AKP Suffers Major Losses in Turkish Local Elections

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, pictured in December 2018 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Argentina. (The Kremlin)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, pictured in December 2018 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Argentina. (The Kremlin)

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered a major setback following Turkey’s local elections on March 31 after it lost the key cities of Ankara and Istanbul to the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), according to preliminary results.

Numerous factors played a role in the AKP’s defeat. One major reason is Turkey’s economy, which is now officially in recession. The lira lost 30 percent of its value in 2018 after 16 years of economic stability that enabled relatively unchallenged AKP rule. Last-minute efforts to mask economic decline by propping up the lira’s value and selling vegetables at subsidized costs failed to pay off at the ballot box.

In addition, Erdogan’s abrasive and nationalistic rhetoric turned off many voters. On the campaign trail, Erdogan called opponents terrorist sympathizers while stoking fears of anti-Islamic sentiment in his base, largely to distract voters from the country’s ailing economy. An AKP insider noted that even supporters of the president refused to vote.

Finally, an informal alliance between the CHP and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) encouraged strategic voting by urban Kurds, typically HDP supporters, for CHP candidates. This helped increase the final vote margins in places like Istanbul, where Kurds make up 11 percent of the voting population.

Unofficial results show the CHP winning in Turkey’s three largest cities: Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. This is particularly notable as the AKP controlled Istanbul and Ankara for 25 years, and Erdogan himself served as mayor of Istanbul in the 90s.

However, the AKP has questioned the legitimacy of some of the results, citing discrepancies in Istanbul’s results, and has called for a recount. As a result, the opposition’s lead has narrowed from 29,000 to around 18,000 votes. However, the opposition criticized the election authority, claiming that it has rejected its appeals in the past.

AKP recount efforts have also drawn criticism internationally. European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans commented, “Turkey has been moving away from European values at great speed in recent years” and accused the AKP of not respecting election results.

Should the results be confirmed, the AKP will have suffered its most significant defeat since Erdogan’s rise to power in 2002, reinforcing strength in democratic institutions in spite of Erdogan’s strongman tactics.

Analysts are skeptical about whether this will harm Erdogan on the national stage. Ozgur Unluhisarcikli of the German Marshall fund claims that the pause in elections until 2023 will give Erdogan time to implement economic and political reforms in a bid to boost popularity. AKP approval previously fell to between 32 and 35 percent ahead of the local polls.

On the other hand, Guillaume Tresca of Credit Agricole believes that future reforms will likely be short-term stimulus measures that might exacerbate the deep-rooted problems responsible for the state of Turkey’s economy, and warns not to “expect concrete reforms; it will be just words.”

Although the specific policies Turkey’s government will undertake are not yet clear, one point is clear: Turnout for the vote was nearly 85 percent, and the election was widely seen as a referendum on the president. In a country where power has become incredibly centralized, many see these results as a sign that Turkey’s democratic spirit is alive and well.