The reasons behind Erdogan’s loss in major cities: what it means for Turkey and the world?

In 1994, Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the mayor of Istanbul. The city is home to 16 million Turks sourcing one-third of Turkey’s economic activity. In the local election of 31st March 2024, Erdogan’s AKP lost the political grip of strategically important cities including Istanbul and Ankara. What is the backstory? What does it signal about the future of Turkey?
The results of the local elections signaled an end to Tayyip Erdogan’s three decades long political triumph. Being a driver of Islamist and Nationalist politics, Erdogan, the president of Turkey, became a leader of the Muslim world. His controversial stance on the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel agitated the western world as he refused to call Hamas a terrorist organization and repeatedly pointed out western double standards in supporting countries at war. Never before did a NATO member country deny Israel its status as a state and thus, its right to exist. Last year, Israel was Ankara’s 5th largest source of import. However, on the 3rd of May, Ankara closed its bilerater trade of $9.5bn with Israel as means to condemn the Israeli act of genocide. But what went wrong in the recent mayor election where Erdogan’s AKP (35.5%) lost the majority to Ekrem Imamoglu’s CHP (37.8%) in three major cities? The president says, undoubtedly, the Turkish people have sent a ‘message’ and his party, the AKP, will ‘analyze’ it.
The Republic of Turkey emerged as a sovereign state during the 1930s under a closed circle of westernized military and bureaucratic elites. General elections were held just to attain political legitimacy. In the 50s, it formed a multi-party system as the bureaucratic elites failed to protect the rights of the mass. The democrats won by a majority. Turkey became a NATO member nation. Before long, the coup d’état of the 60s, drew an end to the democratic party’s reign as it was charged with preventing free speech and secularism. The political history of Turkey turned into a confrontation between two parties: one advocating for people’s will and another seeking to concentrate bureaucratic powers within a handful of individuals. In the last few decades of the 20th century, Turkey experienced two other coup d’états. In the 2000s, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) promised to reform the country’s authoritarian and dysfunctional politics. Following his landslide victory, since then, AKP has maintained a 40 to 50% majority in every general election. However, in 2015, the first time since 2002, AKP failed to secure a parliamentary majority. Like his predecessors, President Erdogan was accused of taking authoritarian measures.
In 2021, The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe charged the ruling party with undermining democracy and human rights. Under the AK Party, Turkey has been gradually shifting towards autocratization. In the name of democracy, the party has reduced the army’s institutional power on political issues. In 2013, two million Turks flocked the streets of Istanbul protesting to preserve the Gezi Park and bring a change to the fragile urban planning. The AK Party was accused of being intrusive and business minded. On the basis of its undeniable electoral popularity, the ruling party rejected the protests’ demands. In the following years, the AK party lost its parliamentary majority. Instead of opting to build a coalition it called for a reelection.
After the unsuccessful coup attempt of 2016, the party brought significant constitutional reforms. The reform of its age-old parliamentary system into a heavily centralized presidential system, concentrated the power firmly on the president as it removed the position of the prime minister. It allows the president to solely form a government. It means, the president has a monopoly over executive power and increasing influence on the judiciary and legislative branches of the government. The gradual shift in Turkish politics became the center of interest of the westerners who charged the ruling party of forming a ‘people’s dictatorship.’
Following the pandemic, the Turkish economy was marred with double digit inflation which reached 80% in the end of 2022. The president decided not to abide by the traditional monetary policy of raising interest rates. In theory, raising interest rates will encourage people to not spend but save. Eventually, with falling demand for commodities the economy can combat the cost of living crisis as the prices decline. However, on the verge of inflation, the president decided to cut interest rates as raising interest rates is ‘un-islamic’. As a consequence, the country was ravaged by inflation. The situation got worse with the earthquake of February 2023, where 55,000 people died. As the country was about to face presidential elections in May 2023, the president appointed a new financial minister and central bank governor to protect his party’s image. However, in March 2024, following the appointment of new officials inflation still persisted at 68%. Many consider the local election as the people’s response to the growing cost of living crisis.
The Kurds, an Iranian ethnic group living in southeastern Turkey, are in loggerheads with the ruling party. Ankara has been carrying out air strikes in the Kurdish territory of Iraq and Syria for ‘self-defense’. The election officials have overturned the election of a pro-Kurdish mayoral candidate in the city of Van. Zeydan won a 55% majority in the municipal elections but the supreme court overturned the victory due to a previous conviction. It handed over the mayorship to a member of the ruling party, AKP, who received 27% vote. The Kurd protests were dispersed with tear gas. Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul, has tweeted this act of the government as ‘unacceptable’.
Like President Erdogan, Ekrem Imamoglu, from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) came into the limelight after being elected as a mayor of Istanbul in 2019. Upon getting reelected in March 2024, he is regarded as President Erdogan’s biggest political rival. Selim Sazak, the head of an Ankara-based consultancy firm that worked on major local election campaigns, called Imamoğlu’s political image as a mix of charisma and his Black Sea roots as “Bill Clinton from Trabzon … without the infidelity.” Undoubtedly, mayor Imamoglu is following the footsteps of President Erdogan. Both of the men have family ties in the Black Sea Region (a region known for its aggressive political values) , belong to non-military backgrounds, and began their political career as a mayor of Istanbul while being charged by the Turkish courts!
When referring to Erdogan, Imamoglu claims, ‘our ideals are largely opposite.’ Imamoglu opts to develop secular policies as he condemns the President’s denial of Kurdish representation in mainstream politics.
On 22nd of April, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeir made a short state visit to Turkey. Instead of landing on Ankara and meeting president Ergogan as his top priority, the German President landed in Istanbul and met Mayor Imamoglu. It further revitalizes the western preference of seeing Mayor Imamoglu as the next President. A focus on protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms have always been the campaign strategy for Imamoglu’s CHP. The party has been more vocal about the treatment of the Uyghur minority in China. However, CHP believes Ankara should not take sides in regional conflicts. Erdogan’s growing islamist ideology has rekindled the increasing islamophobia in Europe. The AKP’s foreign policy played a role in the regime change of Syria. It heavily supported Syria’s military opposition. In recent years, Ergogan has agitated the western allies. He officially supports Palestine in the ongoing Israeli invasion in Gaza. Secondly, the government purchased the S-400 air defense system from Russia and seeks membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In contrast, CHP suggest to nourish Turkey’s bilateral ties with the United States and the European Union member states. If, in power, bringing the talk on EU membership back to the table will be one of the prime foreign policy objectives of CHP.
The loss of Erdogan’s AKP in the major cities surely signals a regime change in the upcoming presidential elections of 2028. It is time to wonder about Turkey’s future foreign policy position concerning the Arab World, NATO and Russia.
Written by-
Suprio Labonno
Associate, Foreign Policy
Edited by-
Nusanta Samayel Audri
Lead, Foreign Policy
Scroll to Top