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Five key takeaways from Turkey's local elections

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came up short in recent local elections as Turks, including longtime AKP voters, expressed their dismay over the spiraling economy.
Ekrem Imamoglu, Istanbul mayor and the Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate, takes off his tie from atop a campaign bus while claiming victory surrounded by family members on April 1, 2024 in Istanbul, Turkey.

This is an excerpt from Turkey Briefing, Al-Monitor's weekly newsletter covering the big stories of the week in Turkey. To get Turkey Briefing in your inbox, sign up here.

ANKARA — The nationwide local polls on Sunday were historic in several ways, as I explained in my post-election analysis here. For the first time since its establishment in 2001, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its position as the party with the highest vote share to the main opposition. The polls marked a historic success for the Republican People’s Party (CHP), a left-leaning secular party, which emerged for the first time since 1977 as the leading party in an election. The main actor in this surprising dynamic was Turkey's runaway inflation, which hit almost 70% year-on-year in March. 

Inflation bites

Following parliamentary and presidential elections last May, when Erdogan won 52% of the national vote, the Turkish government abandoned populist economic policies and unleashed an aggressive monetary tightening scheme. Through consecutive hikes from June 2023 to February 2024, the Central Bank raised the country’s benchmark interest rate from 8.5% to 50%. Borrowing and access to capital have become harder, and inflation began to bite; in particular, food prices skyrocketed, hitting a whooping 78%.

Some AKP voters protested the polls 

Public dismay over the rapidly decreasing purchasing power of the Turkish lira manifested itself in both protest votes and reduced turnout. In Sunday’s polls, turnout dropped to 78.6%, roughly 7% lower than the May general elections last year and 6% lower than the 2019 local polls. This drop was particularly evident in the CHP’s successful capture of longtime AKP strongholds, including Ankara’s suburb of Kecioren and Istanbul’s Uskudar, where turnout decreased by approximately 13% and 10%, respectively, compared with the May general elections. Assessing the data, Ulas Tol, an analyst at the Istanbul-based pollster Core Research Institute, told me that most of the voters who didn’t cast their ballots were AKP supporters.

Erdogan has a new frenemy 

Another surprising aspect of the vote was the rise of the New Welfare Party (YRP). This tiny Islamist party, which secured four seats in the parliament by running within the AKP-led election coalition in the May general election, ran independently in Sunday’s local polls rather than as part of a merger with the AKP. Not only did it manage to snatch two provinces from the AKP — the southeastern province of Sanliurfa and the central Anatolian province of Yozgat — but the YRP candidates also caused their allied AKP candidate to lose several towns. YRP’s national leader, Fatih Erbakan, didn’t refrain from hitting out at the government during the campaign, criticizing it for not cutting trade ties with Israel.

“The defection is there to stay,” prominent Turkish political commentator Kadri Gursel told Amberin Zaman this week in her latest podcast. According to Gursel, Islamist voters believe Erdogan didn’t do enough to confront Israel in the face of the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. “The reaction so far shown by Erdogan is seen as insufficient, and thus there is a growing reaction,” Gursel said. 

According to Tol, the AKP’s Islamist supporters who still find it difficult to vote for the secular CHP defected to the YRP. "A large mass of people are uncomfortable with the AKP, but they still find it very difficult to turn to the CHP," he told me earlier this week.

Demise of Islamist Kurdish party 

Meanwhile, the ultra-Islamist and pro-Kurdish party, the Free Cause Party (Huda Par), suffered a crushing defeat. The party, which was almost nonexistent in the political scene until last year's parliamentary election, also won four seats in the parliament, as it didn't need to pass the 7% election threshold after its inclusion to the AKP-led alliance. Inclusion of Huda Par in the AKP-led electoral alliance is widely believed to have been a ploy aimed at raising the profile of the Islamist party against the Dem Party, the largest political Kurdish movement in the country and the parliament’s third-biggest party. 

However, that plan seems to have failed after Sunday's poll. Even in predominantly Kurdish Batman, one of the most conservative provinces of Turkey, the Dem Party’s feminist candidate, Gulistan Sonuk, won by sweeping more than 58% of the vote. 

Speaking of female candidates, another factor that made Sunday's elections historic was the success of female candidates. In addition to 11 female mayors at the provincial level, women won 64 district-level mayorships in the polls, Reuters reported this week.

The Kurdish question 

Following Dem Party’s success in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast and Erdogan’s post-election messages embracing democracy, the question at hand was whether Turkey would resort to heavy-handed tactics in the name of so-called security considerations to seize mayoral offices held by Dem Party members by appointing trustees close to the AKP.

What unfolded in the Kurdish-majority southeastern province of Van shows that there might be hope for Turkish democracy. As we reported earlier this week, local electoral authorities in the province initially annulled the landslide victory by the Dem Party’s candidate, Abdullah Zeydan, citing his former convictions of terror charges, sparking angry protests in the region. However, on Wednesday the country’s High Election Board (YSK) overturned the decision of its local branch and restored Zeydan as the mayor, as he had secured more than 55%, compared with the runner-up, AKP's Abdulahat Avras, who won 27.15%. 

The protests turned into celebrations. However, according to Gursel, the backtracking may not necessarily signal a fresh approach by Erdogan and renewed commitment to democratic principles. The government would likely follow a “hybrid approach” when it comes to applying his authoritarian instincts, he told Amberin.

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