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'A tsunami': Why Erdogan lost Turkey’s local elections

AKP supporters wanted to 'punish' the government for economic and political failures, say analysts
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters as he leaves a polling station during the local elections in Istanbul, Turkey March 31, 2024. Murat Kulu/PPO/Handout via REUTERS
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters as he leaves a polling station during the local elections in Istanbul, Turkey 31 March 2024. (Murat Kulu/PPO/Handout viia Reuters)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

When Ahmet Turan Han looked at the several large sample polls he received from all over the country two weeks before the mayoral elections in Turkey, he only thought one thing: “a political tsunami was coming.”

Han’s polls were indicating that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was about to post huge losses not only in large cities like Istanbul, Ankara, and Bursa but also other cities in the conservative heartlands in Anatolia, like Adiyaman and Afyon.

Then the election results came on Sunday, which indicated a far worse defeat for Erdogan and his party.

The AKP lost 11 cities that it controlled since the 2019 elections and performed poorly in the largest five cities, not even being able to challenge the incumbent opposition mayors in Istanbul and Ankara.

The result was stunning: the main Turkish opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) had won an election for the first time since 1977, receiving 37.7 percent of the votes, pulling two points ahead of the AKP according to the preliminary results.

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This was nine months after May 2023 presidential elections where Erdogan decisively won the race in a second round vote.

But what has changed since then?

“The voters wanted to punish the government for a set of reasons from inflation to Ankara’s policy towards Palestine,” Han, the general manager of political consultancy and research company Datailor, told Middle East Eye.

“Most of Erdogan's voters either stayed at home or switched to the right-wing parties that hadn’t been demonised by the government.”

The turnout was surprising. With 78.5 percent participation, it is the lowest since the 2004 elections.

Pensioners protest

Han says his own research indicates some of the nearly 16 million pensioners, who largely vote for Erdogan, boycotted the elections.

Several AKP sources told MEE that the government was well aware of the complaints raised by pensioners but they couldn’t move to satisfy their demands because it would open a large hole in the budget which is under immense pressure due to runaway inflation.

Currently the minimum monthly pension is 41 percent lower than the minimum wage in the country, making the retired segment of society feel the heat more than ever.

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Erdogan’s return to orthodox monetary policies since the May elections, with high interest rates and comparatively lower credit channels to slow down inflation, also put Turkish citizens in a bind.

While the government controlled the foreign exchange regime through backdoor interventions, the stock market and property prices took a hit, leaving no alternative investment to protect the savings of citizens against inflation.

“The virus that entered into our system such as arbitrariness, arrogance, nepotism, high cost of living, and impoverishment were clear signs of the drift in the economy,” Samil Tayyar, a former MP from the AKP, said. “This result is neither the permanent success of the CHP nor the New Welfare Party, but a very harsh balancing act for the AK Party. This is a political disaster.”

Han says the nature of the campaign and elections were quite different this time compared to the presidential elections.

“The voters weren’t very willing to vote for Erdogan in May, but they perceived those elections as a matter of survival,” he said. “In the aftermath of an earthquake, the opposition, with its Table of Six grand alliance, didn't prove to voters that they could do a good job, so they decided to vote for Erdogan in the end.”

By comparison, the election campaign in the run up to vote on Sunday was calmer and without much tension.

The far-right as a weak spot

Several AKP sources told MEE that the party aimed to highlight the qualities of its mayoral candidates and focus less on divisive issues.

“We believed a non-divisive campaign would work in our favour, further discouraging the opposition-leaning citizens to vote after May's defeat,” one of the senior AKP officials said. “And we didn’t want to turn this into a vote of confidence on Erdogan’s rule.”

However, the strategy misfired greatly as the opposition voters stuck with their party.

Other AKP officials have been critical of this strategy, calling it wrong.

Erdogan in comparison to previous years ran a less visible campaign, didn’t do any TV interviews, avoided holding as many rallies as he did in the past, and did not use harsh rhetoric against his opponents.

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“Erdogan has a special touch with the people and running a divisive and tense campaign always worked in his favour,” another Ankara insider close to the party said. “It was wrong to make Erdogan take the back seat. He should have made it all about the opposition.”

But the AKP and Erdogan had another weak spot this time: the Islamist populist New Welfare Party (YRP) offered an alternative to the deeply religious segments of their voters.

The AKP couldn’t demonise the YRP because both parties were in an electoral alliance in the May elections. And the YRP ran a populist campaign, blaming the government for not doing enough to counter Israel over its bloody invasion, and continuing to trade with Israel. The party also voiced disappointment over pensions but also expressed criticism towards the LGBTQ rights movement, as well as stray dogs.

“YRP also got points from the religious segments of society which were critical of Erdogan’s monetary policy which saw a 50 percent hike in interest rates,” Han said. “They were thinking that just a year ago Erdogan was also against hiking the rates.”

YRP got more than six percent of the votes, receiving support from 2.8 million citizens. AKP on the other hand saw a drop from 20.5 million votes in 2019 to 16.3 million votes on Sunday. A single combination of the two parties with 19.1 million votes between them could put them ahead of the CHP, which only got 17.3 million of votes.

'Erdogan doesn’t have the same stamina anymore. He is tired after too many election cycles'

- Ankara insider

“When you combine the data on AKP, YRP and the people who boycotted the elections you get a similar level of votes for Erdogan’s party which was recorded last year,” Han adds.

“These votes could return to Erdogan really quickly if he can find a way to satisfy their demands on the economy and other issues, but there are also cities like Istanbul, Ankara, Balikesir and Bursa where some AKP voters went along with the CHP.”

Others in the AKP also blame the party for not campaigning properly and letting the election slide through.

“Erdogan himself alone does most of the campaigning and all the others at the party silently follow him,” another Ankara insider said. “One way or another people sensed failure but they didn’t do anything.”

There remains an unanswered question as to why the party didn’t really make an effort to stop the worst scenario from happening.

“We have some time to recover the economy and focus on our goals,” the Ankara insider said. “But Erdogan doesn’t have the same stamina anymore. He is tired after too many election cycles.”

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