After an unusually quiet campaign season in Turkey, the March 31, 2019 local elections delivered one of the most stunning results in recent memory. While securing a majority of the votes nationwide, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost major ground. Interestingly, from a historical perspective, the AKP outperformed itself compared to past local elections. The party obtained 44.32 percent of votes nationwide in 2019, compared to 41.6 percent in 2004, 38.99 percent in 2009, and 43.31 percent in 2014. Yet the party failed to perform in individual races, notably in major cities.
The most important defeats came in the mayoral races in the capital, Ankara, and in Istanbul, the country’s global metropolis. According to unofficial initial results, both races were close, particularly in Istanbul—fewer than 24,000 votes separate Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu from the AKP’s Binali Yıldırım out of more than 10 million votes cast in the city. These losses are significant because the AKP and its Islamist predecessors have carried both cities in every election since 1994.
While the AKP still contests the results in Istanbul due to “tricks and irregularities” in the voting process, the outcome is no less remarkable. In recent years, President Erdogan and the AKP worked diligently to centralize power in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government, particularly since the failed coup attempt in 2016. The party has also come to control print and television media. With the exception of a number of small-market media outlets, criticism of President Erdoğan, the AKP, or the government has largely been self-censored, leading to favorable and stale coverage of political and economic developments. However, despite the AKP’s campaign efforts to turn the state of the economy into a security issue with roots abroad, the electorate did not buy into the party’s overall poor economic performance over the past several years. Voters clearly repudiated the AKP’s politics in search of an alternative.
Since 2014, Turkish elections have witnessed unprecedented levels of electoral manipulation accusations aimed at the ruling AKP, which seemingly found a way to ensure favorable results in almost every election. For instance, according to Council of Europe observer mission, millions of votes might have been manipulated in the closely contested 2018 constitutional referendum. Not only did these results collectively demoralize opposition groups during elections, but they also created an aura of a predestined AKP victory. Breaking the AKP hold on Ankara and Istanbul—cities critical to the AKP’s national rentier system—is thus a major achievement for the opposition.
The unexpected wins in Ankara and Istanbul should provide the opposition an opportunity to hold the AKP accountable and break its monopoly over Turkish politics. In two of the largest municipalities in the country, which the AKP held for more than two decades, the opposition has frequently voiced charges of corruption. Now, the new mayors of Ankara and Istanbul will have opportunities to expose corrupt practices and attain the moral high ground.
The results outline a path to contest the AKP’s unchecked power successfully. In a highly polarized social and political environment, setting aside differences for the shared goal of wresting power from the AKP appears to have paved the way for opposition parties’ success. Strategic voting—voting for a candidate other than the one you prefer in order to avoid fragmenting the vote and leading to an undesirable outcome—has proven to be the key for Ankara’s and Istanbul’s mayoral races. Secular voters used this tactic most effectively in the June 2015 legislative elections to support the bid by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) for parliamentary representation. Overall, however, this tool remained largely underutilized by Turkish voters until the 2019 elections. The results from major cities such as Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, Eskisehir, and Adana show that voters from opposition parties flocked to the top candidate challenging the AKP in that district, successfully using strategic voting to consolidate support around a single opposition figure. In each of these cities, the AKP candidate and the main opposition candidate jointly obtained 96 percent or more of the votes.
In addition, the opposition has an opportunity to challenge the AKP on its reputation as a service delivery party. The AKP laid the foundation to its unwavering societal support with successful delivery of services in its early stints at local governance, especially in Ankara and Istanbul. This legacy served the future AKP leaders well. Yet increased partisanship and patronage has made the AKP a far less effective provider of services in recent years, creating an opening for the opposition. By providing a viable alternative that can provide services as effectively, if not more so, the CHP and other opposition parties can forge a strong relationship with the electorate, which might in turn help their prospects in legislative elections.
Meanwhile, even as the AKP channels most of its energy toward contesting results in races it lost, the party and President Erdoğan face two options. They can take the hard lessons of the elections to heart—that failure to provide services and economic prosperity has electoral consequences—and spend the next four and a half years during which no elections are scheduled to return to the fundamentals of strong economic growth. The party can do this by providing services, building infrastructure, and creating jobs instead of suppressing criticism and waging ideological wars to purge opponents from all sectors of the society. The AKP and President Erdoğan have the tools and the political power necessary to act on these goals—but not the political will, because the party’s extensive control over the state, economy, and society is likely to create an illusion of invincibility and power despite the recent losses.
Alternatively, the AKP might give in to fear and intensify its recent devolution into authoritarianism in order to survive. Such a course of action, for which the party has shown greater inclination, would require it to crack down further on dissent by an emboldened opposition. For example, in a self-defeating manner, the party might opt to undermine the new mayors from the opposition parties by denying them central government funds, among other tactics. Polarization and heightened social, political, and ethnic tensions helped build a coalition that enabled the AKP to win successive elections in tumultuous political times since 2014. However, this strategy is losing steam, and it is unclear whether the party can sustain this in the long term without greater suppression and, possibly, widespread electoral manipulation.
As Turkey enters a new political episode, two countervailing factors evince cautious optimism. The electorate sent an important message that the AKP no longer enjoys the electoral immunity the party presumed to possess. This re-establishes a degree of electoral accountability—a bright spot given the recent trajectory of Turkish politics. However, the inability of the opposition parties to unite in their expressed goals of holding the Erdoğan government accountable on corruption charges in 2015 still defines what the opposition can—and, mostly, cannot—do vis-à-vis the AKP.
A.Kadir Yildirim is a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy focusing on religion and Middle Eastern politics. Follow him on Twitter @akyildirim.