Opposition gains major victories in Turkey's local elections

Tons of CHP supporters took to the streets after their surprise victory in Turkey's election. Collage by Arzu Geybullayeva

Turkey's local elections which took place on March 31, will go down in history as one of its most surprising. Turkey's demoralized opposition, namely the Republican People's Party (CHP), dominated in what many pundits described as the ruling Justice and Development Party's worst defeat of its 22-year existence. For the first time since 1977, the CHP took more votes nationwide. In his televised address afterward, the CHP leader Özgür Özel called the elections “historic” as he teared up. Scores of supporters took to the streets to celebrate the results across Turkey.

Istanbul, where CHP secured victory in 2019, was one of the key cities in this year's race. At the time, losing control over the municipality in Istanbul was described as a major blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development party (AKP), as it was where he started his political career when he was elected mayor in 1994. The results of yesterday's election nationwide cemented this rejoinder on Erdoğan's agenda.

In the capital, Ankara, the CHP's incumbent mayor, Mansur Yavaş, outdid his rival by over 28 percent. In Turkey's third-largest city, Izmir, opposition candidate Cemil Tugar finished 11 points ahead of the ruling party's candidate.

Elsewhere across the country, as the results were trickling in, the map was slowly turning red as many of the provinces previously led by the AKP were showing victories for the opposition party candidates.

According to Gönül Tol, Director of the Middle East Institute's Turkish Program, the change was “notable,” as “opposition CHP [was] not confined to coastal regions but expanding into Anatolia, the conservative/nationalist heartland of the country.”

In total, the opposition won in 35 out of 81 provinces. The rest of the provinces were split between AKP (24 provinces), the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM, 10 provinces), the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP, 8 provinces), the New Welfare Party (two provinces), and Iyi Party (Good Party, one province). With some six million eligible voters, the turnout at the time of writing this story was estimated at more than 78 percent across the country's 81 provinces, with almost all ballots counted. In previous municipal elections, the turnout was 84.5 percent. In Turkey, the voter turnout has always been high ranging between 70 and 90 percent throughout the years.

This victory also reversed political tides ahead of the next general elections scheduled for 2028. There were hints the AKP would be making constitutional changes which could allow incumbent President Erdoğan to stay in power, despite earlier promises these elections would be his last.

While the president cannot legally run in the next presidential race in 2028, according to Turkey's Constitution, there are two scenarios in which this can change. In the first scenario, Erdoğan and the AKP would need to secure 400 votes in the parliament to change the constitution. Turkey's parliament, the Grand National Assembly, consists of 600 seats. At the moment, the AKP and its main ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), hold 313 seats. Thus, pushing for a constitutional amendment with a parliamentary vote would largely depend on whether the ruling party and President can secure the support of other political party representatives.

In the second scenario, the parliament can call for an early election. But even in this scenario, 360 parliamentary votes are needed.

With election results in, these plans will likely be put on hold.

While still low, the number of women mayors also increased, rising from four to 11. In Bilecik, a provincial capital of Turkey's Bilecik Province, in northwestern Anatolia, Melek Mızrak Subaşı who was likened to Daenerys Targaryen, the fictional character in George R. R. Martin's epic fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire — which was later made into the HBO blockbuster Game of Thrones series, also secured victory.

The elections also saw instances of violence. At least one person was killed and 11 injured in the city of Diyarbakir, and at least sixteen were injured in the province of Sanliurfa, according to media reports.

Critiques against Erdoğan

As results started to trickle in, one of the widely discussed questions was what kind of election results Turkey would see had it been a different opposition candidate running against President Erdoğan.

The local election results also illustrated that the dynamics between the local and general elections were different. Turkey's ongoing economic crisis, wherein the country's currency lost 40 percent of its value since last year and over 80 percent in the last five years, did matter, and the voters placed the blame on the ruling government in the local elections. In an interview with Reuters, Hakan Akbaş, a senior adviser at the Albright Stonebridge Group, said, “The economy was the decisive factor. Turkish people demanded change and İmamoğlu is now the default nemesis to President Erdoğan.”

Another surprising result came from the Yeniden Refah (the New Welfare Party), a religious-conservative party which pundits speculated could divide the AKP's votes among conservative and religious voters disillusioned by Erdoğan's economic choices. It came third in the race after the ruling AKP secured over  six percent of votes.

In his balcony speech delivered past midnight, Erdoğan adopted a less divisive tone than usual, expressing his gratitude to all of his party candidates as well as the people. He also said the party would fix mistakes ahead of the 2028 general elections. Unlike in previous municipal elections in 2019, the ruling party also did not contest election results, with Erdoğan, saying he and his party accept the people's decision. In 2019, after the CHP's Ekrem İmamoğlu won against the AKP's Binali Yıldırım, the latter objected to the results. In the re-run, İmamoğlu won with an even higher margin — some 860,000 votes versus 13,700 votes.

In securing his re-election, İmamoğlu now has a clear shot at becoming the next leader of the opposition CHP as well as a likely candidate in the next presidential race. According to Sinan Ülgen, director of the Istanbul-based Edam think tank, “This outcome has certainly been a watershed for İmamoğlu. He will emerge as the natural candidate of the opposition for the next round of presidential elections.” Whether İmamoğlu will succeed remains to be seen, especially as the popular Istanbul Mayor is still facing a charge over allegedly insulting public officials in a speech he made after he won Istanbul's municipal election in 2019. The higher appeals court must uphold the verdict, but until then, İmamoğlu remains Istanbul's mayor.

Also important to note is that these elections were free but not fair. Ahead of the vote, Erdoğan relied heavily on his presidential powers as well as the government institutions and media. In a country where 90 percent of traditional media is controlled by the government, it was not surprising to see that much of the air time was devoted to the ruling party and its candidates. There was plenty of disinformation, as was the case during the general elections last year. In December 2023, the Information Technologies and Communications Authority (BTK), Turkey's top telecommunications watchdog, imposed an access ban on 16 VPN providers. The country has also witnessed a backsliding on human rights, democracyjudicial independence, and the rule of law.

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