Opposition Gains May Offer False Hope in Erdogan’s Turkey

A voter casts a ballot in Istanbul during Turkey's 2014 local elections. (iStock/sadikgulec)

Key Takeaway: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suffered painful losses in key urban centers including Ankara and Istanbul during the 2019 Turkish Local Elections. These losses suggest that Erdogan may not be able to sustain his grassroots appeal amidst an ongoing economic downturn in Turkey. Their implications should not be overstated, however. Erdogan remains dominant over the Government of Turkey. He wields vast centralized powers through the Turkish Presidency and his ruling alliance holds the Turkish Parliament until 2023. Opposition gains may prove to be temporary in the face of both imminent legal challenges to the election results as well as sustained long-term pressure by Erdogan to blame his opponents for the intensifying economic struggles of Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost key municipal elections in Ankara and Istanbul. The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) achieved remarkable gains in Turkish Local Elections held on March 31, 2019. Turkey’s Supreme Elections Board (YSK) confirmed that the CHP is leading the vote in Istanbul while state-run media also acknowledged the opposition’s lead in Istanbul and Ankara.[1] Erdogan’s losses in these key urban centers likely reflect declining support from the business class and foreign investors amidst an ongoing recession and currency crisis fueled by his own economic mismanagement. This turmoil could erode his business patronage networks and ultimately the long-term viability of his ruling AKP. Rapid urbanization under Erdogan has also likely alienated rural populations that are already straining under the effects of higher prices and inflation.

Erdogan now has a short window to challenge the opposition’s electoral gains. The YSK is currently tabulating the final voting tallies - a process that has historically taken up to a week.[2] Its rulings are binding and cannot be appealed to the courts. The AKP formally contested the results in Istanbul and Ankara on April 2, claiming voter fraud and up to 25,000 possible uncounted ballots for the AKP.[3] Former Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim - the AKP’s candidate in Istanbul - has not yet conceded defeat after prematurely declaring victory on election night. AKP Istanbul Provincial Chairman Bayram Senocak claimed that a recount of invalidated votes in Istanbul would likely change the result in favor of the AKP. Erdogan met with Yildirim, the Governor of Istanbul, and the Istanbul Police Chief to plan how to contest the projected results Istanbul on April 1. His influence over the state, media, election authorities, and judiciary system suggests that these challenges may ultimately bear fruit for the AKP.

Erdogan nonetheless remains unlikely to dispute the overall results of the election. Erdogan uses the semblance of democratic legitimacy provided by contested elections to obfuscate the increasingly authoritarian nature of his control over the Government of Turkey. Erdogan has lauded past elections as global “lessons in democracy” despite mounting concerns from election and human rights monitors.[4] Turkey also will not currently hold new elections until 2023. Erdogan himself lauded this valuable period of uninterrupted governance in his first speech on election night.[5] He is thus unlikely to reject the results wholesale or call for a new round of elections as he did in the 2015 Turkish Parliamentary Elections.

Erdogan is still firmly entrenched in his dominance of the Government of Turkey. Opposition gains in local politics - however notable - are unlikely to threaten his ruling coalition in the near-term. Erdogan has successfully centralized power within the Turkish Presidency and won a key victory in the 2018 Turkish Presidential and Parliamentary Elections. His AKP and its allied Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) still secured the majority of the votes and municipalities contested in the 2019 Turkish Local Elections. Only if such losses are sustained will Erdogan face a true challenge to his future leadership of Turkey.

Erdogan successfully sidelined the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in Eastern Turkey. The HDP abstained from running candidates in key cities to boycott continued government pressure directed by Erdogan and the AKP. The AKP systematically replaced almost one hundred elected mayors affiliated with the HDP in Eastern Turkey throughout 2018 due to their alleged association with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Former HDP Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtas has remained in prison on terror-related charges since 2016. Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu threatened to jail other victorious politicians affiliated with HDP on March 25.[6] The HDP also likely suffered at the polls due to systematic population displacement resulting from Turkey’s military campaign against the PKK in Eastern Turkey.

Erdogan also retains his close alliance with the MHP despite his losses in Istanbul and Ankara. Erdogan ceded some local elections to the MHP in exchange for nationalist support for the AKP. The MHP agreed not to run candidates in key urban centers such as Istanbul and Ankara. Erdogan in return supported the MHP in Central and Southern Turkey. This plan proved less successful than intended. The AKP failed to win in Istanbul and Ankara while the MHP lost its own hold over key urban centers in Southern Turkey such as Adana. The AKP is reportedly contesting some political terrain from the MHP in light of the lackluster results of their cooperation across Turkey. These disputes are unlikely to drive a major wedge between the AKP and MHP given their cooperation in the ruling majority in the Turkish Parliament.

Erdogan could ultimately exploit his political losses to discredit the opposition and win back long-term support for the AKP. Erdogan has established himself as a capable and cunning politician in the decades since he entered national politics in Turkey in 2002. He now has an opportunity to shift blame for the negative effects of his own self-defeating fiscal policies to the opposition and its management of the key urban centers that constitute the economic heart of Turkey. The Turkish Lira fell an additional 1.4% after the 2019 Turkish Local Elections. Erdogan also holds numerous other levers to constrain his local political opponents - from his centralized control over municipal funding and resources to legislative manipulation in the Turkish Parliament. The opposition will likely find it incredibly difficult to mitigate the adverse effects of these policies on its municipalities and its electorates. Erdogan certainly suffered a blow in the latest election - but his political demise is anything but assured.

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[1] [“Turkish General Election 2019,”] Anadolu Agency, April 1, 2019, http://secim.aa.com(.)tr/#tr.

[2] [“YSK Head Sadi Guven: There Is a 3-Day Appeal Period,”] Gunes, April 1, 2019, http://www.gunes(.)com/gundem/ysk-baskani-sadi-guven-aciklama-yapiyor-968809.

[3] [“Flash Announcement From Binali Yildirim: There Are 10 Times as Many Cancelled Votes,”] Sabah, April 1, 2019,   https://www.sabah.com(.)tr/gundem/2019/04/01/son-dakika-binali-yildirim-ak-parti-istanbul-il-baskanligina-geliyor.

[4] “Erdogan: Turkish Nation Gives World Democracy Lesson,” Anadolu Agency, June 24, 2018, https://www.aa.com(.)tr/en/todays-headlines/erdogan-turkish-nation-gives-world-democracy-lesson/1185825.

[5] Aynur Ekiz, Enes Kaplan, and Suleyman Tunc, [“Our Nation Made Us First at the Ballot Box for the 15th Time,”] Anadolu Agency, March 31, 2019, https://www.aa.com(.)tr/tr/politika/cumhurbaskani-erdogan-milletimiz-bizi-15inci-defa-sandikta-birinci-yapti/1439019.

[6] Muhammed Boztepe, [“Interior Minister Soylu: PKK Candidates Will Not Be Members of the Municipal Councils,”] Anadolu Agency, March 25, 2019, https://www.aa.com(.)tr/tr/politika/icisleri-bakani-soylu-pkk-ile-iltisakli-adaylar-belediye-meclis-uyeligi-yapamaz/1429800.