Analysis | Turkey’s shock elections offer another lesson for the world

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan just experienced what analysts deem his worst political setback in more than two decades. His long-ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, lost emphatically in local elections around the country Sunday — a surprising rebuke after Erdogan had consolidated his tight grip on power in general elections last year. The opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, secured victories across the country and in Turkey’s five biggest cities, including Istanbul, where Erdogan had campaigned vigorously for his handpicked AKP candidate.

After all, Erdogan’s own political career took off after his successful stint as mayor of Istanbul three decades ago. Born in the metropolis to humble migrants from Turkey’s Black Sea coast, Erdogan first staked his legitimacy on his record of competent, ambitious governance, including construction booms and vast public works carried out under his watch in Istanbul. His appeal to the city’s working classes, including more pious transplants from Turkey’s hinterlands, would go on to form the core of his brand of religiously tinged populist nationalism — an ideology that pushed against the old establishment of secular elites but now runs beneath the illiberal majoritarian regime that has kept Erdogan entrenched in power.

Enter Ekrem Imamoglu, the incumbent CHP mayor of Istanbul, who has emerged as the central figure of a new generation of politicians in the Turkish scene after staving off a full-throttle AKP campaign to unseat him from office. He explicitly framed his reelection in global terms, casting his success as a sign of how opposition parties and voters can push back against electoral autocracies of the sort erected by Erdogan in the latter years of his rule.

The election Sunday “marks the end of democratic erosion in Turkey and the resurgence of democracy,” Imamoglu said. “People oppressed under authoritarian regimes now turn their gaze to Istanbul.” The next morning, Istanbul’s triumphant mayor nodded to a potential challenge to Erdogan down the road, declaring before supporters in the heart of the city that “the era of one person’s tutelage is over.”

This turn of events is fueled, first and foremost, by voter anger at a frustrating status quo. “It was Erdogan’s handling of the economy that appeared to loom largest in the race, with households battered by runaway inflation and the cratering value of the currency,” my colleagues Beril Eski and Kareem Fahim reported. “Despite Erdogan’s appointment last year of a well-respected economic team and his decision to allow the Central Bank to raise interest rates to their highest level in decades, inflation has remained at about 70 percent.”

Pocketbook anxiety and societal gloom appears to have dissuaded a segment of the AKP’s voter base from turning out. Deeper discontent with stagnation under the long-ruling AKP may also have pushed some more right-wing AKP voters to other parties, including an Islamist party that broke from Erdogan over his refusal to not sunder economic ties with Israel over the war in Gaza.

But perhaps the most important dynamic was the one that fueled the CHP’s success. The party is tied to Turkey’s statist, secularist past and for many years, as Asli Aydintasbas, a Turkey scholar at the Brookings Institution, told me, has been seen as too “dogmatic and elitist,” seeming “to appeal solely to urban secularists.” Its former leader, the septuagenarian Kemal Kilicdaroglu, repeatedly failed to defeat Erdogan in elections, including last year.

But a new crop of talent — from Kilicdaroglu’s successor Ozgur Ozel to Imamoglu himself, who can claim a similar everyman identity as Erdogan — is leading the way. And they are building broader coalitions. In Sunday’s election, many CHP candidates outside the predominantly Kurdish southeast were boosted by the support of ethnic Kurdish voters, who backed the candidates that could defeat the AKP (rather than those of the main pro-Kurdish party) as a protest vote against Erdogan.

Turkey’s elections are somewhat free, and not particularly fair, given Erdogan and the AKP’s outsize grip on the machinery of state and influence over media. But Sunday’s election showed that even in this illiberal context, it’s possible for things to change quickly. On Monday, Turkey woke up to a set of political realities dramatically different from those less than a year ago, when Erdogan secured reelection despite a tanking economy and the hideous impact of an earthquake that devastated the country’s south.

“Some argued that Erdogan’s supporters stand by him through thick and thin. Others claimed that the president has consolidated autocracy so much that he could not be defeated at the ballot box,” explained Gonul Tol, director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute, referring to analyst talking points in the wake of the 2023 election. “The success of the CHP in Sunday’s municipal vote proves both camps wrong. It shows that despite the uneven playing field, elections do matter and voters vote with their wallets — eventually.”

There are no major elections slated for the next four years. Erdogan will probably seek to extend his rule in 2028, moving to “reconstitute the club,” as Soner Cagaptay, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, put it, of right-wing nationalists and Islamists that help him and the AKP secure more than 50 percent of the vote. But it may be a tougher job than many previously expected.

After the 2023 election, “a lot of analysts concluded that Turkish politics was quite predictable, that Erdogan was in charge permanently with no real challenger whatsoever,” Cagaptay told me. But now the spotlight has turned to the mediocrity of the candidates that ran under his banner, getting trounced by considerable margins in cities such as Istanbul and Ankara.

“Erdogan now has a successor problem,” Cagaptay added. “Anyone he runs as a proxy fails miserably.”

That’s less of a problem for a galvanized opposition, with Imamoglu at the forefront. The Istanbul mayor’s success, Aydintasbas argued, is linked to three factors that offer lessons to liberal democrats elsewhere.

First, “charisma matters,” she said, and Imamoglu has that in spades. It may be far better to have a genuinely popular figure leading an opposition campaign than a compromise candidate — a la Kilicdaroglu — who fails to excite a critical mass of voters. Second, Imamoglu could count on an expanding coalition of voters, including Kurds, who were once turned off by the CHP’s elitist, secularist legacy, but proved vital to his reelection in Istanbul.

And third, Imamoglu had his own track record of capable governance and administration. “Until you can convince voters that you can deliver for them, just the outrage and grandstanding about democracy is not enough,” Aydintasbas told me. This has already been borne out in elections across Europe, from Sweden to the Netherlands, where far-right parties outmaneuvered the doom-mongering of a beleaguered liberal establishment.

Imamoglu has linked his politics to that of liberal mayors in capitals such as Warsaw and Budapest, who similarly faced off against illiberal national governments. He has an “understanding of the struggle between autocracy and democracy that he is at the heart of,” Aydintasbas concluded. “But he’s smart enough not to reduce it just to that.”

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