Opposition triumph in Turkey’s local elections: democratic recovery or autocratic hiccup?

In the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections, Turkish opposition parties suffered catastrophic defeat. Several factors contributed to their surprise victory in the recent local elections. Pelin Ayan Musil and Sultan Tepe argue that shifting from alliance to party-centred competition gave opposition parties a striking advantage – and laid bare the vulnerabilities of President Erdoğan’s political strategies

Turkey’s tilted electoral playing field disproportionately favours the country's longstanding president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Opposition victory in the recent 2024 local elections thus came as a shock to political observers, because it showed the opposition was indeed capable of challenging Erdoğan’s authoritarian grip. Yet Turkey’s politics are full of perplexing developments. Less than a year ago, many were baffled as to how the opposition failed to remove Erdoğan’s AKP from power despite Turkey's severe economic crisis. Given its resilience, why, then, did the AKP suffer such a defeat in 2024?

Maps displaying parties with highest scores in each province

Orange – AKP, Dark Red – CHP, Light Red – MHP, Purple – Pro-Kurdish Party, Green – YRP, Black – BBP

Local elections are less about ideologies and strong national figures and more about collecting trash and filling potholes. Thus, local governments’ accomplishments or failures, and the candidates they fielded, could have contributed to the unanticipated results. Moreover, voters think differently from election to election because the rules and stakes change. However, the sudden shift in the opposition’s favour within just one year means we must explore other factors beyond the local-national dichotomy.

Post-election assessments were quick to emphasise ‘economic performance,’ the ‘impact of low turnout,’ and ‘the renewal of the main opposition party.’ Here, we explore the limitations of these explanations, and highlight overlooked aspects.

'Economic performance and dealignment' thesis

Turkey's dismal economic conditions, with a 90% inflation rate and $476 minimum wage, were undoubtedly critical factors in AKP’s defeat. Erdoğan’s disappointing post-election performance, along with a deeply troubled economy, resulted in one of the lowest-ever turnouts for the 2024 local elections.

Early findings indicate that many AKP voters abstained. This may represent a dealignment in Turkish politics in which AKP voters defected from their party but did not align with a new one.

However, neither defections from the AKP nor the economic crisis were new. Only a year ago, the state of the economy and the impact of the 2023 earthquake resulted in many observers predicting a resounding defeat for Erdoğan. Yet he managed to weather one of the worst crises in Turkey’s history. Why did the economy matter in the 2024 local elections but not in the 2023 national elections?

A 'reinvigorated opposition' thesis

Recent research shows that in 2023, the opposition failed to convince voters it would manage the economy better than Erdoğan. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition CHP, was dismissed as an ‘uninspiring’ presidential candidate. Since then, CHP has changed its leadership and elite cadres. Did this make the opposition more convincing in the 2024 local elections?

In the 2023 national elections, the opposition failed to convince voters it would manage the economy better than Erdoğan

It’s too early to say. The new CHP cadres re-nominated some unpopular mayors, including the ‘inattentive’ mayor of earthquake-stricken Hatay. In contrast, some popular mayors, such as Izmir’s, were replaced, prompting criticism that CHP was neglecting public demands. Nationally, the party lacks a mass-mobilising capacity. One exception is Istanbul, where the performance and charisma of CHP mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu managed to consolidate the broad coalition that backed him in 2019. Attributing the AKP’s heavy defeat in 2024 only to the ‘new’ CHP is thus premature.

An overlooked factor: party-centred vs. alliance-based competition

The 2024 local elections were shaped by individual party performances, without formal alliances akin to those in 2023. This distinction warrants careful consideration. After all, AKP’s 2023 victory relied on coalition with far-right nationalist MHP, the minor yet regionally influential conservative nationalist BBP, and Islamist parties HUDAPAR and YRP. Consequently, Erdoğan often built his campaigns around far-right discourse. In fact, in 2023, AKP's campaign linked CHP candidates to the PKK, a ‘terrorist organisation.’ It even used an AI-generated ad that placed opposition candidate Kılıçdaroğlu next to the PKK leadership. Erdoğan thus turned the 2023 election into a referendum on Turkey’s security and stability.

In this year’s local elections, Erdoğan’s party competed without its nationalist and Islamist partners. It did not form a coalition with the hidden victor of the elections, the minor Islamist YRP. This, it turned out, could have been a substantial mistake.

Erdoğan’s election dilemmas and miscalculated strategies

Erdoğan dominates political discourse, controlling Turkish media and crafting ‘alternative truths’ about his opposition. So why did Erdoğan avoid a far-right, anti-PKK discourse in this election? Perhaps he feared such discourse would not only benefit the AKP’s far-right partners (particularly the MHP) but would also alienate Kurdish voters.

Avoiding security discourse on the Turkish-Kurdish conflict ended up depriving Erdoğan of his effective ‘securitisation’ strategy

Erdoğan needed the so-called Kurdish vote in Istanbul. Instead of using conventional anti-PKK rhetoric, he supported the Kurdish DEM party, hoping to dismantle the opposition coalition that had brought the CHP mayor to power in 2019. However, avoiding security discourse on the Turkish-Kurdish conflict ended up depriving Erdoğan of his effective ‘securitisation’ strategy.

Party-centred competition helped the opposition (but was not deliberate)

The opposition's catastrophic defeat in the 2023 national election resulted in the dismantling of the oppositional bloc. Some minor parties perceived their concessions as betrayals. A party-centred competition was thus not a deliberately crafted opposition strategy. The winner-take-all system in mayoral districts made the elections more competitive. Relying on their local networks, all parties fielded their own candidates, making local government maps of Turkey more pluralistic than ever. Even a minor partner in Erdoğan’s ruling alliance, the BBP, undermined AKP dominance by capturing a significant province.

Looking ahead

Victory for the opposition in Turkey’s local elections is a tremendous accomplishment in an environment where authoritarian strangleholds on central institutions have reached alarming levels. Opposition parties can draw lessons from this for the 2028 national elections. Turkey’s electorally imposed alliance system means that parties will have to address coordination problems against Erdoğan’s ruling bloc. But they can do so while protecting their own identities and developing a counter-strategy against Erdoğan, who thrives on securitising a sensitive Turkish-Kurdish cleavage.

Despite Erdoğan’s iron fist, the opposition’s ability to become local hubs for policy innovation and to better represent minoritised groups could catalyse change on a national scale. Turkey's opposition parties have shown how, when democracies backslide from the top, they can be repaired from the bottom.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Pelin Ayan Musil Pelin Ayan Musil Senior Researcher, Institute of International Relations Prague More by this author
photograph of Sultan Tepe Sultan Tepe Associate Professor, University of Illinois, Chicago More by this author

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2 comments on “Opposition triumph in Turkey’s local elections: democratic recovery or autocratic hiccup?”

  1. One factor not mentioned, was last year the effects of inflation were uneven, with the main cities suffering most, which is where the opposition won the vote, but in Anatolia inflation was far less severe, which is where Erdogan won the election. This year inflation is now impacting Anatolia and is where in the local elections the opposition scored its most significant victories. Also the myth that CHP could only win in a coalition of conflicting voices was in fact a major weakness among voters especially dealing with economic and earthquake challenges. The local elections saw CHP stand alone and its success is indication voters ready to support it, if it's accompanied with good candidates and coherent polices.

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