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Upset in Turkish Municipal Elections

On March 31, Turkish people headed to the polls for a highly anticipated municipal election, traditionally seen as a vote of confidence for the ruling parties. The unexpected defeat of President Erdoğan’s AK Party (Justice and Development Party) and the significant victory of the main opposition, the CHP (Republican People’s Party), suggest potential shifts in Turkish political dynamics.

 

Erdoğan’s Future:

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan casts his ballot at a polling station in Istanbul on Sunday. Pic: Reuters

Having dominated Turkish politics for over two decades, President Erdoğan’s tenure is full of personal and party victories, establishing him as one of the most influential figures in modern Turkey. However, after a narrowly won general election in 2023 and his party’s defeat against the CHP in the recent municipal election, it's evident Erdoğan’s influence is waning, signaling a period of uncertainty for Turkey’s political landscape. Amidst economic turmoil and hyperinflation, Erdoğan faces one of the toughest challenges of his political career. 


Once seen as the architect of Turkey’s remarkable economic development in the early 2000s, Erdoğan now finds himself grappling with widespread discontent and skepticism regarding his leadership abilities and the direction of the country's economy. Particularly, his traditional support base of lower and middle-income voters is disillusioned by rampant AK Party corruption and the severe impact of hyperinflation. These voters played an important role in the outcome of the recent election and tilted the favors toward the main opposition party, CHP. 


Yet, it's crucial to not overemphasize the election results as solely a repudiation of Erdoğan’s policies. Because Municipal elections often reflect the electorate’s immediate concerns rather than a comprehensive political shift, the outcome could serve more as a call for increased accountability and economic reform from Erdoğan’s administration. Furthermore, Erdoğan’s enduring connection with his supporters may mitigate current dissatisfaction, especially if he addresses their economic grievances effectively.


New Welfare Party:

Fatih Erbakan, left, with Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, in March 2023. Photographer: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

Another surprising development was the resurgence of the Yeniden Refah Party (New Welfare Party) in the ballots, which secured over 6% of the vote share. As The third-highest vote-receiving party, Yeniden Refah emerged as a significant player alongside the CHP.


Established by Fatih Erbakan – the son of Turkey’s first Islamist Prime Minister — Yeniden Refah is an Islamist political party with a more right-leaning ideology compared to Erdoğan’s AK Party. Throughout the election campaigns, Yeniden Refah staunchly criticized President Erdoğan for his mismanagement of the economy and accused him of hypocrisy for not taking sufficient action against Israel’s atrocities in Gaza.


Aware of Yeniden Refah’s growing momentum during the election campaign, Erdoğan exerted pressure on Fatih Erbakan to suspend his party’s campaigns in critical cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, and Şanlıurfa. However, Erbakan refused to comply unless Turkey cut all of its economic activities with Israel and shut down US military bases operating in Southeast Turkey.


Following the elections, it seems  that conservative voters disillusioned with Erdoğan’s AK Party and their handling of the Gaza crisis found refuge withYeniden Refah. The party’s relative success makes Fatih Erbakan look like a potentially key figure in the upcoming general elections.


CHP Triumph

Kemal Kilicdaroglu shakes hands with Ozgur Ozel in Ankara, Turkey November 4, 2023. Pic: Reuters

The CHP’s historic election victory came after a recent leadership reshuffle in the party. In his first election test as CHP’s new leader, Özgür Özel delivered much more than was expected of him. In key cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, CHP candidates won the elections by a landslide, boosting hope among CHP voters ahead of the general elections in 2028. 


Nonetheless, rifts are going to continue within the CHP ranks as CHP-affiliated mayors of Istanbul and Ankara – Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, respectively – will continue to contest Özel to become the party’s presidential candidate in the upcoming general election. The fate of the CHP depends on who will emerge victorious in these intra-party power struggles.


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