Turkish local elections: A major lesson for Erdogan and the AKP

4 April 2024

Turkey’s municipal elections were held on 31 March 2024, just nine months after the presidential and parliamentary elections that returned Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the presidency and gave the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a parliamentary majority. While local elections do have the import of national polls, they are a good indicator of trends in public opinion and the relationship between the governing party and its grassroots base.

The largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), came out in first place, taking roughly 37 percent of all votes across the country, the first time since 1977 that it has won the largest share of votes in any election. It edged out the AKP by just 2 percent, but the narrow margin had a tremendous impact on the distribution of seats and municipalities held by the parties.

The AKP failed to regain Istanbul—long considered a mirror of the Turkish electoral landscape—even losing two traditionally conservative districts. It similarly failed to retake Ankara and Adana, which, like Istanbul, it lost in the 2019 elections. The AKP also lost the mayoralty of Urfa in the south, considered one of the party’s strongholds in the south. But the worst blow was AKP’s loss of its majority on the Ankara and Istanbul Municipal Councils, which he had retained in 2019 despite losing the mayoralty in both cities.

With the AKP vote share 8 points lower than in the 2019 elections, this round of local elections must be read as a major defeat for the party—its first since it took power in 2002.

The AKP defeat can be explained by several factors. Turnout was down nearly 7 percent from the 2019 elections, and many abstainers were doubtlessly previous AKP voters. In addition, a sizeable section of former AKP supporters defected to the conservative, Islamic-oriented New Welfare Party (YRP), which surprisingly came in third in total vote share. Both abstainers and swing voters were likely motivated by dissatisfaction with the fiscal and economic policies of the new Erdogan government, which have entailed high interest rates, continued inflation, and the lifting of subsidies on necessary goods, as well as with the government’s muted response to Israel’s war on Gaza. Indeed, the YRP made the war a centerpiece of its electoral campaign.

Moreover, the AKP and MHP failed to coordinate their lists of candidates in several districts where they thought the CHP posed no threat. More importantly, most Kurdish voters outside of Kurdish-majority states threw their support behind the CHP, as did a notable slice of former Good Party voters. These factors served to give the CHP its best electoral showing in decades.

Some of the political implications of the elections are clear. In retaining the mayoralty of Istanbul by a wide margin, Ekrem Imamoglu has undoubtedly become the CHP’s next presidential candidate, regardless of his performance in office in the next few years.

The fortunes of the two nationalist parties, the MHP and the Good Party, continued to decline with these elections, while the popular base of the racist Victory Party has virtually evaporated. Both these trends will be met with a great deal of optimism on the right and left.

Despite the AKP’s loss, speculation that the results of these elections will advance the push for early presidential-parliamentary elections should not be taken seriously. But this is not to say that they will no impact on national politics. The government may make greater effort to alleviate the plight of more vulnerable citizens, though thus far there is no indication of an intention to retreat from the current policy of fiscal tightening.

On the other hand, if the president is planning to make fundamental changes to the system of government in the new draft constitution, these changes are now expected to be less radical. In particular, circles close to the president were reportedly considering lifting the two-term limit on the presidency, which would allow Erdogan to run again in 2028. Given the latest election returns, such a constitutional change is unlikely to pass. This presidential term will thus mark the end of Erdogan’s leadership of the country. 

In his speech on the evening of elections, Erdogan commented on the defeat of his party, saying that local elections are not the end of the road. In other words, four years remain before the next election, during which the AKP will work to rebuild its relationship with its base. The question that the AKP will begin to ask, which will cast a shadow over Turkish politics, is whether a path will open before other AKP leaders to take up the task of renewal and reform.

*This is a summary of a policy brief originally written in Arabic available here.