Turkey’s 2019 local elections took place on March 31, 2019 Sunday in a relatively peaceful atmosphere. Except for deadly local feuds in Malatya and Gaziantep, no serious clashes happened and elections were organized in a free and fair manner. The voting turnout rate was high (84.52 %) as usual. Turkey’s governing (2002-) -Islamist-oriented- right wing AK Parti (Justice and Development Party) took 44.42 % of the total votes, whereas the main opposition party -pro-secular and social democratic- left wing CHP (Republican People’s Party) garnered 30.07 % of the votes. It seems like electoral coalitions helped these two parties to monopolize the left (it is widely associated with secularism in Turkey) and the right wing politics in the country. However, AK Parti lost three most populated and developed cities of Turkey; Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, a serious blow to President Erdoğan’s power and a new hope for the opposition.
Election results show that Turkey’s economic slowdown in recent months and increasing authoritarian practices of President Erdoğan’s government reduced his party’s voting rates in urbanized and more secular parts of the country. In my opinion, AK Parti also made some mistakes in choosing appropriate candidates. For instance, they chose Mehmet Özhaseki as their candidate in Ankara (a successful municipal leader coming from Kayseri) against a local politician of Ankara and former municipal leader of Ankara’s Beypazarı district Mansur Yavaş and eventually lost the election. However, AK Parti was still able to keep its superior and unchallenged position in Turkish politics thanks to its electoral coalition with the Turkish nationalist MHP (Nationalist Action Party) and loyal electoral base supporting the party and its undisputed leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for cultural (strong Islamist cultural identity of Turkish people) and historical reasons (opposition to CHP’s authoritarian single-party period and left wing politics due to Cold War legacy). AK Parti won 39 of 81 Turkish cities, whereas CHP won in 21 cities. MHP took municipalities of 11 cities with 7.25 % of the total votes and pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) won in 8 municipalities with only 4.22 % of the votes. CHP’s electoral coalition partner İYİ Parti (Good Party) on the other hand took 7.46 % of the votes and became the third largest party in Turkey, but could not win a municipality in any of 81 Turkish cities. These three parties’ (MHP, HDP and İYİ Parti) voting rates should not be misleading; because these parties engaged in electoral coalitions and supported AK Parti (MHP made an electoral pact with AK Parti) or CHP (İYİ Parti made an electoral pact with CHP and HDP supported CHP candidates in many cities) in most of the cities. Lastly, Islamist Saadet Partisi-SP (Felicity Party) took 2.68 % of the votes and the left wing Demokratik Sol Parti-DSP (Democratic Left Party) had 0.99.
The biggest shock for the governing AK Parti is of course the loss of Istanbul, the economic capital of Turkey (although the final result is not declared yet, Provincial Electoral Board of Istanbul declared İmamoğlu as the winner). In Istanbul, both parties chose very good candidates; AK Parti convinced former Prime Minister and the speaker of Turkish Parliament Binali Yıldırım and CHP chose the young municipal leader of Beylikdüzü, Ekrem İmamoğlu. The race was very tight in Istanbul and only a few thousand votes determined the winner. İmamoğlu won the election slightly in a shocking manner. Both candidates declared their victory on the night of the elections. However, on Monday all votes are counted and it was found out that Ekrem İmamoğlu won the election. Mr. İmamoğlu took Istanbul municipality from the hands pro-Islamist parties after 25 years and made history. Both candidates had around 48.70 % of the votes. İmamoğlu achieved this unexpected success with his humble personality and popular image of an honest, bright and conservative young politician. His success at Beylikdüzü municipality also convinced many voters that he could rule Istanbul better than AK Parti candidate Binali Yıldırım. In addition, İmamoğlu conducted a very good and virtuous electoral campaign; he never tried to defame AK Parti or his rival Binali Yıldırım, but rather he tried to present himself and explain his projects to the voters. It should not be forgotten that İmamoğlu was nobody for most of the Istanbul residents just three months ago. This shows the success of his electoral campaign. The loss of Istanbul is a serious damage to AK Parti since controlling Istanbul municipality also means ruling an important segment of the Turkish economy thanks to construction licenses and rents.
In Ankara also, the official capital and the second biggest city of Turkey, CHP’s Turkish nationalist candidate Mansur Yavaş defeated AK Parti’s candidate Mehmet Özhaseki with 50.09 % of the votes against 47.06 % and made a historical win by taking the capital of Turkey from the hands of Islamist parties after 25 years. Mansur Yavaş was able to do this by unifying pro-secular left wing and Turkish nationalist voters with his unique political identity as a secular and modern politician supporting the local development and coming from MHP background. Moreover, AK Parti’s strategy of slandering Mansur Yavaş for personal issues in the last few days of the election backfired. Ankara voters did not approve the negative campaigning methods implemented by AK Parti officials including President Erdoğan, Mehmet Özhaseki and Ömer Çelik. Although the loss of Istanbul and Ankara will not pose a critical threat to AK Parti and President Erdoğan’s power in the short run, if the economic slowdown continues, call for early Presidential and parliamentary elections (Presidential and parliamentary elections will be organized in Turkey in 2023 according to regular schedule) might be increased in the following months and years.
In Izmir, CHP won a landslide victory with left wing candidate Tunç Soyer’s 58.02 % of the votes against AK Parti’s former Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekçi’s 38.62 %. Tunç Soyer was the successful mayor of Izmir’s Seferihisar region; so, his success should not be considered as a surprise. The loss of three big cities of Turkey should be a strong signal to President Erdoğan and his party about increasing the economic performance of the government and liberalizing the political regime. Turkey is now considered as an unfree country by many political observers due to harsh treatment of Turkish and international journalists in addition to opposition voices by the Turkish State. The negative trend in three big cities should be alarming for President Erdoğan for the next Presidential and parliamentary election as well since almost all important political developments in Turkey first start in big cities (mainly Istanbul) and then spread to other parts of Anatolia. In addition, it seems like the survival (bekâ in Turkish) rhetoric of the government was not approved by all Turkish voters and Turkish people clearly showed their preference of economic development rather than military expeditions to the government. In this conjuncture, Turkey’s military operation towards the eastern side of the Euphrates River in Syria against YPG-PYD groups might rather be limited and Turkey could try to solve the Syrian crisis by working closely with Russia, Iran and other international powers via focusing on political and diplomatic solutions rather than military ones. However, since Turkish nationalist MHP is acting like the coalition partner of the AK Parti government, President Erdoğan will have to convince Russia and Iran for the territorial integrity and unitary state structure of Syria in order to keep MHP support. Although the loss of three big cities is a serious challenge to AK Parti’s power as well as a loss of prestige for President Erdoğan, we should not forget that President Erdoğan has still 4 years of tenure in the office until the next election. So, Erdoğan might still want to take risks in Syria in order to eradicate terrorist groups completely despite the fact that this might increase risks for the fragility of Turkish economy.
If we look at other important cities, in Antalya, another surprise took place and CHP’s Muhittin Böcek defeated AK Parti’s candidate and previous municipal leader Menderes Türel with 50.63 % of the votes against 46.27 %. AK Parti’s Islamist identity was the main cause of this defeat in the summer tourism capital of Turkey although Menderes Türel himself was a popular and successful mayor. In Tunceli, Turkish Communist Party’s (TKP) candidate Fatih Mehmet Maçoğlu won the election with 32.37 % of the total votes and became the first communist municipal leader in Turkish history. In Kırklareli, an independent candidate, former CHP mayor Mehmet Siyam Kesimoğlu was elected with 37.53 % of the votes. In addition, CHP made an important progress in Black Sea (Karadeniz) region by winning in Sinop, Artvin and Ardahan but lost Giresun to AK Parti. CHP also won in important metropolis cities including Adana, Mersin, Burdur and Hatay. Lastly, AK Parti took Şırnak, Ağrı and Bitlis from HDP, other surprise takeovers.
President Erdoğan’s power is still unchallenged, but the loss of three big cities is a serious loss of prestige and power
Finally, Turkey’s 2019 local elections was an important test for Turkish politics and it showed that the majority of Turkish people are modern and rational individuals who look at their life standards and economic situation first rather than nationalist or religious (Islamist) ideals. In addition, President Erdoğan’s polarization methods did not work this time and CHP made an important progress by winning in Ankara and Istanbul and increasing its votes above 30 %. From now on, President Erdoğan will try to straighten up things in the country to save his government. He has to recover the economy first by preventing Turkish lira’s devaluation and creating new jobs, and then he should find a solution to Syrian crisis by working closely with all international powers. Another difficult task for President Erdoğan is to calibrate Turkish foreign policy carefully between United States, Russia and European Union. As far as I am concerned, President Erdoğan might try to make an autocritique of his policies and to rejuvenate his party’s cadres after this election. One thing is for sure: President Erdoğan’s power is still unchallenged (AK Parti and MHP’s joint votes still make 51-52 %) and the rise of CHP in this election does not mean that a CHP candidate could win a Presidential election against Erdoğan (CHP and İYİ Parti’s joint votes reach only 37-38 %). Another important lesson from this election is that pro-Kurdish HDP is weakened with the Turkish State’s collaborative efforts motivated by this party’s links with terrorist groups and without its charismatic leader Selahattin Demirtaş, HDP lost a lot of its power. Interestingly, President Erdoğan commented the election result as a success and pointed out AK Parti’s progress in densely Kurdish populated Turkey’s southeastern Anatolian cities (such as Şırnak, Ağrı and Bitlis) while not mentioning the loss of Ankara and Istanbul. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu on the other hand commented the result as a victory for Turkey rather than CHP and thanked his electoral coalition partner İYİ Parti’s leader Meral Akşener. It seems like the gaining of three big cities will secure Kılıçdaroğlu’s seat as the chair of CHP until the next election. MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli also guaranteed to keep his seat with these results. However, İYİ Parti might choose another leader in the coming months since the party underperformed in these elections and could not gain any municipality in 81 cities.
Dr. Ozan ÖRMECİ