The Turkish opposition scores an unexpectedly impressive win.

Risen From the Ashes

April 02, 2024
Photo credit: Sahan Nuhoglu /
Less than one year ago the Turkish opposition alliance lost presidential and parliamentary elections and subsequently collapsed.

The alliance’s leader, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), faced its own post-election turmoil, prompting a leadership change. The head of the second-largest member, the İYİ Party (İYİ), not only severed its ties to the CHP but began to target it as a principal rival. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, content in his victory, retained his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) alliance with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP).

Few, therefore, would have been surprised if AKP won a landslide in Sunday’s local elections. But surprises there were. The CHP scored a staggering victory, perhaps ushering in a new zeitgeist in Türkiye.

The opposition party’s mayoral candidates won reelection in key cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Victories elsewhere were also celebrated. Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu secured 51% of the vote, beating his Erdoğan-backed opponent by 11 percentage points. Meanwhile, İmamoğlu’s counterpart in Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, clinched victory with an impressive 60% of the vote, almost double that garnered by his main opponent. Notably, the CHP secured a plurality of the nationwide vote, 37.7%, eclipsing the AKP's 35.5%.

Another election victor was the Welfare Again Party (YRP), a staunchly Islamist party led by Fatih Erbakan, son of the late Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, which declined to align with Erdoğan's coalition after he proved unable to meet the party’s demands. That meant Erdoğan was denied the YRP’s 6.2% of the national vote.

While the CHP celebrated its success, other opposition parties found themselves on the losing side. İYİ struggled, securing a mere 3.8% of the vote, a setback that could pose challenges to its prospects. The pro-Kurdish DEM Party’s 5.7% result was a historic low. Other parties that hovered around the 1% mark are significant only as potential alliance partners in a tight presidential race.

The CHP's triumph stems from three factors. First, the party offered popular figures such as İmamoğlu and Yavaş. The AKP had no one of comparable stature, indicating that it faces a challenge when the charismatic Erdoğan himself is not on the ballot. Second, economic hardship fueled discontent, even among staunch AKP supporters. Third, demand for political change exists in Türkiye after 22 years of AKP dominance.

Barring unforeseen events, however, there is little prospect of comprehensive change until the next presidential and parliamentary elections in four years. In the interim, Erdoğan is poised to retain control over all facets of political authority, save that for municipalities. The impact of the recent vote on his policies is, therefore, of utmost importance.

Erdoğan is likely to reshuffle the AKP’s organization as he always does after an election, even one he wins. This time, however, he may also make cabinet changes. With economic challenges and tight monetary policy factors in the AKP's defeat, many wonder if Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek will be ousted. This, however, is unlikely as it could create uncertainty about economic governance and trigger more instability. But the minister may face greater political scrutiny, and that alone could undermine the credibility of economic policy. 

So, too, would a referendum for a new constitution, which Erdoğan could use to remove the term limit he faces. Lacking a parliamentary majority for a constitutional amendment, the president needs to win a referendum to extend his time in office. But holding one is another unlikely prospect. Erdoğan’s recent defeat and the current economic malaise are signs that the electorate would likely reject his effort. It would also amount to an extra economic burden given the increased public spending that typically accompanies campaign periods. The president may instead now think seriously about succession strategies. 

On foreign policy, Erdoğan, facing no further election on the horizon, will be free from the constraints of populism. That will enable him to pursue decisions that, while beneficial, may well be unpopular. These may include ending a dispute with Washington about Türkiye’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 missile system, normalizing relations with Armenia, launching a new round of talks on Cyprus, and deepening Greek-Turkish détente.

In the wake of last year’s defeat, the CHP’s new leadership swiftly established a grassroots campaign. Its success with voters propelled the recent victory. Sustaining and even expanding the campaign now hinges on the party’s ability to steer clear of identity politics and intra-party rivalries.

Turkish elections, while unfair, remain highly competitive. The impressive 79% voter turnout underscores the public’s dedication to the electoral process, one of the few bright spots in the country’s democracy, which is the real winner.