Local elections in Turkey – a crushing defeat for Erdogan

Image: Wikimedia Commons

On 31 March 2024, voters in Turkey punished Erdogan’s right-wing pro-capitalist Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power for more than two decades. Following their electoral victory in major cities in 2019, the self-claimed social democratic Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) managed to retain control of the big cities. 

In Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu from the CHP won the election with 51% of the vote against Murat Kurum’s 40%, his closest opponent from the AKP. In the capital city Ankara, the CHP candidate Mansur Yavas won the election with 60% by receiving twice the votes the AKP candidate received. Compared to 2019, the CHP has managed to increase their vote share significantly in both Istanbul and Ankara. 

Local elections with national stakes

In May 2023, Erdogan won the presidential elections, albeit in a rather close race against the CHP candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Erdogan achieved this victory despite the devastating earthquake of February 2023 – which tragically led to the death of over 50,000 people and caused colossal damage – and the intensifying economic crisis.

In the run up to the 2024 local elections, Erdogan’s goal was to retake the country’s major cities – Istanbul, Ankara, Antalya and Adana – which fell to the opposition after the last local elections in 2019. 

More than anywhere else, the defeat in Istanbul was a heavy blow for the AKP, because in the words of Erdogan “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey”. Istanbul is the flagship city where Erdogan began his political career as the mayor from 1994 to 1998. With an estimated population of over 16 million people, Istanbul accounts for more than 30% of Turkey’s economic output. 

The opposition parties have won the elections under totally undemocratic conditions, with Erdogan desperately trying to take advantage of his strong grip over the Turkish state apparatus and the media. 

But despite this, Erdogan suffered a crushing defeat across the country. For the first time in twenty years, Erdogan’s AKP failed to be the top party nationally. The CHP won 37.5% of the votes compared with 35.6% for the AKP, whereas in the 2019 the CHP won 30% and the AKP won 44.3% of the votes. 

Across the country as a whole, the AKP has lost more than 4.7 million votes and the CHP has gained 3.3 million votes. Unexpectedly, the CHP has won AKP strongholds in central Anatolia. In some conservative rural areas, the CHP has led the polls for the first time in many decades. 

Economic crisis and Gaza 

Although some claim that the CHP’s victory is due to the leadership change in November 2023, this is not true. 

Even though the CHP has focused much more on welfare policies in this election, there was no genuine enthusiasm for the CHP. Voters punished Erdogan and the local AKP politicians by voting for the candidate who was most likely to win. 

Turkey is in the grip of a major economic crisis, with inflation at 123% at the start of 2024. To curb inflation, Erdogan has abandoned his unorthodox economic policy that lower interest rates will reduce inflation. The central bank has now increased interest rates to 47% last month from 15% in June 2023. But inflation is still going up with a pending massive debt crisis on the horizon. 

Prior to the Presidential elections in May 2023, Erdogan pumped an enormous amount of money into the economy which went into the pockets of poor people. For example, he increased the national minimum wage significantly and made gas free for all households for a month. 

But after the Presidential elections, under the leadership of the new finance minister Mehmet Simsek, the government has implemented austerity policies and raised interest rates significantly. Unemployment has begun to go up and is likely to rise sharply in the coming period. 

The CHP is enjoying its highest score since the 1977 general election. Nevertheless, these results should be seen as a defeat for the AKPs rotten regime. Austerity policies implemented by the AKP government after last year’s Presidential elections meant that the cost-of-of living crisis is becoming even more unbearable for the majority. 

Voters wanted to punish Erdogan and there was a search for a left-wing alternative. The CHP has benefitted from this anger, but they remain wedded to the capitalist system which is rigged against the poor. While pledging policies to alleviate poverty, they do not defend the interests of the working class and the poor. The CHP-led councils will face even more challenges in the coming period as the AKP rolls out more cuts to public services. They are likely to be forced to slash jobs and services.

And beyond the economic crisis, Israel’s war on Gaza was a factor in Erdogan’s defeat. While Erdogan publicly condemned the Israeli state brutality and even said Hamas is not a terrorist organisation to shore up his social base, the reality was different.

It has been revealed that not only Turkish businesses continue trading with Israel, including arms sales, but the state-owned businesses and AKP politicians were directly or indirectly involved in trading with Israel. This exposure had an effect, in particular, amongst Islamic-conservative voters. 

This was illustrated by the unexpected rise of the New Welfare Party (YRP), an Islamic party formed in 2018 which comes from the same political tradition as the AKP. They became the third largest party with 6.2% of the votes and almost 3 million votes, nearly double what they won in last year’s parliamentary election. Alongside their stance on Gaza, their talk of ‘fair order’ was also appealing to the core base of the AKP. 

Democratic attacks 

The People’s Equality and Democracy Party, DEM Party (formerly the HDP), won 5.7% of the vote, or 2.6 million votes, compared with 1.9 million in 2019, despite systematic repression of all its leaders and members/activists.

In fact, in several provinces, to prevent the DEM Party from winning, the Turkish state moved thousands of soldiers into these areas to cast their votes. However, the Dem Party scored very well in 10 provinces, and held on to all their strongholds in the east and south-east. In the big cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, Kurdish people voted for the CHP to get rid of the hated AKP, even though the DEM Party fielded their own candidates in these cities.

In Van, the DEM Party’s candidate won the election with more than 55% of the votes but the Turkish election authority handed the victory to the AKP candidate, citing a previous conviction as the reason. After mass protests in Van, and with wider support across Turkey, the government was forced into a U-turn and handed the victory back to the DEM Party. This was an important victory highlighting the vulnerability of Erdogan’s regime in the face of mass protests. 

It also shows that there could be mass struggles in the coming period for democratic and national rights. The left must be prepared to champion these rights and link it to the struggle for socialism. 

The left

As for the TIP, the Workers’ Party of Turkey, won two councils, including Samandag where they received 47%, beating the CHP’s candidate. Samandaga is a district in Hatay, a city that was severely affected by the earthquake. The candidate for the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) for another district in Hatay, Defne, came very close to winning. Moreover, the Left Party won two district councils. 

In Gebze, an industrial town near Istanbul with relatively strong trade union presence, the TIP general secretary did well by gaining 20% of the votes. It was significant that there was a left-wing challenge in an area where there is a very high concentration of industrial workers. 

The TIP chose not to field candidates in Kurdish strongholds in favour of the DEM Party, and in some areas they have succumbed to the lesser evilism mood and decided not to stand against the CHP. 

Compared to the 2023 parliamentary elections, the vote count for the TIP was significantly lower. They were squeezed by the lesser evilism mood as people desperately wanted to get rid of Erdogan. 

But unfortunately the left was not organised. Rather than forming a united front with workers’ and socialist organisations, left-wing parties stood against each other in areas where the left could get decent results. In Defne, a socialist could have been elected if there was only one candidate from the left. 

As the election results indicate there is growing anger directed towards the AKP regime and there is search for an alternative. The left could have built a united campaign to address the cost-of-living crisis and offer a socialist way out. 

Erdogan has made it clear that the austerity programme would continue. Despite raising the interest rates, inflation is continuing to grow. These policies would have far-reaching consequences as more and more people plunge into deeper poverty. 

It is urgent for the Kurdish and Turkish working-class to fight together for a mass political voice that fights the cost-of-living crisis and defends the interests of the working class. 

A united front of workers’ and socialist parties, on a socialist programme, is vital in this period. How this could develop is another question. But one thing that this election has shown is there is a search for a pro-working class alternative that addresses the cost-of-living crisis. The left needs to raise clear class demands, such as the renationalisation of key utilities, an inflation-proof pay rise for all workers, cancellation of debt and fully funded services, and link this to the need for the socialist transformation of the society. 

There will be many opportunities in the coming period with the potential for mass struggles to develop which would raise the need to break with capitalism. But the building of mass democratic organisations of the working-class will be vital in preparation for the gigantic battles that lie ahead. 


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April 2024