AN ANALYSIS OF 2024 TURKISH LOCAL ELECTIONS

upa-admin 24 Nisan 2024 244 Okunma 0
AN ANALYSIS OF 2024 TURKISH LOCAL ELECTIONS

Introduction

Türkiye’s 2024 local elections created optimism within and outside of the country about the future of Turkish democracy. That is because the main opposition party, the pro-secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) with its new and young leader Özgür Özel showed an exceptionally good and unexpected performance and acquired almost 38 % of the total votes and became the leading party in the country. Moreover, CHP won municipalities of 14 metropolitan cities including the most populated and industrialized centers such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Bursa, Antalya, etc., and 21 other Anatolian cities; thus, becoming the leading party in terms of the number of city municipalities as well.[1] After 22 years of Islamist-oriented AK Parti (Justice and Development Party) rule, the results of the election proved that Turkish democracy survives despite serious problems and that Turkish people make rational choices at the ballots.

Analyzing 2024 Turkish Local Elections in the Light of Key Political Science Concepts

2024 Turkish local elections are also valuable to political science studies about Turkish Politics. In Western academia, the general approach towards Türkiye recently focused on the developing authoritarianism in the country. It is a fact that, due to conditions emerging in the country, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had to give up his reformist agenda and began to pursue a more nationalist and authoritarian-leaning domestic policy course in the 2010s and 2020s. This trend started with the 2013 Gezi Park protests and became the main parameter after the 2015-2016 Sur events and the failed coup d’état in 2016. It is a fact that President Erdoğan and his AK Parti could have acted more democratically during the 2013 Gezi Park protests and could have listened to the wishes of young people coming from different backgrounds. However, I think it was quite normal for an elected government to intervene militarily if there is an armed uprising like the 2015-2016 Sur Events or an attempt to overthrow the government as in the case of July 15, 2016, failed coup d’état. In that sense, President Erdoğan in a sense was forced to act in a more authoritarian manner due to evolving conditions within the country and the Western countries’ (primarily the United States) increasing negative attitude towards Ankara.

Although I agree with the Western scholars that there has been a serious decline in the quality of Turkish democracy after 2013 and especially after 2016, I do believe that this is somehow related to the failure of democracies in the world and the collapse of the democratization hopes in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. In that sense, Türkiye is not an exception to global trends, and the popularity of authoritarian populism in general (Donald Trump’s rise in the U.S., Victor Orban’s ongoing success in Hungary, etc.) had its effects in Türkiye as well. Moreover, the Turkish regime never transformed completely into an authoritarian system as proven by the results of elections and referendums. For instance, the 2017 referendum for transition into a Presidential system was passed only with 51.4 % support in a controversial manner, showing the strong force of the opposition. Similarly, in the 2019 local elections, the main opposition party CHP did quite well, especially in big cities. Even in last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, the opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu -an Alevi and leftist politician coming from Tunceli/Dersim- received 48 % of the votes, showing Turkish people’s strong inclination for democracy.

That is why, how to assess the 2024 Turkish local elections becomes a critical matter which should be studied academically in a non-biased way. Samuel Huntington, in his chef-d’oeuvre The Third Wave, uses the term “stunning elections” to describe elections that resulted in the victory of pro-democracy forces in authoritarian regimes. Since I classify Türkiye as a “hybrid regime” and an example of the “competitive authoritarianism” model as claimed by Lewitsky and Way, I do not think this was a stunning election and the opposition had the chance to defeat the government 10 months ago as well in the presidential and parliamentary elections despite unfair competition conditions.

Another term to be discussed concerning the 2024 Turkish local elections could be “critical elections”. It refers to an election that leads to a dramatic change in the political scene of a country and creates the condition of “realignment”. Türkiye’s 2002 general elections are a perfect example of a critical elections model. In 2002, all parties previously represented in the Turkish Grand National Assembly (DSP, MHP, FP, ANAP, and DYP) stayed below the 10 % electoral threshold and two new parties (AK Parti and CHP) entered the parliament. Comparing these local elections to the 2002 general elections, of course, we cannot talk about a real critical elections case as the main parameter of Turkish politics (Islamists/nationalists versus seculars/leftists/liberals) as well as the main actors (AK Parti and CHP) stay the same. However, one big change came as the AK Parti for the first time since 2002 became the second party in an election (either general, Presidential, or local elections) by losing many votes and reaching around 35 %, whereas CHP made an important rise from 30 % to 38 % and became the biggest party. This could be a game-changer election in that sense, however, it does not fit into the pattern of the critical election.

Kurdish Secessionism in a New Stage

Another important aspect of the 2024 local elections was the success of the pro-Kurdish DEM Party in Southeastern Anatolia, a region densely populated by Kurds. Although the Turkish State recently used a political pressure policy over elected officials of the pro-Kurdish party (previously HDP) by appointing trustees and banning popular Kurdish politicians (most famous among them is the imprisoned HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş) as a reaction to 2015-2016 Sur Events, we have seen that Kurds of the region continue to vote extensively for the pro-Kurdish party. DEM, in these local elections, acquired 10 municipalities (3 metropolitan municipalities) and widened the gap between its voting rate and the voting rate of the AK Parti in many cities. We can thus conclude that the pressure policy did not create very good results for the Turkish State as the pro-Kurdish party protected its superior position in the region. However, one could also claim that under more democratic conditions, DEM could win Bitlis, Şırnak, Bingöl, and Kars as well. Considering the success of the AK Parti in densely Kurdish-populated regions in the 2000s, I am closer to the first argument and I do believe that a reformist government/party who cares about the cultural rights of Kurdish people could easily become the leading party in the Southeastern Anatolia. It should not be forgotten that, during these elections, the Turkish government temporarily routed thousands of soldiers and policemen on active duty to southeastern villages including Mardin, Diyarbakır, Hakkari, and Şırnak to be able to compete in the region, a fact that shows the weakness of the Turkish State to produce consent and legitimacy in the eyes of Kurdish voters.[2]

Elections also lead us to a discussion about the future of the Kurdish political movement. It seems like the movement loses most of its voters to the main opposition party CHP in the big metropolitan cities of Western Anatolia (Istanbul, Izmir, Antalya, Mersin, etc.) and increasingly shows the characteristics of a regional party that is influential in its local zone. This might be good news for CHP, but for Türkiye, looking from the state’s perspective, the weakness of the AK Parti and especially CHP in the Kurdish-populated cities is a major problem for the future of the country in terms of the unitary state structure. In that sense, both AK Parti and CHP should start working on a comprehensive Kurdish policy to increase their presence in the region. Otherwise, Türkiye’s unitary state structure will be at risk in the future and the state will have to adhere to force-based undemocratic methods once again. An ideal solution to the Kurdish Question could be to improve the life conditions in the region as well as to increase the cultural rights of Kurds such as allowing Kurdish education in the schools for limited hours similar to the French ELCO system (a program for teaching languages and cultures of origin) and allowing local Kurdish names to be used for official districts. In fact, AK Parti tried to do these things in the past, but faced harsh resistance from nationalist and Kemalist groups. Now that Kemalists have transformed into social democrats and liberals trying to reach all groups within Turkish society, AK Parti could easily make such reforms by only convincing MHP. By doing this, AK Parti could become a party that could compete with the pro-Kurdish party in the region once again and could guarantee the unitary state structure of Türkiye.

Islamism Divided into Two Main Parties

Another victorious party in these elections was Dr. Fatih Erbakan’s New Welfare (YRP), a new Islamist party following the National Outlook (Milli Görüş) tradition of Necmettin Erbakan, Türkiye’s first Islamist Prime Minister and Fatih Erbakan’s father. Although President Erdoğan had the chance to add YRP to his People’s Alliance (Cumhur İttifakı) electoral coalition, young Erbakan wanted to act independently and asked for heavy conditions for joining the alliance. I guess President Erdoğan also trusted in the power of his party and did not see any potential harm coming from YRP. However, with almost 7 % support, YRP became the third biggest political party in the country after these elections and proved its power and great potential. In that sense, President Erdoğan’s tactical failure to convince YRP created now a big rival to his party in the Islamist camp. As far as I am concerned, YRP will continue to act independently since now they could easily pass the 7 % electoral threshold and even could lead the Islamist/right-wing bloc in case Erdoğan retires from active politics due to the two-terms Presidential limit and his advancing age.

Conclusion

To conclude, from my perspective, the 2024 Turkish local elections were a warning to the Erdoğan government to improve the economic and democratic conditions of the country as soon as possible. The decreasing voting turnout as well as the poor performance of the AK Parti shows that people are unsatisfied with the current regime. Erdoğan, thus, will have to convince its junior partner MHP, and its leader Devlet Bahçeli to increase the freedoms of Turkish people and fix the economy to stay in power. In fact, Erdoğan’s skillful Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek could fix the economy by lowering the inflation in 2026 and increasing people’s purchasing power. However, MHP and its ultranationalist ideology leave little space to Erdoğan for making any opening or reform in the political scene, which decreases AK Parti’s chance of staying in power at the next election. That is because the main opposition party CHP has a more democratic and pro-European stance and it is more successful in reaching young and urban populations due to its very successful and charismatic leaders such as Özgür Özel, Ekrem İmamoğlu, Mansur Yavaş, Vahap Seçer, and Abdurrahman Tutdere. In that sense, now CHP has the lead and a CHP candidate (most probably Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu) could easily win the next presidential election in 2028, or earlier. However, CHP has to perform well in municipalities and continue to make efforts to become a center and catch-all party rather than a small and ideological left-wing cadre party.

Last word, upon suggestions coming from MHP, in case AK Parti and Erdoğan try to increase the pressure on opposition groups, I think this will backfire as in the case of repeated 2019 Istanbul local elections. That is because Turkish people have always been in favor of a moderate democratic regime, that is away from extremist ideologies (radical Islam, communism, pan-Turkism, Kurdish secessionism, etc.).

Cover Photo: SETA

Assoc. Prof. Ozan ÖRMECİ

[1] https://secim.aa.com.tr/.

[2] https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/asker-ve-polisler-tasimali-oy-kullandi-dem-partili-vekiller-goruntuledi-haber-1680477.

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