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Erdoğan’s colossal defeat in Turkey — and a new hope

A recap of the 2024 Turkish elections

Hakan Yilmaz reports on the electoral defeat of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (AKP) in last month’s Turkish municipal elections and argues that the Left’s victory hints at a completely new balance of forces in which movements from below can be revived.

On March 31, the surprise results of Turkey’s municipal elections completely transformed the political mood in the country. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost 15 out of the 36 cities it governed. The main opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP), gained 15 cities and won a plurality of the national vote with 37 percent. Last year, when most pollsters and analysts predicted his defeat in the general elections, Erdoğan devastated the opposition with a surprise victory. What has changed since then?

Inflation in Turkey had been in the double digits for the past six years, reaching nearly triple digits for the past two. Poverty is widespread in most major cities. Nearly half of the workers in the private sector work for minimum wageRent and food prices are skyrocketing. The disorganization of the working class through austerity and union busting throughout the 2000s prevented a major response from organized labor. In the absence of a strong workers’ movement, Erdoğan managed poverty through AKP’s control over the municipal government services that distributed food and resources. After the AKP lost most major cities in 2019, he instead focused on raising pensions and the minimum wage, while maintaining the credit access of the already heavily indebted working and middle classes.

This year, the tightness of Turkey’s government budget in the face of the ongoing stagflation and currency devaluation crisis prevented Erdoğan from raising pensions before the municipal elections. Historically, a quarter of voters and a sizable chunk of Erdoğan’s support came from older religious voters in smaller cities and urban ghettos. Yet the initial results suggest that many older voters either stayed at home or voted for other parties.

Part of the reason for the lack of enthusiasm was Erdoğan’s candidate picks in major cities, including İstanbul and Ankara. In İstanbul, the former secretary of environment and urban planning Murat Kurum, a figure partially responsible for Turkey’s earthquake disaster, failed miserably due to a near complete lack of social skills. In Ankara, Turgut Altınok, a big landlord, spent a lot of his campaign trying to justify his outrageous net worth. Despite different candidates, the situation was similar in 2019 when the AKP lost both cities. Erdoğan’s complete control over the party apparatus forces him to pick national figures close to himself who have very little context for the local conditions in urban ghettos where the AKP used to have a strong base.

AKP’s decline helped the New Welfare Party (YRP) on the right. An Islamist party founded by Fatih Erbakan, the son of Erdoğan’s former mentor Necmettin Erbakan, the YRP became the third largest party, garnering six percent of the vote. After being founded in 2019 to reclaim the legacies of the ultra-Islamist National Outlook Movement and its former leader Necmettin Erbakan, the party unenthusiastically supported Erdoğan’s presidential candidacy in 2023. Despite this, the YRP won four seats in the parliamentary elections and is now becoming the main right-wing alternative to the AKP. YRP rose to prominence in part due to the party’s support for higher pensions and for boycotting Israel. While Erdoğan claims to oppose Israel’s genocide, his inaction against Israel pushed many younger radicalizing religious voters toward the YRP.

The biggest winner of the election, however, was the CHP. The CHP’s dysfunctional alliance strategy and its failure in the previous election had fractured the opposition. The political devastation obscured the party’s relative success—the CHP’s best performance was with 41 percent of the vote in 1977, while 2023 outpaced that when the party’s presidential candidate won 45 percent. Since then, the CHP’s former presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been ousted from the party’s leadership. His successor, Özgür Özel, had shifted the party rhetorically to the Left, but the party remained split due to the tension between the party’s nationalist wing and democratic wings.

The nationalists in various small cities attacked the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM) during the campaign, while the mayor of İstanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, aimed to appease the large Kurdish population of the city by promoting Kurdish language programs. In 2019, İmamoğlu ran with the CHP’s alliance, which included the right-wing nationalist Good Party (IYIP) and was supported by the Kurdish Left. Because of this İmamoğlu held a moderate position on the Kurdish question, appeasing the minimal demands of DEM, such as opposing Erdoğan’s appointed mayors in Kurdish cities, while occasionally echoing the anti-terrorist rhetoric of nationalists. This time around it appears that most DEM voters voted for İmamoğlu, as DEM’s İstanbul candidate, Meral Danış Beştaş, remained at two percent of the vote, a fraction of the 10 percent Kurdish Left parties usually receive in the city.

The vote share of the three nationalist parties collapsed after reaching nearly 25 percent last year. The fascist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), IYIP (which split from the MHP), and the Victory Party, whose presidential candidate, Sinan Oğan, outperformed expectations in 2023, in total received about 10 percent of the vote. The defeat of the Victory Party is especially encouraging given the party rose to prominence last year in large part because of its militant support for mass deportation of all Syrians in Turkey. Nevertheless, the victory of Ankara mayor Mansur Yavaş, who left the MHP in 2013, and wins by other nationalist CHP mayors will ensure that the ultranationalist atmosphere that’s been suffocating Turkey for nearly ten years will continue. While Yavaş, like İmamoğlu, held a more moderate position on the Kurdish question, despite his nationalist background, as the now second most popular figure in the CHP, he is well positioned to fill the nationalist vacuum.

The leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) Özgür Özel pictured here in September 2023. Photo Credit: Oğulcan Bakiler.

Despite the colossal defeat the AKP experienced by coming second in elections for the first time since its founding, Erdoğan once again used bureaucratic mechanisms to seize control of Kurdish cities. The day after the election, Van’s local election council decided that the DEM candidate, Abdullah Zeydan, was wrongly certified to run by the council. The council then recommended the AKP candidate, who won second place with 27 percent against Zeydan’s 55 percent, should be appointed mayor. After large protests in Van on April 3, during which the local CHP marched in solidarity with DEM, and Özel and İmamoğlu declared that they would fight the decision, Turkey’s supreme electoral council decided to certify Zeydan as the mayor of Van in a 7-4 decision. The weakness of the AKP and the strong showing of the opposition emboldened the council to vote against Erdoğan’s demands.

In contrast to DEM’s victory in Van and nearly all other Kurdish-majority cities, the parties of the Turkish socialist Left had a much weaker showing. The disastrous decision by the Workers Party of Turkey (TIP) to nominate former soccer player Gökhan Zan as their mayoral candidate in Hatay was an unfortunate display of opportunism at a critical moment. Hatay was devastated by the earthquake in February 2023. TIP and Zan became more prominent, along with many other activists and aid organizations, through their role in the earthquake relief efforts. Lütfü Savaş, who was elected mayor of Hatay with the AKP in 2009 and later joined the CHP in 2014, played a major role in the systemic negligence that led to the destruction. Hatay had been filled with unsafe buildings, many of which were constructed during Savaş’s decades-long tenure. Yet, when the CHP refused to replace Savaş despite the massive pushback within the party, TIP, which was initially flirting with the idea of supporting the CHP, endorsed Gökhan Zan in an opportunistic move to the center.

TIP’s endorsement of Zan, who ran against TIP’s candidate, Can Atalay, with IYIP just months before, faced much criticism within the party as well as on the Left more broadly. It was an especially controversial move given Atalay had been imprisoned over his involvement in Gezi Park protests and illegally kept in prison after his election as Hatay MP in 2023. Zan’s swing from the far right to the far left within the span of one year also raised a lot of questions about the politics of TIP. TIP had previously been accused of clout chasing for some of their celebrity recruitments during the 2023 elections. TIP later withdrew its support for Zan over the allegations of Zan meeting with the AKP. In the end, the AKP won narrowly in part due to the lack of a viable Left opposition.

The Hatay results are especially disheartening because Erdoğan told the people of Hatay that the central government abandoned the city during the earthquake simply because Savaş was not an AKP mayor. TIP’s opportunism prevented it from taking advantage of the unpopularity of its rivals.

Nevertheless, the Left’s victory in Van hints at a completely new balance of forces. For the first time under his rule, Erdoğan backed out of his repression of the Kurdish Left due to mass mobilizations. Also, for the first time, these mobilizations were openly supported by the now-victorious CHP. Given the direness of the country’s economic crises, Erdoğan’s new lame- duck position, and the CHP’s centrism, it is possible that movements from below might be revived and create a political opening for the Left.

It is clear that CHP leaders are aware of this opening as they begin to emphasize the party’s “social democratic” legacy. However, this vision is still being carried by millionaire capitalists like İmamoğlu and nationalists like Yavaş. The CHP’s expansion of social services at the municipal level could alleviate some of the suffering, but these reforms will not fix the country’s structural crisis. Meanwhile, the disastrous showing of the Left in Hatay and its effective liquidation into the CHP in most of the country during this election shows that the Left has a long way to go.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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Hakan Yilmaz View All

Hakan Yilmaz is a member of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Professional Staff Congress.