The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Five lessons from the latest elections in Turkey

The full repercussions of Sunday’s election may take years to fully understand, but some lessons are already clear.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his ruling party's parliament members in Ankara on Tuesday, two days after Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate of the secular opposition Republican People's Party, won the election for mayor of Istanbul. (Burhan Ozbilici/AP)

The weekend’s election results were a stunning rebuke to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The clear victor in the new Istanbul municipal election was the Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, overturning 25 years of governance by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) or its precursors.

It is a turning point for the city of 15 million and, indeed, for all of Turkey. The full repercussions of Sunday’s election may take years to fully understand, but some lessons are already clear.

Pessimists (like me) overstated our case

As elections became increasingly unfair and unfree, many scholars increasingly saw Turkey as a hybrid state, combining elections with authoritarian tools to limit effective opposition. I argued in 2018 that Erdogan coupled a need for contested elections with a determination to win them, even if it meant rigging the system.

On the whole, I stand by my argument, but the Istanbul election proved me wrong in three important ways. First, Erdogan’s system required both a divided opposition and narrowly contested elections. In the 2019 municipal elections, the opposition was able to unify, making Erdogan’s old system of divide and conquer harder to pull off.

Second, his system of electoral fixing, including harassment of opposition candidates, manipulation of voter rolls and control of the media has proved more difficult to maintain in local elections, particularly in major urban centers, than it has in national elections.

Third, while Erdogan proved willing to manipulate the election when the difference was narrow, by strong-arming the elections board to call new elections, he has so far proved unwilling to engage in more blatant rigging. Istanbul’s voters appear to have punished Erdogan for tampering with the March 31 Istanbul election, when on Sunday, Imamoglu won in a landslide, carrying 54 percent of the popular vote and even winning majorities in longtime AKP strongholds.

The opposition got its act together

Imamoglu exemplified new messaging that the CHP party recently embraced, becoming more open and engaging. Erdogan’s AKP has succeeded on a language of militancy and resistance: Imamoglu offered Turkish voters a return to normalcy, emphasizing service and tolerance. The voters liked it.

It’s the economy, stupid

Imamoglu’s calls for good governance were persuasive because Turkey’s economy is in shambles. Its official inflation rate is 19 percent, though the real inflation rate is probably much higher; it is facing a major debt crisis. While many have noted Turkey’s political polarization, it is the economy that has historically been the best indicator of voter preferences. The AKP benefited in its early years from its reputation for economic growth. It is being punished for its failures now.

Kurdish voters vote their interest

Another reason the opposition succeeded in the 2019 municipal elections was that it brokered an effective deal among the main opposition parties, including the CHP, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and the nationalist Good Party (Iyi). They are not natural allies. Many in the CHP and perhaps most in the Iyi Party have viewed the HDP as little more than a front for the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), with which Turkey has been at war for decades. In the March 31 municipal elections, tacit HDP support for the opposition proved instrumental to opposition success.

To counter this, the AKP engaged in a remarkable attempt to win over Kurdish voters. The AKP mayoral candidate visited the Kurdish majority city of Diyarbakir as part of his pitch to Kurdish voters, and even managed to mumble a few words of Kurdish during his speech.

Then, with shocking cynicism, the government attempted to leverage jailed PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, who has languished largely in solitary confinement, for the past 20 years by allowing him visits with his lawyers and family. Öcalan issued a letter urging “neutrality” in the election. The HDP responded with statements praising Öcalan’s bravery, and then ignored him. Kurdish voters apparently followed suit.

If the Turkish government wants to regain the Kurdish support that it has lost, it will need to develop a serious policy of rapprochement, not engage in cynical tokenism.

Erdogan is in trouble, but the path to a more democratic Turkey is perilous

Erdogan’s decision to force the election board to overturn the Istanbul election result was — shockingly — undertaken without any clear plan to ensure victory. The second loss exponentially compounded the political damage he suffered in the first defeat.

This failure of political decision-making is remarkable, but it is also emblematic of what Erdogan’s rule has become. As his rule has become more personalized and as family members and sycophants have replaced technocrats and political partners, his political compass is failing him.

Politically and economically, Turkey now lurches from crisis to crisis. The political opposition — as well as dissent within Erdogan’s own alliance — is likely to become more aggressive.

Erdogan’s authoritarianism has been predicated on the appearance of competition. His rule is unlikely to survive a free and fair competitive environment, nor would it be easy to maintain a fully repressive one for long.

Turkey’s allies, foreign investors and voters could hope that Erdogan will correct course by re-creating the elements of statecraft that led him to success in the first place. Turkey has a wealth of technocrats he could draw on.

But it is unclear that Erdogan is mentally capable of making that shift. Moreover, it is likely that it would mean his political demise. A more open system would break AKP political dominance. Given the corruption and malfeasance that has marked Erdogan’s rule, the risk of prison for himself and his coterie would be acute.

Alternately, Erdogan may double down on the repression that has come to mark his rule. He enjoys control over the judiciary and security services and has broad emergency powers. Yet this would only intensify Turkey’s ongoing crisis. And, as Sunday’s election makes clear, the Turkish public is unlikely to accept open dictatorship without a fight.

Howard Eissenstat is an associate professor of history at St. Lawrence University and nonresident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy.