Will the Local Elections Be a Breakthrough for Türkiye’s Politics?

In May 2023, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, along with his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and his ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), defied all odds and the wishful thinking of the Western mainstream media to secure another term as President of Türkiye. This demonstrated that Erdoğan remains the most prominent political figure in Turkish politics since the turn of the millennium.

However, the morning of April Fool’s Day in 2024 was no joke for his political rivals and those who have been hoping for his electoral decline over the past two decades. In reality, the results of the local elections in Türkiye came as a shock to the Ak Saray” in Ankara.

Erdoğan, though, is anything but a fool. He knew that his power was not meant to be eternal. It was only a matter of time before he would lose electoral primacy, even if it happened in local elections. The emotional and political burden of losing Istanbul – the city where he began his political career 30 years ago – for a third consecutive time (March 2019, June 2019, and May 2023) was significant.

Yet, it was not just Istanbul where the star of Ekrem Imamoglu, as the de facto leader of the opposition, seems to be rising for good. Erdoğan’s candidates suffered resounding defeats in Ankara, Izmir, Bursa, and Antalya – the five largest cities in Türkiye. Overall, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidates won in 35 out of 81 provincial capitals, compared to 21 in 2019.

Nationwide, the results reveal that the AKP, with 35,49% of the vote, now finds itself second to the CHP, which secured a total of 37,77%. One of the biggest surprises was the New Welfare Party (Yeniden Refah). A former ally of AKP which claims the political heritage of Necmettin Erbakan, the father of the Islamist movement in Türkiye, more than doubled its strength compared to the 2023 general elections, reaching 6,19%. On the other hand, the nationalist parties that performed well in the last general elections fared extremely poorly.

The results of last Sunday have multiple explanations and causes. Firstly, while this victory is crucial for the opposition, it does not directly affect Erdogan’s administration. It reflects a message from a financially oppressed Turkish electorate, due to the country’s gloomy economic situation in recent years. In March, inflation rose to 67%, while interest rates remained high, and the Turkish lira lost 40% of its value in one year.

When life becomes untenable for the average citizen, grandiose, nationalistic government plans such as “Mavi Vatan” (Blue Homeland) or intensive military armament programmes become secondary, especially when it is not national governance, but rather municipal and provincial supremacy that is at stake.

And now, what?

Many analysts suggest that the opposition will seek to capitalise on these serious cracks in Erdoğan’s regime and demand snap presidential elections. However, Erdoğan has a clear path ahead of him, as he faces no electoral challenges until 2028 and will likely seek to benefit from this. It is highly probable that he will attempt to bring forward a constitutional change allowing him to serve a third (actually a fourth) term, although his age may prove a barrier as he will be 74 in 2028.

In terms of international relations, no significant changes are anticipated. While the Kemalist opposition has traditionally been more pro-Western, it is not necessarily hostile to Türkiye’s assertive foreign policy of recent years. Ankara’s confidence stems primarily from the country’s economic size, geostrategic importance, demographic dynamism, and military-industrial base. It’s worth noting that Erdogan is scheduled to meet with President Biden and Prime Minister Mitsotakis in May, in an attempt to further bridge the differences between Türkiye and its NATO allies. However, the true test for the Turkish President’s aspirations in foreign policy will come after the US elections in November.

Ultimately, Erdoğan’s greatest challenge in regaining the trust of Turkish voters lies in the economy. The local elections underscored the desire for stability in the economic sector and a reestablishment of the bond with the state institutions. Erdoğan has promptly acknowledged this and emphasised that it will be the focal point of the next four years.

Many, both at home and abroad, albeit for different reasons, would like to see Erdoğan step down from his position in the “White Palace” as soon as possible. However, nobody should underestimate Erdoğan’s ability to survive, influence the masses, and the unprecedented way he has shaped Turkish politics over the past two decades. It is always worth remembering that he remains one of the longest-serving leaders of the Turkish Republic, second maybe in importance only to Kemal Atatürk.