Turkey's vote result is grounds for cautious optimism

Turkey’s local elections on Sunday were unprecedented in many aspects. In a January op-ed for Ahval, we argued that while President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s name would not be on the ballot, the vote would essentially be a referendum on his rule, and that if he lost either Ankara or Istanbul, his public image would be damaged.  

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) allies gained 51.6 percent of the vote, but this was still a bitter victory. The AKP lost the biggest cities, including Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Adana and Antalya. The party runs the municipalities of 48 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, but nine fewer than before.

Erdoğan’s strategy of portraying the polls as a matter of national survival and an existential test failed miserably. Speaking at more than 100 rallies up and down the country and putting himself to the fore, rather than the real candidates, he elevated the local elections into a referendum on himself.

Along with a media blackout on the opposition candidates, the common themes of his rallies were intimidating and vicious narratives labelling opposition parties as in league with terrorists. But it was a political gamble that did not pay off.

In previous elections Erdoğan’s leadership and charisma saved the day, but this time he became the very reason for the fall in AKP support. Many AKP supporters withdrew their support, especially in the big cities, for a plethora of reasons; the worsening economic crisis, fatigue with the AKP, alienation from the party and increased perceptions of corruption within the party.

There were significant breakthroughs. First of all, it became apparent that Erdoğan and the AKP are no longer invincible.

Secondly, the model of alliance politics can be expanded further, including but not limited to elections. It seems the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and nationalist opposition Good Party get along quite well, despite their differences on the Kurdish issue.  

Thirdly, the election gave birth to a new leader. Ekrem İmamoğlu, the CHP candidate for mayor of Istanbul, has emerged as a politician of great promise. İmamoğlu’s perseverance and strong personality helped turn the tide in his favor. The debate over who won the election for mayor in Istanbul will continue in the coming days, but whatever the result of the vote recount, it seems clear that İmamoğlu has already won politically, as well as psychologically.

The strategy of the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) also paid off. The HDP helped boost support for the opposition by not fielding its own candidates in cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, and Mersin.

The Good Party came in third overall, after the AKP and CHP, which could potentially lead to it replacing the MHP on the right of the political spectrum.

Erdoğan has two choices in the days ahead. He could continue with his authoritarian rule by taking steps to “strengthen the system”. Or he could concede the fact that he is getting weaker and take steps to change the country’s path back towards democracy and the rule of law.  

Have these elections boosted hope in Turkish democracy, as we thought they might back in January? The answer is a cautious yes. We should be optimistic about the future of democracy, not because of Erdoğan’s defeat, but because of the enthusiasm, energy, and decency that the people displayed during the election.