Monday, 15 April 2024

Local Elections Were a Loss for the AKP, Were They a Victory for the Opposition? Featured

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By Reuben Silverman

April 15, 2024

Turkey’s March 31 local elections upended national politics. As they approached, the question was whether the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) could retain the substantial gains it had made five years earlier. Optimists predicted that the mayors of İstanbul and Ankara would be reelected while pessimists hedged or even contemplated the CHP losing traditional strongholds like Eskişehir or İzmir. The results on election night were something else entirely. Not only were Istanbul and Ankara won easily but traditional pro-government strongholds like Bursa and Balıkesir flipped. At the national level, President Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) retain control of the government, but for the first time in twenty-two years, the AKP is not Turkey’s most popular political party. How Erdoğan will respond remains an open question.


CHP AKP posters small


BACKGROUND: Going into the local elections, the challenges facing the CHP seemed serious. Under the leadership of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the party had cultivated alliances with Turkish nationalist and Islamist parties like the Good Party (İYİ) and the Felicity Party while relying on the informal support of the Kurdish political movement. This strategy paid off in the 2019 local elections, when the CHP won control of both Ankara and İstanbul. In the former, the party nominated Masur Yavaş, previously a member of the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP). In the latter, the CHP nominated Ekrem İmamoğlu, a real-estate developer whose father had been an activist in the center-right Motherland Party (ANAP) during the 1980s. The strategy was taken to extremes in the 2023 elections, when Kılıçdaroğlu drew together even more right-wing parties to support his presidential candidacy. When he failed to surpass Erdoğan in the first round of voting, Kılıçdaroğlu sought support from the nativist Victory Party. These moves—and their failure to produce success—infuriated the CHP rank-and-file, leading to Kılıçdaroğlu’s ouster at an extraordinary party congress in November 2022.

Internal disputes followed as the new CHP leadership (allied with İmamoğlu) reshaped the organization and chose its preferred candidates for the local elections. In CHP strongholds like İzmir or Ankara’s Çankaya municipality, where nomination almost assured election, these choices caused discontent. Moreover, the CHP’s conservative allies and the Kurdish political movement (represented in the elections by the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party, or “DEM”) chose to field their own candidates, increasing the likelihood of a split opposition vote.

President Erdoğan’s coalition of Islamist and right-wing parties was also fraying in the run-up to the local elections. Since Erdoğan was directly elected president in 2014 and the country switched to a centralized “presidential” system in 2018, the influence and appeal of the AKP has been ebbing. In June 2015, the party lost its parliamentary majority, only regaining it after new elections and a violent five-month interim. Since the attempted coup in July 2016, the AKP has coordinated in elections with the MHP in order to secure majorities. Whereas the AKP tended to absorb leaders of Islamist factions during its first decade, it now dealt with them as independent parties. Chief among these are the New Welfare Party (YRP) and the Free Cause Party (HÜDA PAR). YRP is led by Fatih Erbakan, whose father, Necmettin, was the first major Islamist political leader in Turkey. HÜDA PAR is an Islamist party based in southeast Turkey, which appeals to Kurdish voters while opposing the secular nationalism of left-wing parties like DEM. In the 1990s, when HÜDA PAR’s leaders were associated Turkey’s Hizbullah organization, its armed supporters carried out attacks against groups and individuals they suspected of being connected to the PKK and other left-wing Kurdish organizations.

HÜDA PAR remained allied with the AKP for the local elections, but YRP chose to run separately (likely after the AKP would not agree to let YRP run candidates without AKP challengers in several major races). In AKP strongholds like Şanlıurfa, Konya, and Kayseri, the YRP ran well-established candidates—typically former AKP members who had been passed over for a nomination. For two months leading up to the elections, the YRP accused the AKP of running up Turkey’s debts and spending the national budget on interest payments. Turning abroad, it highlighted the government’s largely rhetorical opposition to Israel’s killing of over 30,000 people in Gaza and called for an end to military and economic ties.

IMPLICATIONS: In the local elections, the AKP found itself weakened on multiple fronts. As usual, the MHP deferred to the AKP in most major mayoral races while contesting elections in smaller provinces. In recent elections, these voting preferences in these provinces have been so conservative that no third party could benefit—certainly not a center-left one like the CHP. But turnout dropped substantially in 2024 as voters stayed away from the polls. And those who turned out voted for the CHP at higher rates than before. In a small, Black Sea province like Amasya, for example, the AKP or MHP had won every election for the central municipality mayor for twenty years. But in 2024, turnout dropped 5%. The AKP received 3,000 fewer votes than in 2019, and the MHP 15,000 fewer. The CHP, by contrast, received 17,000 more votes than it had in 2019, and its share of the vote rose from a dismal 17% to a victorious 43%. Even in those provinces where the MHP did not run, these trends still worked against the AKP. In Bursa, for example, the AKP incumbent faced the same CHP challenger as in 2019. This election cycle, however, he received around 205,000 fewer votes and the CHP candidate won with just 9,000 more votes than in his previous attempt.

As went Amasya and Bursa, so went much of Turkey. The CHP flipped control of fifteen provinces in addition to holding all-but-one of the twenty-one it had won in 2019. Not only did the AKP lose provinces to the CHP, but it also lost provinces to its ally, the MHP. Sivas was won by the Great Unity Party (BBP), an MHP-splinter party whose deceased leader had been born there. The YRP won control both Yozgat and Şanlıurfa, Turkey’s eighth most-populous province. (The largest five provinces are now controlled by the CHP.) Even İYİ, which performed poorly across much of the country, defeated the AKP’s mayoral candidate in the province of Nevşehir.

As the CHP emerged victorious in elections along the coasts and western interior of Turkey, DEM reasserted its popularity in the southeast. During the early 2010s, the movement’s popularity had grown. In the 2014 election, it won major mayoral contests in ten provinces. The following five years, however, were marked by intense fighting between militants and the government as well as a state crackdown that removed mayors across the region and imprisoned many members of parliament. In the 2019 elections, the AKP flipped control of two central municipalities. In Şırnak, the movement’s political leaders accused the government of tilting the electoral balance by registering soldiers and other security officials as voters. In 2024, since election day, many of these accusations have been repeated, but DEM also regained the 2014 peak of controlling ten provinces. When the Justice Ministry attempted to deny certification to the winning DEM candidate in Van, immediate protests and an appeal led to the Supreme Election Board supporting the winner.

The CHP victory was also a vindication for its leadership. While many factors combined to cause the AKP loss, they do not wholly explain away the fact that voters were willing to support the CHP to an extent not witnessed since the late 1970s. Whereas Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu had been an easy target for the AKP on account of his age, his association with the ineffective bureaucracy of the 1990s, and his belonging to Turkey’s Alevi Muslim minority, İmamoğlu is twenty years younger than Erdoğan, a businessman, and, like Erdoğan, able to embody the Sunni-Turkish nationalism of the Black Sea coast.

Even though Ankara mayor Mansur Yavaş won a staggering 60.4% of the vote in Ankara, it is İmamoğlu and his ally, CHP party chairman Özgür Özel, who are most likely to benefit from the CHP’s victories. They were the ones at the vanguard of intraparty opposition to Kılıçdaroğlu, and they were the ones who risked causing party splits by imposing candidates of their choice in important municipalities. In Ankara, in fact, they contradicted Yavaş by nominating the star of the popular police procedural Behzat Ç as the mayoral candidate for Ankara’s Etimesgut municipality. There and elsewhere, however, their choice was approved by voters. Moreover, in many provinces, the CHP gained control of provincial assemblies, making it easier for mayors to promote their agendas. The only major CHP loss came in Hatay where Özel and the CHP leadership chose to back the incumbent candidate, a former AKP member, who had run the province in the years prior to the deadly earthquakes of February 2023. Yet, even here, the error can be framed as retaining a conservative figure from the Kılıçdaroğlu era rather than imposing unpopular candidates on the province.

CONCLUSIONS: Erdoğan and the AKP still exercise full control over the national government. How they will react remains an open question. In the first week after the elections, they were faced with protests in Van over the attempt to deny the DEM victor his certification, protests in Istanbul over the government’s continued commerce with Israel and demands from the CHP to review the elections in Hatay for irregularities. On the one hand, the Van decision was reversed by the Supreme Election Board, and the government announced plans to restrict trade with Israel. On the other hand, the Hatay complaints were dismissed. If the government intends to take a consistently hard line against the opposition, it has not yet committed to the decision.

There will be many opportunities for the government to undermine the CHP in the coming months. İmamoğlu has already been convicted for insulting the Supreme Election Board for overturning his 2019 victory and forcing him to re-run that election. If he does not win his appeal, he will be removed from office and jailed. A second case accuses him of rigging tenders while mayor of Istanbul’s Beylikdüzü municipality. The CHP’s newly-won plurality in the Istanbul assembly will prevent the AKP from imposing a mayor on the city in his absence, but this may not be enough to protect İmamoğlu in the weeks to come.

Finally, an important question over the next four years will be whether 2024 marked a nadir for other opposition parties. İYİ seems to be a spent force, and its leader, Meral Akşener, has announced she will not stand as a candidate for party leader its next congress, but perhaps a new leader could breathe new life into the party. As for YRP, having flexed its political muscles, it is currently looking for new fights with the government, but this may be a temporary posture. One thing that the elections revealed is how much can change in ten months in Turkey’s politics. The next elections are still four years away.

Reuben Silverman is a researcher at the Institute for Turkish Studies, Stockholm University


Read 3128 times Last modified on Monday, 15 April 2024

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