Turkey’s opposition sweeps to big city victories in local elections, dealing blow to Erdogan

Turkey’s opposition sweeps to big city victories in local elections, dealing blow to Erdogan
Ekrem Imamoglu addresses gathered supporters after declaring victory in the Istanbul poll. / Yurttas TV, screenshot
By bne IntelliNews March 31, 2024

Turkey's main opposition party late on March 31 declared victory in the Istanbul and Ankara local election contests, while in the nationwide municipal elections overall it also appeared to be closing in on victories in many of Turkey's other big cities, including Izmir, Bursa and Antalya.

Ekrem Imamoglu, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate set for re-election as mayor of Istanbul, has now defeated candidates backed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan three times—in the 2019 Istanbul vote, the 2019 “revote” and in this latest poll. Seen by supporters as a politician who could go on to dethrone Erdogan and defeat his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Imamoglu did not hold back in his statements celebrating his victory.

Said Imamoglu: “My dear Istanbulites, you opened the door to a new future today. Starting from tomorrow, Turkey will be a different Turkey. You opened the door to the rise of democracy, equality and freedom… you ignited hope at the ballot box.”

However, having won last year’s parliamentary and presidential elections, Erdogan, Turkey’s leader since 2003, will now not have to face another major poll until 2028. That gives his regime plenty of time to counter any sustained resurgence of a re-energised opposition and consolidate power.

In his reaction to the local election results, Erdogan, addressing gathered supporters in Ankara, said that the outcome "unfortunately fell short of the party's expectations".

"The nation sends its messages through the ballot," added Erdogan, acknowledging that polling day resulted in an overall victory for the CHP, and remarking: "We will courageously self-criticise the loss we incurred."

Given its track record of dysfunction and defeat in the past two decades, there is also no guarantee that, even with the charismatic Imamoglu spearheading a revival, the secular CHP will be able to present powerful and lasting opposition to Erdogan. Should it prove able to, the party will have to explore any available avenue towards snap elections, with a four-year wait until the next general election a big risk to the longevity of any challenge.

With 85% of the vote counted in Istanbul, Imamoglu was more than 10 points ahead of his rival from the Islamist-rooted AKP Murat Kurum.

In the capital Ankara, the CHP’s Mansur Yavas, on 59%, was so far ahead of his AKP rival in his bid for re-election that he declared victory with less than half of the votes counted.

Many news outlets are representing the Imamoglu and Yavas victories as "stunning" but as bne IntelliNews flatly advised on March 29, the pair looked "likely to hold on to their posts in the absence of serious thievery". Their wins should not be regarded as having been against the odds.

Erdogan, 70, a former mayor of Istanbul, led his party's election campaign in the megacity of more than 16mn people. But he has failed to win over enough of the many Turks who remain crushed by a longstanding economic crisis marked by rampant inflation and the collapse of the lira, with mismanagement of the economy by Erdogan widely seen as the cause. Since his re-election in May last year, Erdogan has not delivered any significant change in economic fortunes, though he has pledged that, with his new economic team at the helm, such change is just around the corner.

CHP party chairman Ozgur Ozel, who took over his party’s leadership after last year’s disastrous defeat in the national polls, praised voters after the CHP claimed the Istanbul and Ankara victories, saying: "They want to open the door to a new political climate in our country."

Mehmet Bankaci, 27, told the BBC there was a need for change in Turkey: "If Imamoglu or Mansur Yavas had been the CHP candidate in last year's presidential election, they definitely would have won."

About 61mn Turks were eligible to take part in Sunday's election.

Turnout was estimated at around 76% across the country's 81 provinces.