In percentage terms, Turkey’s 31 March local elections did not yield a substantial shift from the 2014 local elections. In fact, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) increased its total vote share from 42% in 2014 to 44% now. However, in a stinging blow, the AKP lost the eight biggest cities in Turkey. This was largely due to the resilience of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition group, which offered many popular candidates. The electoral results have effectively ended the uninterrupted 25-year Islamist municipality rule in Istanbul and Ankara. Both cities have been ruled by mayors from the AKP or its predecessor (the Welfare Party), so losing them is not only a blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP, but also to the entire Islamist political tradition. The CHP now controls the mayorships of all three major cities: Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.
Two blocs entered the elections: the ruling AKP sided with the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and the CHP sided with the moderate right-wing Iyi Party, which had splintered from the MHP about a year ago. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (HDP) was allowed to enter the elections, albeit facing heavy intimidation, with its leaders imprisoned, and being banned from joining the CHP-Iyi bloc.
In Izmir, a traditionally secular city that has been run by the CHP for decades, the opposition party beat the AKP with a margin greater than 20%. In Ankara, the CHP’s margin of victory was less than 3%. And in Istanbul, it won by less than 0.3%, in what was a nail-biting contest until the last minute. This has opened up the way for a potential fraud inquiry by the ruling AKP, in a bid to reverse the outcome. Although Erdogan has publicly conceded defeat, a group within the AKP has launched an undeclared mutiny against the president and is now trying to clear the way for a recount in Istanbul.
This is the same AKP faction (called the “Pelican Group”) that had initiated a digital media campaign resulting in the resignation of then Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in May 2016. Although the Pelicans are connected to Erdogan’s son-in-law, Minister of Treasury and Finance Berat Albayrak, the extent of his control over the current mutiny is unclear. The mutineers are angry with Erdogan’s decision to field two old and silent candidates in Istanbul and Ankara, instead of more energetic and combative alternatives. If the revolt succeeds and convinces Erdogan to challenge the CHP over Istanbul, the results would remain contested for weeks to come.
Regardless of what happens in Istanbul, however, there are three important takeaways from the electoral results. First, the opposition parties won despite total AKP control over the national media and press, systematic voter intimidation and Erdogan’s dominance over bureaucratic decision-making, including at the Higher Electoral Board (YSK). This implies that the CHP margin of victory would have been greater in the big cities had there been a level playing field, and further underscores the growing urban discontent with the AKP.
Second, the result demonstrates a widespread bureaucratic backlash against the AKP and Erdogan. In direct contrast to previous elections, the YSK, police and rural gendarmerie security network did not comply with the AKP’s attempts to manipulate the vote. Several local AKP officials were detained for vote tampering across the country, and the YSK has resisted current Istanbul AKP mayoral candidate Binali Yildirim’s pressure to declare victory in his favor. The YSK is also currently resisting wider AKP pressure to hold a recount in Istanbul.
Lastly, the elections showed the importance of the country’s economic crisis. As its effects are increasingly felt among the urban lower and middle classes, trust in the AKP’s handling of the economy has declined, damaging the party’s standing in the big cities.
Erdogan is currently trying to protect at least the appearance of democracy in Turkey for the sake of international investors and financial institutions, while addressing the revolt among his AKP grassroots network. Losing both Istanbul and Ankara would effectively end the AKP’s rentier network; the foundation of the party’s repeated success in the last 17 years has been the tight-knit relationship between pro-government companies and provincial administrations. Losing two of the largest sources of redistribution (not to mention six other big cities) would effectively render the AKP a rural party, and cause its grassroots network to fragment. Erdogan will have to balance between managing his party’s revolt and allaying the fears of international investors. However, we expect no measurable change in the country’s foreign and domestic policies in the coming months, as the AKP’s loss of the big cities has no direct relationship to wider, high-level policy issues.