Election reverses show Erdoğan is more vulnerable than he thinks

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The writer is director of the Turkey programme at the Middle East Institute and author ofErdoğan’s War: A Strongman’s Struggle at Home and in Syria’

When Turkish voters cast their ballots in Sunday’s municipal elections, they did not just vote for their mayors and local administrators. Instead, they sent a message to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had turned the vote into a referendum on his rule. He campaigned hard using the vast state resources at his disposal, and even threatened to deny voters services if candidates from his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) lost. The historic victory of the main opposition Republican People’s party (CHP), therefore, is not just a defeat for the AKP but a gauge of the Turkish strongman’s waning support. It also offers a much-needed corrective to ideas about how Turkish politics works.

After Erdoğan’s presidential election victory last May, Turkey seemed to defy the accepted wisdom that it’s the economy that matters most for voters. Analysts from the pro- and anti-Erdoğan camps lined up to explain how he won despite growing economic problems made worse by a devastating earthquake in February 2023. Some argued that Erdoğan’s supporters stand by him through thick and thin. Others claimed that the president has consolidated autocracy so much that he could not be defeated at the ballot box. The success of the CHP in Sunday’s municipal vote proves both camps wrong. It shows that despite the uneven playing field, elections do matter and voters vote with their wallets — eventually.

Those who are sceptical about elections under an entrenched strongman like Erdoğan have a point. Elections in Turkey are neither free nor fair. Like most autocrats, Erdoğan uses the state machinery to reverse election results, jails or intimidates his opponents, and floods the airwaves with one-sided coverage. But despite all of that, Turkey’s opposition still managed to win a landmark victory. The CHP not only added to the municipalities it gained five years ago, but it also became the country’s most popular party in terms of total votes — a first since the party’s heyday in the 1970s. 

For many opposition supporters, victory came late. They expected to oust Erdoğan last year when the government’s poor response to the earthquake and Turkey’s mounting economic problems strengthened popular discontent with his rule. But the opposition parties failed them. They fielded an uninspiring candidate who headed an unwieldy and ideologically diverse six-party coalition. 

Things are different this time around. At the helm of the CHP is an energetic young new leader, Özgür Özel, who replaced Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu after last year’s elections. The party’s mayoral candidates are charismatic figures such as Ekrem İmamoğlu, who beat AKP challengers in Istanbul three times since 2019.

In the run-up to the March vote, Erdoğan was so confident about his candidates’ prospects that he named Murat Kurum, the former urban affairs minister known for his role in the government’s faltering earthquake response, as his party’s candidate for Istanbul, a city where earthquake fears loom large.

Developments on the economic front worked in the opposition’s favour too. Although Turkey’s economy has been struggling for some time, the crisis deepened after last year’s elections. Skyrocketing prices are causing misery for the poor and impoverishing the middle class, particularly in big cities. People in the earthquake zone are also disappointed in Erdoğan. Many had voted for him after he promised to rapidly build large numbers of new homes following the quake. But 12 months on, hundreds of thousands of them remain in shelters. Compounding their anger, the government has failed to hold people accountable for faulty construction that greatly exacerbated the death toll. 

All of these factors created the perfect storm and the opposition capitalised on it. Erdoğan’s job is safe, for now. But the election results are a wake-up call. They suggest that he is more vulnerable than he thinks. To stay in power, he has to fix the economy and address Turkey’s growing problems. His dream of remaining president for life by changing the constitution to run again in 2028 is now more distant.

More importantly, Sunday’s vote shows that Erdoğan did not win last year’s election, the opposition lost it. It is now up to Turkey’s newly energised opposition to prove that all politics is not local. With the opportunity to provide good governance and smart investments at the municipal level all over Turkey, the CHP can prove that it is ready to repeat this local victory at the national level in the next elections.

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