After the decisive victory of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist/nationalist bloc in Türkiye in the critical presidential and parliamentary elections in May 2023, for a few months, it seemed like politics stopped in the country as the defeated pro-secular opposition bloc dealt with its own power struggles and voters from the opposition felt a deep despair. Due to increasing political apathy, hundreds of thousands of people from the opposition circles stopped watching television programs, buying newspapers, and talking about politics. It seemed like President Erdoğan and his ruling bloc were running for another victory in the approaching local elections on May 31, 2024.
However, things have begun to change rapidly in the last few weeks, increasing hopes among the opposition parties and voters. The first critical change came when the young social democratic politician Özgür Özel had a surprising victory at the 38th Regular Congress of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) on November 4-5, 2023. Although Türkiye has been holding democratic elections since 1950, it is often accepted by Turkish political scientists that the political party system in the country is not democratic and makes party chairs mortal gods who cannot be defeated and replaced. The earlier transition of powers also strengthened this view. For instance, unlike the common knowledge, when young Bülent Ecevit replaced the very old war hero İsmet İnönü in 1972 as the new CHP chair, it was not the result of a leadership race, but rather the withdrawal of İnönü from the intraparty election due to his anger to party delegates when he lost the election for the party parliament. Moreover, in 2010, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu did not become the new chair of the party by defeating Deniz Baykal in a party congress. Instead, Baykal had to resign due to an alleged sex tape containing his inappropriate relationship with a party deputy. In the right-wing parties, the earlier experiences were even worse. MHP’s Alparslan Türkeş and Islamist Necmettin Erbakan were leaders of their parties until their death. In the governing AK Parti, Congresses are held regularly with only one leadership candidate: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Ahmet Davutoğlu for a short while. Thus, the replacement of Kılıçdaroğlu with Özel as the new CHP leader is an important progress and novelty for Turkish politics. This change gave new hope to many voters since Özgür Özel is a young, bright, untried, and unknown politician who has a clean sheet.
Soylu and Yerlikaya
The second important change in recent weeks was the increasing disagreements between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his junior partner MHP chair Devlet Bahçeli. It is common knowledge that Turkish Political Islam (Milli Görüş) and Turkish nationalism are two very different ideologies taking their roots and inspirations from contradicting sources. It should be remembered that Devlet Bahçeli also was the fiercest critic of Erdoğan until the failed coup attempt in 2016. However, understanding the changing sociological nature of Türkiye as well as the transformation of the state, Bahçeli, with the consciousness of keeping the state strong and stable, decided to support Erdoğan for a smooth transition into the Presidential system in 2017. This marked the beginning of the People’s Alliance (Cumhur İttifakı), which continued and strengthened after the transition into Presidentialism, with an official electoral coalition between the two parties. Although this coalition helped Erdoğan to stay in power and Bahçeli to employ and emplace trusted Turkish nationalists into critical positions in the bureaucracy, the two partners continued to disagree on many issues. For instance, according to some journalists, the removal of Süleyman Soylu from the Ministry of Interior Affairs after the election was a step against Bahçeli. Moreover, Ali Yerlikaya, the new Interior Minister appointed by Erdoğan after the elections, started legal operations against some criminal leaders (Ayhan Bora Kaplan) who had good relations with the state during Soylu’s tenure in office. Bahçeli on the other hand criticized this and openly backed Soylu. This led to an increasingly confrontational political stance between Erdoğan and Bahçeli. The trend was further accelerated when the shooting of a young ultranationalist politician and former Grey Wolfes (Ülkü Ocakları) leader, Sinan Ateş, in December 2022 turned into a legal battleground between the MHP and the government. Police investigation showed that some people from the MHP headquarters (Mersin deputy Olcay Kılavuz) had close relations with the murder suspect Tolgahan Demirbaş. In fact, Demirbaş was taken into custody by the police from Kılavuz’s house in Ankara. While this investigation turned into a power struggle between AK Parti and MHP, the editor of an MHP-related political website –Orhun Haber– Mert Kerim Ejder was recently taken into custody due to threats toward Ankara Chief Prosecutor Ahmet Akça who conducts the investigation of Sinan Ateş assassination. Although I do not believe that MHP could be involved in the murder with its legal entity, it seems like some people from the administration could have been involved in the murder of Ateş. That is why, this issue and power struggle between two critical elements of the People’s Alliance give the opposition a chance to convince voters in the local elections.
Inflation rates in Türkiye in the last 12 months
The devaluation of Turkish lira since 2014
The third important advantage for the opposition is the worsening socioeconomic conditions in Türkiye, particularly in expensive big cities. According to The Economist, Türkiye struggled with triple-digit inflation rates throughout the year 2022. In 2023, the average inflation is estimated around 51,45 % in the first 10 months of this year and 66 % in the last 12 months. For many people, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain a decent living due to the rapid rise of prices as well as the sharp devaluation of Turkish lira. A U.S. dollar is worth less than 3 Turkish liras in 2014, less than 5 liras in July 2018, less than 8 liras in April 2021, less than 15 liras in March 2022, and less than 20 liras in May 2023. But now, as of November 2023, a U.S. dollar is worth almost 30 Turkish liras, which shows the enormous devaluation of Turkish currency in the last decade. In that sense, the economy is giving a clear message to average voters in Türkiye: do not vote for the government. However, due to sociocultural inclinations, many people voted for the government last May, and many of them might continue to vote for the government and President Erdoğan in next March’s local elections as well.
But the opposition also now has a new problem. The second most important party of the opposition’s Nation Alliance (Millet İttifakı), İYİ Parti (Good Party) has been having some intraparty struggles recently due to the party’s poor performance in the earlier elections. İYİ Parti is a leader-oriented party built around the charisma of the former Minister of Interior Affairs (1996-1997) Meral Akşener. It is a split party from MHP and most of its members are former Turkish nationalists. However, as a popular politician, Akşener was able to open the party to different segments of society and embraced new voters escaping from CHP and AK Parti. By doing this, the party established a 9-10 % solid voter base in the previous elections, an important success for a new political party created in 2017. Akşener, due to the failure of the alliance strategy with the social democratic CHP last May, has been adopting a different rhetoric in recent months and does not want to seem very willing to engage in another electoral election. Akşener wants to reach right-wing conservative and nationalist voters and she thinks that the electoral coalition with CHP prevents her party from expanding. However, this strategy led to increasing criticism of her leadership in the party, and eventually 79 out of 200 founders of the party either resigned or exported from the party. Especially the party’s Sakarya deputy Ümit Dikbayır’s recent criticism and accusations put Akşener into a difficult position. In addition, the growing popularity of the anti-immigrant Victory Party and its leader Ümit Özdağ is another problem for İYİ Parti to have a successful performance in the elections. Current polls suggest that the party lost a considerable amount of its votes following the election in May, 4 months before the local elections.
Local elections are often classified as different types of elections by Turkish political scientists. It is a fact that the identity, popularity, and image of the candidate can make a difference at the local level since people directly vote for their local governors. According to an expert on Turkish elections, Professor Birol Akgün, in the local elections, four factors play key roles:
- The potential of political parties in that electorate,
- The personality and local connections of the candidates,
- Sociocultural and ethnic composition of the electorate,
- Electoral moves such as transfer expenditures.
In that sense, a good candidate by establishing local connections, fitting to the sociocultural and ethnic composition of this electorate, and making clever electoral moves, can reach the maximum potential of his party whereas a wrong choice might reduce the potential. That is why, the choice of candidates especially in metropolitan cities will be very important for party leaders in the coming weeks. It is almost certain that CHP will continue to contest in the March elections with Mansur Yavaş in Ankara and Ekrem İmamoğlu in İstanbul. In İzmir, the current Mayor Tunç Soyer’s candidacy is not guaranteed, but I think he will keep his seat in one of the most secure electorates for CHP. In the meantime, CHP decided to organize satisfaction surveys to choose its candidates, which will not affect Yavaş or İmamoğlu’s candidacy in my opinion.
According to the Turkish press, AK Parti also has recently intensified its research for choosing the appropriate candidate in metropolitan cities and organized tendency surveys within the party. In Istanbul, the party’s İstanbul provincial chairman Osman Nuri Kabaktepe, İstanbul deputy and former Minister of Environment and Urbanization Murat Kurum, and President Erdoğan’s groom and drone company Baykar’s founder Selçuk Bayraktar are referred to as potential candidates. Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was also mentioned by some journalists in earlier weeks. In Ankara, Keçiören Mayor Turgut Altınok and former Minister of Education Ziya Selçuk topped the list in the tendency surveys. In İzmir, party members preferred the party’s head of the youth branch Eyüp Kadir İnan, and İzmir deputy Hamza Dağ. While potential AK Parti candidates are strong politicians, they are not very well-known among the public, which might be a big disadvantage. But on the other hand, the success of young and enigmatic Ekrem İmamoğlu in the 2019 local elections in İstanbul, might encourage Erdoğan and other key party officials to choose a fresh name. But whoever is chosen as the candidate, everyone knows that AK Parti enters into all elections with President Erdoğan and he is the main reason why millions of people continue to vote for the party that does not perform very well in recent years, especially concerning economics.
To conclude, the 2024 Turkish local elections will not be boring or non-contentious with the recent leadership change in CHP and the worsening economic conditions of the country. However, the opposition has to keep its electoral coalition to be more challenging while Erdoğan also has to solve the problem with the MHP for not losing votes.
Assoc. Prof. Ozan ÖRMECİ
 For details, see; Birol Akgün (2002), Türkiye’de Seçmen Davranışı, Partiler Sistemi ve Siyasal Güven, Ankara: Novel Akademik Yayıncılık.