Local Elections Show Turkey’s Democratic Resilience

Immediately after his re-election to a third term last May, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that his Justice and Development Party (AKP) was ready to take back the cities it had lost in the 2019 local elections. Despite winning the presidency and a majority in parliament in 2023, Erdoğan underlined the importance of the local contest scheduled for March 2024. The results were a big disappointment for the ruling party, however, as the opposition won big. By distancing the electorate from the president and rewarding the opposition that failed to unseat him in 2023, the recent local elections may have arrested Turkey’s slide toward authoritarianism.

Approaching the Elections

Heading into the March 31 vote for mayors and municipal councils, the ruling alliance of the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) seemed to have the upper hand. Both parties managed to field joint candidates in several cities across the country, including Istanbul and Ankara. In contrast, the opposition had fallen into disarray and playing the blame game following its unexpected defeat in 2023. The opposition’s relatively successful performance in 2019 had been made possible by a formal and informal entente, called the Nation Alliance, between the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Good Party (IYIP) and the fielding of joint candidates in almost every city in the country. In addition, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) did not field candidates in the western provinces (including in Istanbul) and informally supported the Nation Alliance’s candidates. Thanks to these moves, CHP candidates won in Istanbul and Ankara after 25 years of trying. After losing in the 2023 national elections, however, the alliance disintegrated, and in 2024 the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (or DEM, a constituent party of HDP) decided not to rally its voters to support CHP candidates. Under these circumstances, it looked almost certain that AKP-MHP candidates would start the 2024 municipal race ahead.

Not only did the opposition retain Istanbul and Ankara, it did so by a huge margin.

But the March 31 results defied predictions. Not only did the opposition retain Istanbul and Ankara, it did so by a huge margin. Ekrem İmamoğlu, the incumbent mayor of Istanbul, was re-elected by an estimated 12 points, while Mansur Yavaş, the incumbent mayor of Ankara, won by about 30 points. While it was not entirely surprising that these popular mayors retained their seats, the level of victory was unexpected. Moreover, the CHP won in other cities, some of which are traditional AKP strongholds. In total, the CHP emerged as the first party with 37.77 percent of the vote, the first time it has done so since 1977. With just 35.49 percent of the vote, the AKP became the second party for the first time since its 2001 founding.

Reasons for the AKP’s Poor Performance

The economy was the primary factor contributing to this tectonic change. Turkey has been in an economic crisis since 2018, with high inflation rates and currency instability. The crisis is felt more acutely in metropolitan areas, especially in Istanbul, where living and housing costs have risen rapidly. As a result, the AKP’s popularity in metropolitan areas had been steadily declining for some time.

It is worth noting that the difference between the distribution of votes in Istanbul and Turkey as a whole is a new phenomenon in Turkish politics. Unlike metropolitan areas such as New York and London, Istanbul is not a liberal-leaning cosmopolitan center. Instead, it is a microcosm of Turkish society, and the election results reflect national trends. Indeed, Erdoğan once said that whoever wins Istanbul will win Turkey. In 2019 and 2023, the opposition, despite losing the majority nationwide, won by a small margin in Istanbul and Ankara due to the heavy impact of the economic crisis. In 2024, the opposition not only widened the gap in the two cities, but also managed to take the lead nationwide.

Given the prolonged nature of the economic crisis, one might ask why it did not lead to an AKP-Erdoğan defeat in 2023. Part of the answer lies in the president’s massive public spending in the year before the crucial national vote. Erdoğan went on a spending spree: his government doubled the minimum wage, made cheap credit available, granted early retirement, and launched massive social housing projects. All these measures created a sense of economic revival. Indeed, the consumer confidence index showed that in the lead-up to May 2023 the public perceived the economy as improving: the index rose from 63.4 percent in June 2022 to 91.1 points in May 2023. But the spending spree also emptied the state coffers, to the degree that the government was able to take only limited measures before the 2024 local elections. The provision of cheap credit came to an end as the Central Bank has steadily raised lending rates from just 8.5 percent to 50 percent since last year’s elections. As a result, the consumer confidence index started to decline steadily after the May 2023 vote, falling to 79.4 points in March 2024.

A second factor explaining the different electoral outcomes last year and this year is the different nature of the two contests. Local elections are less ideological. While Erdoğan’s narrative often emphasizes his alliance’s capability to safeguard national security, this discourse loses salience in the context of municipal races. Additionally, some AKP supporters view local elections as an opportune moment to voice their discontent with the party. While they may continue to back Erdoğan and the AKP in national elections, where the stakes are higher, in local contests they express dissatisfaction either by abstaining from voting altogether or by casting their ballots for the opposition. This trend had been observed in previous local elections, with AKP’s vote share consistently declining compared to previous elections (with the exception of 2004).

The choice of candidates is a third factor that explains the March local election outcomes, especially in Istanbul and Ankara. Unlike the opposition’s mayors in Istanbul and Ankara, who were very popular and had the incumbency advantage, the AKP nominated weak and controversial candidates in both cities. The AKP’s Ankara candidate, Turgut Altınok, is a veteran of Ankara’s local politics, but his past has been tainted by controversy and corruption allegations. In Istanbul, the AKP nominated Murat Kurum, a former minister of urban planning known for his uncharismatic demeanor and bureaucratic style, which failed to resonate with the masses. In fact, Erdoğan, wary of nurturing potential rivals, has always been careful not to nominate high-profile figures for Istanbul.

The rise of the New Welfare Party (YRP) contributed to AKP’s electoral setback.

A fourth factor contributing to AKP’s electoral setback was the rise of the more conservative New Welfare Party (YRP), which emerged as the third-largest party with 6.2 percent of the votes. The YRP was established in 2018 by Fatih Erbakan, the son of Necmettin Erbakan, the founder of the National Vision movement from which Erdoğan and many AKP founders originated. The party supported Erdoğan’s reelection in 2023, but was already making inroads into the AKP’s power base, securing 2.8 percent in the parliamentary elections. In 2024, YRP chose not to enter any electoral alliance for the municipal elections and fielded its candidates nationwide, positioning itself as a potential outlet for disenchanted AKP voters. YRP’s success in attracting such voters stems from its ability to address both economic and ideological grievances. In the past, when Erdoğan faced ideological and moral challenges from the right wing, they did not lead to large-scale defections from the AKP because the economy was doing relatively well. Now, economic challenges have made ideological criticisms more appealing, particularly regarding AKP’s inconsistencies and hypocrisy in its relations with Israel. In the March local elections, revelations of continued trade with Israel during its war on Gaza, coupled with the involvement of Erdoğan-affiliated business figures, fueled discontent among the AKP’s base. YRP capitalized on these grievances, demanding an end to all trade with Israel, calling for economic reforms such as doubling pensioner incomes, and pushing for the closure of a NATO radar base in Turkey. By combining economic, ideological, and moral critiques of AKP rule, YRP effectively appealed to disgruntled segments of the electorate.

In contrast to the AKP’s missteps, the CHP made several useful moves. First, after last year’s defeat, the CHP went through a leadership change that revitalized both party cadres and voters. This was crucial in combating the apathy among opposition voters that had emerged after the 2023 electoral debacle. The removal of former CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu at the November 2023 party congress was particularly significant. In Turkey’s political environment, party leaders wield considerable power and are rarely replaced. Kılıçdaroğlu’s replacement was only the third time in Turkey’s 75-year multi-party history that a major political party leader has been ousted in this way.

The opposition’s incumbency advantage also boosted its performance. The CHP already controlled the country’s main metropolitan areas. Before the March vote, the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara were among the most popular politicians nationwide for providing social services and subsidies to constituents at a time of economic crisis. Their achievements not only solidified their popularity but also contributed to the overall appeal of other CHP candidates.

Short- and Long-Term Implications

In Turkey, local election results can have national impact. The March opposition victory may impede Erdoğan from becoming more authoritarian. Losses, especially in key cities like Ankara and Istanbul, likely would have plunged the opposition further into disarray. Internal conflicts would have dominated its work, while political apathy and estrangement would have grown within the opposition electorate. By contrast, the March results have buoyed the opposition’s hopes for the 2028 presidential and parliamentary elections.

The opposition win also has thwarted Erdoğan’s ambition, at least in the short term, for fresh constitutional changes. Anticipating a March victory, the AKP had been gearing up after the election to push through constitutional amendmentsErdoğan to run in future elections; he likely will shelve these plans for now. Despite this setback, it is likely that he bide his time for a more opportune moment for constitutional amendments that will help him run again at the end of his term in 2028. And even if Erdoğan fails to alter the constitution, the current document contains an exceptional clause that permits him to seek another term if parliament calls for an early election.

Looking ahead, the election results confirm that the popularity of the AKP, and to a lesser extent of Erdoğan, continues to decline. This does not necessarily mean that Erdoğan will lose the next presidential election if he runs, however. The parties that supported him in 2023 (although the YRP has now distanced itself from the ruling alliance) still had a combined vote share of 47.8 percent in 2024.

Additionally, Erdoğan has a four-year window to tackle the economic challenges that have been eroding his popularity. Without imminent elections, he can pursue stringent economic policies and avoid populist measures like cheap credit or wage hikes, which may initially burden the public but could yield economic recovery closer to the 2028 elections. This strategy hinges on Turkey receiving substantial foreign financial assistance, with Gulf countries, western governments, financial institutions, and above all the International Monetary Fund as potential sources. Improved relations with western and Gulf countries are imperative. Erdoğan has already been on this path and he will follow it even more strongly now without any electoral constraints. However, he will continuously be challenged by the YRP over the burden of his economic recovery policies and his overtures toward Western nations. Moreover, the president will have to appease YRP to keep its support in 2028; yielding to its demands may require adopting more conservative domestic policies and a more anti-western stance in foreign affairs. This dilemma risks alienating the AKP’s more centrist electorate and undermining Erdoğan’s foreign policy strategies. As a result, the president finds himself in a precarious position vis-à-vis the YRP, a challenge that he is not accustomed to navigating.

A grassroots alliance is emerging with the CHP as the focal point around which opposition voters can coalesce.

On the opposition front, despite the collapse of formal alliances, a grassroots alliance is emerging with the CHP as the focal point around which opposition voters can coalesce. Despite some successful individual candidacies from IYIP and DEM, their overall performance was lackluster, aside from the Kurdish-majority regions where DEM maintained its traditional support. Consequently, the CHP now stands out as the central party and the primary destination for voters looking to challenge Erdoğan’s government. In this context, the performance of CHP mayors will be pivotal for the outcome in 2028. For this reason, Erdoğan is likely to exert all his influence to undermine the success of these opposition mayors, including by slashing municipal finances. CHP mayors, like the central government, may require foreign financing. Consequently, western financial institutions will wield significant influence over the future trajectory of Turkish politics based on their credit preferences between opposition municipalities and the central government.

Furthermore, CHP now boasts two potential presidential candidates in İmamoğlu and Yavaş, both of whom received votes of confidence through their resounding victories in Istanbul and Ankara. Of the two, İmamoğlu is the more probable presidential candidate for 2028, given his greater popularity within the party base and the significance of Istanbul, but Yavaş remains a viable contender. Following election night, pro-government media began promoting the idea that Yavaş won by a larger margin than İmamoğlu, suggesting that the Ankara mayor should not be overlooked in the next presidential race. Evidently the government is already banking on the idea of a rift between the two.

Overall, the elections underscore the fact that Turkey’s political regime remains a competitive authoritarian one. While the political system has become increasingly authoritarian and elections are neither entirely free nor fair, they are not yet mere charades as they are under fully authoritarian regimes. Turkey’s country and society continue to exhibit democratic resilience. This fact should remind western policymakers that while Turkey may no longer be a democracy, the potential for democratic revival still exists.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image: Shutterstocl/Tolga Ildun