In major setback to Turkey’s Erdogan, opposition makes huge gains in local elections

Disillusioned with economy, Turkish voters punish president’s Islamist AKP party; large gains by secularist CHP boost reelected Istanbul mayor’s aspirations to presidency

Republican People's Party, or CHP, supporters gather to celebrate outside City Hall in Istanbul, Turkey, March 31, 2024. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Republican People's Party, or CHP, supporters gather to celebrate outside City Hall in Istanbul, Turkey, March 31, 2024. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s main opposition party retained its control over key cities and made huge gains elsewhere in Sunday’s local elections, in a major upset to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had set his sights on retaking control of those urban areas.

With more than 90% of ballot boxes counted, incumbent Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, was leading by a wide margin in Turkey’s largest city and economic hub, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency. Mansur Yavas, the mayor of the capital, Ankara, retained his seat with a stunning 25-point difference over his challenger, the results indicated.

In all, the CHP won the municipalities of 36 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, according to Anadolu, making inroads into many strongholds of Erdogan’s party. It gained 37% of the votes nationwide, compared to 36% for the president’s party, marking the CHP’s greatest electoral victory since Erdogan came to power two decades ago.

Erdogan acknowledged the electoral setback in a speech delivered from the balcony of the presidential palace, saying his party had suffered “a loss of altitude” across Turkey. The people delivered a “message” that his party will “analyze” by engaging in “courageous” self-criticism, he said.

“Unfortunately, nine months after our victory in the May 28 elections, we could not get the result we wanted in the local election test,” Erdogan added. “We will correct our mistakes and redress our shortcomings.”

Turkish President and leader of Justice and Development (AK) Party Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) with his wife Emine Erdogan (R) wave to supporters as he speaks the Turkish local Municipal elections, at AK Party Headquarters in Ankara, April 1, 2024. (Adem Altan/AFP)

He vowed to press ahead with an economic program introduced last year that aims to combat inflation.

The vote was seen as a barometer of Erdogan’s popularity as he sought to win back control of key urban areas he lost to the opposition in elections five years ago. The CHP’s victory in Ankara and Istanbul in 2019 had shattered Erdogan’s aura of invincibility.

The main battleground for the 70-year-old Turkish president was Istanbul, a city of 16 million people where he was born and raised and where he began his political career as mayor in 1994.

The result came as a boost for the opposition, which was left divided and demoralized after a defeat to Erdogan and his ruling Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.

Ankara’s Mayor and Republican People’s Party, or CHP, candidate Mansur Yavas gestures as he addresses supporters next to his wife Nursen Yavas, in Ankara, Turkey, March 31, 2024. (AP Photo/Ali Unal)

“The voters decided to establish a new political order in Turkey,” CHP leader Ozgur Ozel told a crowd of jubilant supporters. “Today, the voters decided to change the 22-year-old picture in Turkey and open the door to a new political climate in our country.”

A large crowd, meanwhile, gathered outside Ankara City Hall to celebrate Yavas’s victory. “Ankara is proud of you!” supporters chanted.

Sinan Ulgen, director of the Istanbul-based Edam think tank, said “the surprising outcome” was due to voters wanting to punish the ruling party over the “depth of an economic malaise.” Skyrocketing inflation has left many Turkish households struggling to afford basic goods.

AKP supporters opted to stay away from the ballot stations or voted for other parties, Ulgen said.

“Turnout was relatively low compared to past elections,” he said. “There were cross-party shifts in the vote, which did not happen in the nationals elections because of stronger ideological attachments. This time around the economy prevailed over identity.”

A woman votes at a polling station in Istanbul, Turkey, March 31, 2024. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Some 61 million people, including more than a million first-time voters, were eligible to cast ballots for all metropolitan municipalities, town and district mayorships as well as neighborhood administrations.

Turnout was around 76%, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency, compared to 87% last year.

Some 594,000 security personnel were on duty across the country to ensure the vote goes smoothly. Nevertheless, one person was killed and 11 others hurt in the city of Diyarbakir where a dispute over the election of a neighborhood administrator turned violent, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. At least six people were also injured in fighting that erupted in the nearby province of Sanliurfa.

Istanbul’s mayor and main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem Imamoglu waves in front of supporters as they celebrate outside the main municipality building following municipal elections across Turkey, in Istanbul on March 31, 2024. (Ozan Kose/AFP)

“According to the data we have obtained, it seems our citizens’ trust in us, their faith in us has paid off,” Imamoglu said.

Imamoglu won 50.6% of the votes in Istanbul, while AKP candidate Murat Kurum, a former urbanization and environment minister, received 40.5%, according to Anadolu. Opinion polls had pointed to a close race between the two.

Imamoglu, a popular figure touted as a possible future challenger to Erdogan, ran without the support of some of the parties that helped him to victory in 2019. Both the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party and the nationalist IYI Party fielded their own candidates in the race.

A six-party opposition alliance that was led by CHP disintegrated after it failed to oust Erdogan in last year’s election, unable to capitalize on the economic crisis and the government’s initially poor response to last year’s devastating earthquake that killed more than 53,000 people.

Justice and Development (AK) Party’s mayoral candidate for Istanbul Murat Kurum (C), his wife Sengul Kurum and his son Mehmet Kurum (L) cast their ballots for the municipal elections at a polling station in Istanbul on March 31, 2024. (Kemal Aslan/AFP)

Ulgen said the result has thrust Imamoglu into the role of possible leader of the opposition to challenge Erdogan for the presidency in 2028.

“This outcome has certainly been a watershed for Imamoglu,” he said. “He will emerge as the natural candidate of the opposition for the next round of presidential elections.

A new religious-conservative party, the New Welfare Party, or YRP, appeared to have attracted votes from AKP supporters who have been disillusioned with the government’s handling of the economy. The Islamist party, which took an even more hardline stance than Erdogan against Israel over the Gaza conflict, took Sanliurfa from an AKP incumbent in the southeast.

In Turkey’s mainly Kurdish-populated southeast, the DEM Party was on course to win many of the municipalities, but it’s unclear whether it would be allowed to retain them. In previous years, Erdogan’s government removed elected pro-Kurdish mayors from office for alleged links to Kurdish militants and replaced them with state-appointed trustees.

Supporters of pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM Party) celebrate following the early results of the local elections in Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 31, 2024. (Ilyas Akengin/AFP)

Foreign Minister Israel Katz also weighed in on Turkey’s local election Sunday, writing in Turkish on social media platform X, “This is a clear message to Erdogan that attacking Israel no longer works.”

Congratulating Imamoglu and Yavas for their wins over Erdogan’s AKP, Katz urged the Turkish leader to “find new materials.”

However, pundits were largely in agreement that Turkey’s economic woes led voters to punish AKP, rather than their opinion on Israel.

Katz recently ordered the Foreign Ministry to summon Turkey’s envoy to Israel for a “serious reprimand” after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed at a March 21 election rally to “send [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] to Allah to take care of him, make him miserable and curse him.”

Analysts said a strong showing for Erdogan’s party would have hardened his resolve to usher in a new constitution — one that would reflect his conservative values and allow him to rule beyond 2028 when his current term ends.

Erdogan, who has presided over Turkey for more than two decades — as prime minister since 2003 and president since 2014 — has been advocating for a new constitution that would put family values at the forefront.

Reuters and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report

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