On March 31, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suffered a major rebuke at the hands of Turkish voters when his Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidates failed to win in Istanbul and Ankara in nationwide municipal elections Erdogan described as “existential” during an intense, personal campaign. Although the AKP is currently challenging the results and there is no immediate threat to Erdogan who will continue to exercise control over national politics until 2023, it is clear that he and his colleagues have to find a way to tackle the growing economic difficulties which contributed to the setback.
Q1: What happened in the Turkish local elections?
A1: According to preliminary figures provided by the Higher Electoral Council (YSK) through the official Anatolian News Agency (AA), the March 31 local elections constitute a major setback for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP who have been governing Turkey since 2002.
Despite an intense nationwide campaign led by Erdogan himself and the utilization of seemingly insurmountable advantages provided by national and municipal control, financial resources, and almost total domination of media coverage, the AKP candidates in Istanbul, Turkey biggest city, and Ankara, the second city and capital, which he and his colleagues have ruled for a quarter century, finished behind their opponents. With the AKP also suffering reverses in the important cities of Antalya, Adana, and Mersin along the southern coast and the opposition retaining control of Izmir, Turkey’s third city, the number of metropolitan municipalities controlled by AKP and its ally in the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) went down from 21 to 16 while those controlled by the opposition increased from 8 to 14.
The result is a major disappointment for Erdogan, who had elevated the municipal poll into a national test and thus effectively into a personal referendum. Although the loss in Ankara, the political center of the country, is very significant, it is the defeat in Istanbul that is especially painful as he had begun his political career with a victory in the 1994 mayoral race there. However, Erdogan pointedly refrained from publicly acknowledging the results in these cities in his traditional post-election balcony speech and chose instead to maximize positive aspects of the results, by pointing out, for example, the fact that the combined AKP-MHP vote remained above 50 percent.
In a harbinger of an AKP challenge to the outcome, the AA interrupted its streaming of results to the media on the narrowing race in Istanbul for a number of hours during which the AKP candidate and former prime minister Binali Yildirim, who had been leading until then, declared victory. Although the AA duly identified Ekrem Imamoglu, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate as the provisional victor the next morning, this was quickly followed by a declaration by Yildirim that he would contest the result as there were “319 thousand void votes. The difference is 25 thousand. The void votes are more than 10 times the difference.” The AKP followed up by lodging a formal objection with the YSK not only in Istanbul but also in Ankara, where the wider margin between Mansur Yavas the CHP candidate and his AKP opponent is greater and seems less susceptible to a possible reversal. However, as the formal YSK review gets underway, it is clear that irrespective of its decision, Erdogan and his party have suffered a major reverse.
Q2: Why was there a setback for Erdogan and the AKP?
A2: In his initial comments, Erdogan blamed the setback “on the failure to explain ourselves adequately to the nation and to enter their hearts sufficiently” and to that end promised to “identify and rectify deficiencies as of the morning.” However, by also noting the need to “further strengthen our economy, maintain growth and increase employment,” he indirectly acknowledged the extent to which economic concerns had motivated voters.
In fact, the AKP’s inability to retain its grip on the major municipalities can be traced directly to the current economic recession, marked by double-digit inflation, steep fall in the value of the currency and a nine-year-high unemployment rate. Erdogan’s decision to focus instead in mass rallies on what he constantly proclaimed was the “existential” nature of the elections, involving a confrontation with hostile external forces and their domestic agents, clearly failed to persuade voters. Although the government also undertook palliative gestures during the campaign to alleviate economic pain, such as the sale of cheaper basic food items at government distribution centers, the opposition, which avoided big campaign meetings, was better able to tap into discontent at the grassroots level just like the AKP in earlier elections. At the same time, the decision to refrain for geopolitical reasons from a military operation in northern Syria, signaled by Erdogan prior to the campaign, denied the AKP the inevitable patriotic surge that would have once again distracted voters from bread and butter issues.
At a broader level, voters’ weariness with the long tenure of the AKP could have also contributed to the desire to send a message to Erdogan at the local level. Erdogan had shown awareness of this danger by publicly referring to ‘metal fatigue’ in the party. Accordingly, he had tried to overcome it by forcing out elected longtime AKP mayors in Istanbul and Ankara after the last local elections in 2014 and replacing them with his own choices. While the results showed that this gambit did not succeed, they also signaled to Erdogan and the AKP, who had won in 2002 in the face of media opposition, that almost total domination of public messaging does not overcome other factors motivating the electorate.
Q3: What happens next?
A3: While it is not clear if he might adjust his governing style in the aftermath of the March 31 rebuke, it is important to remember that Erdogan has a stubborn character with a strong aversion to external pressure and a proven tendency to respond forcefully to challenges. Having demonstrated his reluctance to share power even with those inside the AKP, he is unlikely to move toward greater accommodation because of disappointing results in the major municipalities. After rhetorically asking his supporters on election night “Isn’t your brother in power for another four and a half years? Isn’t the AKP in power? Are we not in control of parliament through our alliance?” he reassured them that he would not change by saying, “We will continue on our journey in exactly the same way as we have got to this point.”
In the immediate future, Erdogan will be focusing on the task of organizing from behind the scenes the AKP challenge to the election results—backed by a major media campaign—in Istanbul and Ankara as well as other cities. It is significant that he flew back to Istanbul on April 1 to meet with Yildirim and other AKP officials after having traveled from there to Ankara to make his speech. After the YSK completes its review process and formally confirms the results, Erdogan might then proceed to implement the threat that he, together with Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, made during the campaign to prevent elected opposition candidates from the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) as well as other parties or to remove them from office. He is also likely to make it difficult for opposition mayors to govern by withholding central government funds. On March 28, for example, he warned, “They will not be able to perform . . . They will not even be able to pay the salaries of the personnel . . . Those that are not in line with the central government would certainly declare bankruptcy soon.”
At the same time, having inevitably become more cognizant following the election results of the urgent need to deal with difficulties confronting ordinary citizens, Erdogan has promised to tackle economic problems through “structural reforms that would construct an economy more resistant to attacks” with “priority given to strengthening the economy, while promoting growth and reducing unemployment.” However, it remains to be seen whether the unveiling of a new economic package on April 8 and subsequent measures will reduce the growing threat the economic downturn has begun to pose to Erdogan.
Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
This article was first published by the Centre for Strategic & International Studies on the 2nd of April 2019. This article was republished with permission.