Editor’s Note: an earlier version of this piece included inaccurate percentage changes for past local and national elections. This has been corrected.
The Turkish opposition had a historic night March 31, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party surprisingly failed to win the mayoral races in Ankara, the capital, and Istanbul, the financial capital. Exactly 25 years ago, Erdogan became Istanbul’s mayor — and the parties he supported hadn’t lost either city since.
But will Erdogan accept the results? It’s unclear. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is still pushing for a ballot recount — even asking for new elections in three months in various districts. However, the election night performance of the opposition candidates in these two major cities was enough to create a huge hope among opposition supporters for the future of Turkish democracy, which collapsed two years ago.
Millions of Turks are reenergized politically
They see how a 49-year-old mayoral candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, organized thousands of party volunteers to oversee ballot boxes in Istanbul — and to systematically report the results to the party’s headquarters. Imamoglu held hourly news conferences on election night and well into the following morning to share updates based on the party network. He was also vocal about election violations by the electoral commission and the state-run news agency.
What does this mean in a broader perspective?
While the ruling coalition failed to win Ankara and Istanbul, it did not lose much support overall in the nation, compared with last year’s general-election results. The total vote support for the governing parties was about 54 percent in 2018, while it is now about 52 percent.
If we look at the past 10 to 15 years, the AKP tends to lose significant votes in local elections and recover them in the next general election. In 2007, the AKP got 47 percent in the general election and then lost 8 percent in the 2009 local elections — but in 2011’s general elections, the party hit 50 percent.
This was followed by a 7 percent decline in the 2014 elections. But again, the AKP managed to recover back to 50 percent support for November 2015’s general election.
In that light, the two-percentage-point difference between the 2018 general-election and 2019 local election results appears to be following a pattern — and it is less likely that this latest election was an earthquake for the AKP.
The opposition’s empowerment would definitely strengthen Turkish democracy, but it is not very plausible to suggest that the AKP is in a declining trend, simply looking at the political atmosphere in today’s Turkey.
‘They are the lame ducks’
Erdogan is a smart politician who can easily find new agenda topics that can rally people around his party’s flag. For example, after the 2009 local elections, he did this by fighting hardcore secularists, while after the 2014 elections, he targeted Kurds and the followers of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accused of being behind a 2016 coup attempt.
Even if the opposition candidates manage to sit in the mayoral offices in these major cities, they will be challenged because of the institutional and political structure. The ruling coalition is still powerful in the metropolitan councils. As Erdogan remarked to a party supporter who complained about the results in Istanbul: “Do not worry, we have the majority in the council. Nothing is certain yet. They are the lame ducks, even if they win the race.”
More recently, he said they have at least 40 more seats in local councils in Istanbul and Ankara than does the entire opposition — and an opposition mayor will not be able to pass even a budget without cooperating with the council majority. Erdogan can also enact new laws to give even more powers to the local councils vis-a-vis the mayors.
Considering that Erdogan’s government has extensive control over the country’s judiciary and its media, the incoming mayors will face challenges, including heightened auditing from various central-government agencies and close media attention.
If the opposition cannot find alternative communication tools to express what it is able to do — and what it is not allowed to do in office — its performance could lead to massive disappointments over the next few years.
A new law gives the president full authority to allocate funds directly to the municipalities he selects. Given the heightened financial crisis Turkey has been dealing with over the past year, this helps pro-government mayors. In case of worsening economic conditions, pro-opposition mayors may be the ones who suffer most over the next few years, and the public will totally be unaware of what is happening behind the scenes.
A PR opportunity for Erdogan
While the political atmosphere in Turkey gave some hope to the opposition, it also turned out to be a large-scale PR opportunity for the ruling party. If Erdogan accepts the election results, Turkey’s democracy ranking will — to some extent — improve.
If this decision is accompanied by some improvements on the rule of law and free-market economics, Erdogan will have an advantage in his fight against the country’s financial problems, as Turkey will be able to attract more foreign investors and keep its own highly skilled professionals and wealthy elites, who have been migrating abroad. Erdogan largely stressed the free-market economy as his urgent policy priority during his election night speech.
Considering the massive resources these two metropolitan areas control and the established patronage networks in these cities, it is not an easy decision for the government. However, despite the fact that the 2019 local election campaigns were some of the most unfair in modern Turkish history, the AKP and Erdogan can attempt to change their image in the eyes of foreign observers and global financial centers by recognizing the opposition mayors. Such a decision would eventually strengthen the government’s leverage in potential International Monetary Fund negotiations, which many argue are inevitable for Turkey.