstructing, for instance, genuine cooperation with the Kurdish liberal-left Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Now that the AKP has chosen the conservative and nationalist MHP as its partner, a large bunch of Kurdish votes is available for a centrist and ethnically inclusive centre-left party.   

Seen from this perspective, it is interesting that it is precisely this kind of moderate, tolerant and inclusive rhetoric that helped first Muharrem İnce in the 2018 presidential elections and now Ekrem İmamoğlu in race for Istanbul mayoral to get on board a heterogeneous group of voters from different ethnic and ideological backgrounds.

After all divisive identity politics and polarising rhetoric, a lot can be achieved by promising equal treatment to all, accompanied by sound economic policies and attempts to build bridges between opposing groups.

In addition to a need to think through the future characteristics of the main opposition CHP, it is also useful to ponder whether a severe internal quarrel will break out within the ruling AKP. Immediately after the elections, there were many signs of the party being split between those emphasising the need to respect the results, and those who embarked on conspiracy theories, claiming the results were manipulated, or even a coup by the Gülen movement.   

At the time of writing, it was still unclear what Erdoğan’s stance was on this. It was as if he had withdrawn to heal his wounds for a while, before taking the next move.

The pro-government newspapers, for their part, all had headlines claiming the election results were rigged. Taking this all together, one could argue that at the same time that the opposition’s gains in local elections proved that voting still mattered a lot in Turkey, the debates and statements coming from various quarters of the ruling AKP demonstrated how fragile these remaining democratic procedures had become. It was hard to escape the feeling that many things are still dependent on the decisions of a power-hungry president.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.