Crown Center for Middle East Studies

Beyond Erdoğan: Lessons from Turkey's 2024 Local Elections

A Conversation with Evren Balta and Zeynep Kadirbeyoğlu

Organized and edited by Ramyar D. Rossoukh, Assistant Director for Research

May 1, 2024

On March 31, 2024, Turkey’s oldest political party, the Republican People’s Party (also known as CHP) surprised many analysts by winning local elections in most major cities and provinces, handing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) their worst electoral defeat in over two decades. We spoke to Evren Balta, professor of International Relations at Özyeğin University in Istanbul, and Zeynep Kadirbeyoğlu, faculty leave fellow at the Crown Center, about the reasons behind these unexpected results and their implications for Turkey’s political landscape. This Crown Conversation takes us beyond pro- and anti-Erdoğan rhetoric to examine changing voting patterns in Turkey, the significance of local politics in an increasingly authoritarian state, and the challenges that the government and opposition face going forward.

Coming less than a year after elections that gave Erdoğan a third consecutive term in office and his ruling coalition a parliamentary majority, few expected the CHP to win the national vote in local elections, including mayoral victories in Turkey’s five largest cities. How do you explain the unexpected election results?

Zeynep Kadirbeyoğlu: Several factors played out in the local elections. Erdoğan has previously stated that “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey.” In 2019, control of Istanbul and Ankara shifted from his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP). This gave the opposition the chance to show that they can govern and cater to the needs of not only their voters but the whole population.

Since then, the CHP mayors of Istanbul and Ankara—Ekrem Imamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, respectively—have been instrumental in carrying out important social policies, especially during the COVID pandemic and the economic crisis that has followed it. The Istanbul metropolitan municipality, for example, has set up “City Restaurants” in different districts of Istanbul that serve inexpensive meals as a way to help people deal with the rising cost of living. The benefits of some of these social initiatives were belittled by the AKP before the election, but they seemed to be appreciated by the electorate and paid off in the election.

In addition, the CHP changed its leadership after the 2023 presidential elections, and put forward candidates in the local elections who were active in local civil society organizations and the municipalities. These steps helped mobilize grassroots support by showing voters that the CHP was in touch with local populations and able to respond to their demands, which is something that the AKP has lost over the years. In contrast, the AKP took forever to nominate a candidate for Istanbul mayor, and Erdoğan probably campaigned more in these local elections than his mayoral candidates did.

Another factor we may want to talk about is the protest by AKP voters dissatisfied with the party's economic policies. Some of these voters decided not to vote in the election, while others chose to cast their ballot for the New Welfare Party (YRP), an alternative Islamist party. The disillusionment among voters contributed to a drop in voter turnout from 85 percent in the 2019 local elections to 78 percent this year.

Evren Balta: I agree with Zeynep that the economy was the major factor for why people stayed at home, and why the turnout was historically low in this election, which really made a huge difference in terms of the outcome. Turkish election turnout is usually more than 80 percent. The last time we saw turnout this low was over 20 years ago, when the AKP first came to power.

Zeynep also mentioned ways the opposition has changed. Another important change was that the CHP entered the 2023 presidential elections as part of a coalition, but this time they ran as an independent party. What we saw in this election was not an institutional coalition but a social coalition happening at the grassroots level.

Let me also add two things. First, the instruments available to the government before the 2023 presidential elections were not available this time around. What I mean by this is the populist election spending to do things like raise minimum wages, distribute free gas to households, and so on. Turkey's economic crisis has made the government adopt a more orthodox economic policy, and it's very hard for them to change course now. So, even though about 30 percent of the Turkish electorate are on pensions, Erdoğan announced right before the local election that he could not increase pensions because the government lacked resources. This represents a major change in terms of the government’s ability to use economic redistribution as an instrument for electioneering.

In addition, nationalism was not on the agenda because local elections are about infrastructure, building roads and subways, and providing municipal services. This meant that the government could not use the nationalism card to make the election about the country’s security and divide the opposition as they did in the 2023 elections.

Erdoğan’s political future was also not on the ballot and, as Zeynep mentioned, the CHP did better in this election in terms of strategy, campaigning, and candidate selection, particularly in big cities like Izmir and Istanbul that became flagship cities for the CHP. The ability to field candidates who had some sort of experience in running major cities solved a major dilemma the opposition had in the 2023 presidential elections.

What aspects of the voting results in the local elections seem especially significant to you?

Balta: Traditionally, but especially over the last decade, the CHP and other opposition parties have gotten the majority of their votes in big, industrial cities and coastal areas. This pattern is similar to other countries where there is a conservative/secular or conservative/progressive division and polarization. In Turkey, this polarized voting pattern has calcified with around 48 percent of the electorate voting for the opposition and 52 percent voting for the incumbent government. But this changed in this election. Though we don’t yet have the exact data (and how it might be related to low turnout and other factors), if you look at the electoral map and changes in the municipalities, the CHP won in many conservative small cities that the opposition has not won for decades. The division between the CHP and the government now stands at 50-50. This means the CHP has a chance to prove itself in the incumbent government’s strongholds. But the continuation of this trend depends on how they rule, whether they present a clear alternative to the government in terms of policy, service delivery, and so on.

Kadirbeyoğlu: I want to add something about the areas affected by the 2023 Turkey–Syria earthquakes. After the 2023 elections, some people were surprised that these areas largely voted with the incumbent government in spite of the earthquake response failures. But what we see in the local elections is that in places like Adıyaman, a city in the largely Kurdish southeast of Turkey, many people switched their vote from the AKP to the CHP. For example, Erdoğan got 66 percent of the votes in the 2023 presidential elections and his party got 52 percent of the votes in the 2023 general elections. In this local election, however, the AKP mayoral candidate only got only 27 percent of the vote, whereas the CHP candidate got 49.74 percent. So, there has been a major change in voting patterns as a result of the ongoing distress and hardship in the earthquake zone.

One thing we haven’t yet mentioned is the increase in the number of women candidates and women elected to office. Women are now mayors in 61 districts, 6 provinces, and 5 metropolitan areas. Across all mayoral levels, 32 women who were elected mayors are from the CHP, 31 from the Kurdish party, 8 from the AKP, and 1 from the nationalist party. In neighborhood head or muhtar races, the number of women elected nearly doubled from 1,134 to 2,150 since the last local elections in 2019. The increase in women’s political representation is a major development happening not only in big cities but also in smaller cities and provincial towns across the country.

Balta: That’s very important but what’s also important is the age of the elected mayors. They are much younger than the typical politician in Turkey. So, we see a lot of women but also young people in their late twenties and early thirties, which is very unusual for the Turkish political scene. The need for generational change was something that the CHP kept emphasizing in the election. Imamoğlu, the mayor of Istanbul, himself is in his early fifties and the leader of the CHP, Özgür Özel, is in his late forties. This is a new generation dominating the political scene in Turkey, and the female and young candidates they put forward seem to symbolize a kind of fresh start for a new Turkey.

Kadirbeyoğlu: Yes, the candidates selected by the opposition seemed like they were trying to go beyond or around the polarization and bifurcation in Turkish politics of the last two decades by emphasizing cost of living issues and inclusive social policies. But, as Evren mentioned earlier, not having Erdoğan as a candidate opens up a lot of space for opposition candidates. Whenever he is the candidate, as he was in the 2023 presidential elections, it complicates things because of his incumbent position and the aura he has among certain groups, which is not really matched by opposition candidates.

What makes local elections so important to national politics in Turkey?

Kadirbeyoğlu: Local governments don't have much power vis-a-vis the central government because Turkey is a centralized state. Since the 2010s, but especially since 2019 when the AKP lost control of Istanbul and Ankara, the central government has tried to further limit what the municipalities and mayors can do. Nevertheless, municipalities touch people's everyday lives and deliver services that are essential. If opposition parties can prove themselves at the municipal level, they increase their visibility and can become a credible alternative on the national stage.

The split vote between local and general elections is a phenomenon of the 1990s. In 1994, Erdoğan was elected mayor of Istanbul as a candidate of the Welfare Party. In the 1990s and 2000s, this Islamist political party became very successful in local elections in Turkey because they were able to deliver services better than the mayors before them. This led to a split vote in which people were voting for the political Islamist candidates in the local elections but not in the general elections. This same kind of split vote (but now in favor of the CHP) is what we’re seeing in some municipalities in these local elections.

The AKP has been effective because they have been seen by voters as creating a stable government and able to govern and deliver services. These qualities have been lacking in opposition candidates until now. So, between now and the 2028 presidential elections, the opposition has the chance to show that they actually can deliver and govern Turkey without causing instability.

Balta: I agree that one of the major consequences of winning local elections is visibility and the chance for the opposition to prove their leadership skills. But let me add two things about the structural importance of local elections and why it is important to win municipalities. After the 2023 presidential elections, many anticipated that the AKP would solidify its rule, resembling a competitive authoritarianism where the opposition could participate in elections but had minimal chances of winning. However, the CHP's success in the local elections suggests that the government's authoritarian consolidation is limited, particularly in municipal contests, highlighting the growing legitimacy of the opposition.

Another crucial structural aspect is that the opposition currently holds sway over Turkey's most populous and economically significant municipalities, responsible for roughly 80% of the country's revenue generation. These municipalities are pivotal for the AKP due to their construction-based development model, as the construction sector is heavily influenced by municipal governance. By seizing control of these key areas of population and revenue, the opposition has disrupted the government's patronage networks, critical for distributing resources and maintaining loyalty, especially during times of economic turmoil. This shift poses a significant challenge to the resilience of Turkey's authoritarian system. While Putin's authoritarianism in Russia relies heavily on oil and gas revenues, Turkey's authoritarian regime depends on construction revenues, which are now under opposition control.

Some analysts have argued that we are now in a “post-Erdoğan” era in Turkey. What is your take on this and Turkish politics moving forward?

Balta: It's too early to call this the start of the post-Erdoğan era. We don’t know what other instruments the government has. We don’t know whether regime dynamics will change, and whether the AKP will move in the direction of more repression or more opening. And we don’t know how society in general and the institutional opposition in particular will respond.

An important issue, as Zeynep mentioned, is that a significant portion of AKP voters defected to the New Welfare Party (YRP), which is basically a Turkish version of a populist radical right party. What we usually see after the rise of such parties is that the mainstream alternative, in this case the AKP, ends up adopting their discourses and strategies. So, the AKP may shift toward a more radical nationalist agenda that would see them keep their coalition with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) but would then alienate moderate, liberal AKP voters and lead to more defections. But there are disagreements within the AKP over how to get the 50 percent plus one majority and win the presidential elections. Another part of the AKP wants to reinstitute the “golden age” of the party and shift to a more inclusive, democratic, and liberal agenda, but it might be too late to reverse their policies.

There's also the matter of ongoing economic restructuring aimed at resolving Turkey's economic crisis. Erdoğan and the AKP are optimistic that these efforts will rejuvenate the economy. However, the question remains: What will the economic landscape look like in two or three years? Will the AKP be capable of resuming its distribution of public funds for social aid? This issue holds significant importance for Turkey's future trajectory.

Returning to our initial point, the opposition must articulate a distinct and palpable alternative to Erdoğan's style of governance and leadership. Erdoğan retains the capacity to suppress the opposition, wielding tools such as nationalism or leveling charges against opposition figures. Numerous uncertainties persist, and four years constitutes a considerable timeframe. Nonetheless, this period presents a critical juncture in Turkish politics, and indeed a captivating period to observe Turkish politics. Turkey offers a compelling case study to understand the dynamics between local and national politics, and also patterns of electoral competition in competitive authoritarian regimes.

Kadirbeyoğlu: Yes, I agree. I’ll just add that the local elections have shown us the resilience of whatever democracy remains in Turkey because the results have not been seriously contested. There have been some minor issues but overall, these were as clean elections as we normally get in Turkey, which was also the case in the 2023 presidential and general elections. So, the election system still functions with some irregularities, especially in the earthquake zone and smaller cities or villages. This is not to say that Erdoğan’s government did not have an incumbent advantage prior to the local elections. The time allocated to opposition candidates on public TV and media during the campaign period was insignificant in comparison to AKP candidates. The AKP used public resources and the president’s office to campaign throughout Turkey. Therefore, it is impossible to say that political parties entered the elections on a level playing field. Yet despite the asymmetric competition, the governing coalition of the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) lost mayor’s positions in 4 metropolitan municipalities, 14 province municipalities, and 202 district municipalities.

Erdoğan's post-election reaction is also telling. In his speech, he accepted defeat and announced to his party that he will be inaugurating an investigation into the causes of this loss to “correct our mistakes and redress our shortcomings.” This shows that no matter how repressive the regime has become, no matter the restrictions on freedom of speech, no matter how much they have tried to get rid of elected mayors, especially in the Kurdish provinces, the population still goes out and votes for the candidates they want to govern their cities.

This acceptance of defeat, however, may not be long lasting in some provinces. We have seen a sign of that in Van where the Kurdish party candidate who won the mayoral election was initially denied the mayorship two days after the election when the court reversed an earlier decision that allowed him to run. Instead, the runner-up AKP candidate was installed as mayor. But strong local and national protests (even the CHP sent a team to observe what was going on) led the government to reinstate the Kurdish party candidate as mayor. There is still controversy surrounding the court’s decision, so we don’t yet know how things will end. The government may ultimately decide to appoint unelected trustees in municipalities where mayors of the Kurdish party won elections like they did in the last two local elections in these cities. If they do, it will further normalize a pattern of violating the constitution and disregarding the votes of a portion of the population.

For more Crown Center publications on topics covered in this Crown Conversation, see “Turkey’s Economic Crisis and Erdoğan’s Multiple Rapprochement Initiatives” and “Mayors and Municipalities: How Local Government Shapes Kurdish Politics in Turkey.”

The opinions and findings expressed in this Conversation belong to the authors exclusively and do not reflect those of the Crown Center or Brandeis University.