Why Is The Opposition's Victory In Turkey's Local Elections A Big Deal?

With Ekrem Imamoglu's secular CHP winning the Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir mayoral races, President Erdogan's AKP has lost the popular vote the first time since he ascended to power over two decades ago. It is clear that voters are unwilling to look past the dismal state of the economy and the escalating cost-of-living crisis.

Why Is The Opposition's Victory In Turkey's Local Elections A Big Deal?

Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has claimed victory in the country’s local elections. Nearly 61 million were eligible to vote for mayors in Turkey’s 81 provinces, as well as for district mayors and provincial council members on March 31. The secular, center-left CHP won the mayoral races in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, as well as 15 other cities. Across the country, an estimated 77% of eligible voters headed to the polls in Sunday’s election.

This is the biggest electoral defeat that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have suffered in over two decades, with these polls being the first time that the AKP has lost the popular vote since Erdogan came to power 21 years ago.

The CHP’s Ekrem Imamoglu - the incumbent Istanbul mayor - was able to hold on to the city, defeating the AKP’s Murat Kurum, the former Environment and Urbanization Minister, claiming more than 51% of the vote.

“Tonight, 16 million Istanbul citizens sent a message to both our rivals and the President,” said Imamoglu. He added that “Turkey will blossom into a new era in democracy as of tomorrow. March 31, 2024 is the day when democratic erosion ends and democracy begins to recover.”

In Ankara, Turkey’s capital, CHP mayor Mansur Yavas emerged victorious with 60.4% of the vote. In Izmir, the CHP’s Cemil Tugay won the mayoral race with 48.9% of the vote. The CHP managed to gain another 15 mayoral seats in cities nationwide, including Bursa and Adana.

In total, the CHP won in 36 of Turkey’s 81 provinces. President Erdogan was solemn about the result, claiming that “we will correct our mistakes and redress our shortcomings.”

Ekrem Imamoglu won the Istanbul mayor elections in 2019, in what was hailed as a major setback for the AKP. Erdogan was born and raised in Istanbul and served as its mayor in the 1990s, so the loss for his AKP party also had a personal sting to it.

Even though Turkey’s presidency has been given more power since Erdogan assumed the position, city mayors still hold considerable power. Critics believed that a victory in the 2024 local elections would have empowered Erdogan to push through constitutional amendments to secure another term, but that likelihood seems to have diminished after citizens rebuked the AKP at the polls.

Erdogan’s party has found it difficult to convince voters to look past the economic crisis, with inflation persisting at over 67% and interest rates having been raised only recently to a staggering 50%. Citizens have been hit with a potent cost-of-living crisis, as the Turkish lira continues to slide against the dollar, continuing to erode consumers’ purchasing power.

Even though Erdogan’s name was not on the ballot, the local elections were seen as a referendum on the AKP’s rule. Despite holding on to the Presidency in the 2023 elections, Erdogan was committed to taking back the cities that were lost in the 2019 local elections. The economic strain that voters have felt during Erdogan’s rule has proven to be a decisive factor however, with voters punishing the AKP for the economic stagnation in Turkey’s trillion-dollar economy.

Istanbul’s mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and Ankara mayor Mansur Yavas are seen as the likeliest candidates for the Turkish presidency in 2028. Imamoglu in particular, is poised to be Erdogan’s most formidable political opponent. Erdogan himself once said “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey.”

Despite Turkey’s authoritarian turn in recent years, with Erdogan consolidating power through constitutional changes and by imprisoning critics and political opponents alike, the opposition’s victory proves that Turkey has relatively fair elections and that its democracy remains vibrant.

Hamza Hashim serves as an Assistant Editor for The Friday Times, and is an educator. He is an alumnus of Swarthmore College.