Election day in Ankara
Election day in Ankara | Photo: Photo : Sandro Weltin/Council of Europe | CC BY ND 2.0

Local elections in Turkey: Can they steer the future of Turkish politics?

The Turkish local elections showed interesting results: the AKP’s alliance gained the majority of the votes (51,67%), while the opposition managed to take over – according to the unofficial results – the key cities such as the capital Ankara and the finance capital Istanbul from the AKP. Even though it can be perceived as an overall success for Erdoğan’s alliance, it might also suggest a decrease in electorates’ support for the AKP’s politics and desire for change in the current political system. Now new challenges –and new conflicts- can be expected for the opposition and the government, which might influence the future of Turkish politics.

Local elections with national concerns

The 2019 local elections have taken a different course than the previous ones. The political parties built alliances again, as was the case in the last years’ parliamentary elections: The Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) formed the People’s Alliance (“Cumhur İttifakı”) and the main parties of the opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the IYI Party, came together as Nation Alliance (“Millet İttifakı”). The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) did not support any alliances; however, they did also not run candidates in the West of Turkey such as in the metropolitan cities Istanbul, Ankara and İzmir. Accordingly, the HDP’s decision can be interpreted as a valuable support for the main opposition. These alliances pointed out that the local elections will also be intertwined with the national political concerns.

Moreover, the campaigning strategy of the “Cumhur İttifakı” intensified the meaning of the local elections: The alliance argued that the survival of the country (bekâ in Turkish) depended on this election, and its importance was emphasised because it would show the direction of Turkey. Accordingly, Erdogan actively gave speeches in party meetings in the country and used a very strong vernacular to define the opposition as an alliance of despicableness, “Zillet İttifakı”, which promoted further societal polarisation.

In that sense, it is important to point out the reasons for this active participation of Erdoğan in the campaigning as a president and the chairman of the ruling party. The aggressive rhetoric used by Erdogan and his emphasis on the importance of the local elections can be analysed as a legitimacy-concern of the government for the current presidential system, which was obtained with a narrow victory in the 2017 constitutional referendum. Consequently, these incidents narrowed down the political debate between the support for the current government and the opposition; and showed that ruling party’s concerns on consolidating the new system and the party’s future as a strong actor in the Turkish politics.

New challenges for the political poles

The current situation indicates possible challenges and conflicts between the political poles and among the alliances.

The main opposition block CHP and the IYI Party face two potential challenges: First, the durability of alliances is questionable after this election. It is highly possible that the CHP and IYI Party’s cooperation can experience coherence problems due to their pragmatic alliance, since the IYI Party has not been successful in the elections and gained only 7,45 % of the votes and only 18 districts (of 922 districts), none of which were provinces or metropolitan municipalities. Moreover, the inclusiveness of these two parties can be challenged in the future. Even though the IYI Party has rejected the pro-Kurdish Party HDP as a political power, the CHP might pursue other cooperation possibilities. Indeed, the HDP has been an important political actor that influenced the results by not proposing candidates in metropolitan cities and calling for strategic votes for the opposition’s candidates in the big cities. The speech of CHP’s Istanbul candidate İmamoğlu, in which he expresses his “sincere connection with the Kurdish citizens”, showed that he already acknowledges their importance as a political actor. However, the CHP’s Ankara candidate, Mansur Yavaş, who is a former MHP member, positions himself strongly against the HDP. It shows possible future divisions inside the party regarding the CHP’s openness to the HDP and the Kurds. Secondly, the new municipalities under the control of the opposition might face challenges in cooperation and coordination with the state, which is still under the AKP power. This possible challenge was already mentioned by Erdoğan on a television broadcast just before the elections. He stated that the local governments which are “not in harmony with the central government” might experience financial problems. Therefore, they will certainly have to prove their competence for local politics, which might be even more challenging under the current recession in Turkey as the OECD remarks that the Turkish economy is rapidly slowing.

Besides, the AKP has to review the political and economic reasons for this setback. Erdoğan’s speeches on the election night gave a hint that the party will go to an evaluation process. The next period will also show the durability of the AKP and MHP’s “Millet İttifaki”; and also whether the AKP would reconsider this alliance, in which the Turkish nationalism was promoted at “the expense of Kurdish votes”. It is also possible to expect that the party will try to recreate its founding strategies or values and to become more inclusive again in order to prepare for the elections in 2023.

What comes next?

In sum, it is too early to identify the elections as a defeat of the AKP or a complete success of the opposition. However, it points out the desire for changes in Turkey’s politics long expected by the anti-government segments of the society, especially in the course of the increasing authoritarian behaviour of the national government, the human rights violations and the current financial problems in the country. The success of the CHP’s candidates will certainly encourage the opposition –especially the alliance block- to take a stronger stand against the government. It might give more possibilities to implement new –and maybe similar- strategies of the clientelism and patronage already actively used by the AKP at the local level; and consequently this can result as more support for the opposition in the next elections.

Even though these results might bring a change and steer the future of Turkey in a different direction, it might also indicate another tumultuous period for Turkey, in which the AKP aims to regain power more aggressively. It is, however, of importance to accept the results and embrace the change in local governments to establish a rapid sense of stability and re-normalisation in Turkey’s future.

Sezer İdil Göğüş
Sezer İdil Göğüş is a research associate in the Glocal Junctures department at PRIF. In her research, she focuses on i.a. transnational citizenship politics of the AKP and political socializations in Turkey.

Sezer İdil Göğüş

Sezer İdil Göğüş is a research associate in the Glocal Junctures department at PRIF. In her research, she focuses on i.a. transnational citizenship politics of the AKP and political socializations in Turkey.

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