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A woman in a crowd of people waving a red and white flag smiles as she looks towards a stage where someone is speaking.
Supporters listen to Ekrem Imamoglu, Istanbul’s mayor and Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate, outside city hall in Istanbul on April 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

What’s next for Turkey after local elections put Erdoğan on notice

The recent municipal elections in Turkey represented a significant defeat for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, signalling a potential shift in Turkey’s political landscape.

For more than two decades, Erdoğan has extended his control over the Turkish media, the judiciary and the state bureaucracy, establishing an uneven playing field and skewed elections.

This time, though, his Justice and Development Party — known as AKP — and its coalition with the ultra-right wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) lost 15 key municipalities.

After a disastrous and divisive presidential campaign in 2023, the opposition, led by the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), assumed control of crucial municipal and provincial jurisdictions on March 31, 2024.

Read more: After a brutal presidential election campaign, Turkey is headed to a run-off contest. Here's why

The CHP, energized by fresh leadership and capable candidates, attracted backers of its former ally, the nationalist Good Party (İYİ). Supporters of the Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM) also supported the CHP, confirming a tacit partnership.

Economic concerns, along with Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule, likely contributed to higher abstention rates among conservative Kurds and other AKP sympathizers, aiding the CHP’s success.

A man in a suit waves to a cheering crowd.
Mansur Yavas, Ankara’s mayor and CHP presidential hopeful, gestures to supporters in Ankara on March 31, 2024. (AP Photo/Ali Unal)

Electoral volatility

Increased political visibility for the CHP poses a challenge for Erdoğan, who now must reignite the country’s economy and stem the rising appeal of both secular parties and rival splinter Islamist entities, including the more conservative New Welfare Party (YRP).

The March results indicate a shift toward more vigorously contested elections in Turkey.

Despite the ADP’s losses, however, the ruling coalition’s support base remains more or less stable at about 40 per cent of the electorate. Erdoğan’s core supporters still distrust the secularist CHP due to its record before the AKP’s ascent to power. They remember the party’s aggressive secularism and contempt towards them.

Erdoğan’s populism capitalizes on these grievances as he reminds his supporters of the constant military oversight of politics, coup attempts and headscarf bans employed by the secularist leaders who preceded him.

Stoking fear among his base, he positions himself as the defender of conservative religious values and a guardian against threats to the civil rights of conservative Turks. This fear has deterred his supporters from defecting to opposition parties, which are reluctant to break ranks and engage meaningfully with their religious conservative opponents.

Opposition İstanbul and Ankara mayors — Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, respectively, who are also CHP presidential hopefuls — borrow from the same populist playbook. They contrast “the people” with “the Islamist elites,” criticizing the decline of secularism and lamenting the waning of democracy under Erdoğan in an effort to mobilize their supporters.

They downplay the diversity of their supporters and speak about the abstract “national will” — a term also favoured by Erdoğan — while invoking the concept of the “indivisible people,” an entity that’s difficult to define.

At their rallies, the iconography of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — the first president of the republic of Turkey and a symbol of Turkey’s secular foundations — is prevalent. This imagery serves to remind supporters of the loss of democracy inflicted by their opponents.

Young people carry a huge banner with a black and white photo of a man's face.
Youngsters hold a banner of Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as they take part in a parade during celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the creation of the modern secular Turkish Republic in Istanbul in October 2023. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Deepening divisions

But this focus on Ataturk also alienates religious conservatives, including those who chose not to vote in March. It deepens divisions and fears among those who are wary of Ataturk’s aggressive secularist legacy.

It also hinders dialogue and reinforces Turkey’s majoritarian political system, which was formalized with the winner-takes-all presidential system introduced in 2018.

This system produces a distorted model of politics where leaders claim to be representing the will of a homogeneous electorate devoid of differences and diversity.

It’s reinforced by the use of familial terms — Erdoğan’s supporters liken him to a brother, for example, a term that he also uses frequently in his speeches.

Ataturk is likened to a father who led his children to prosperity.

Imamoglu likens the 16 million Istanbulites — half of which voted for his re-election as mayor — to a family.

But in deeply polarized Turkey, ignoring the diversity of voters weakens the country’s prospects for meaningful democracy. It downplays the fact that fear and mistrust trap voters in echo chambers where the voices, experiences, fears and aspirations of others cannot be heard and where necessary but uncomfortable conversations cannot take place.

A man in a suit surrounded by other men leaves a polling station next to a woman with a white kerchief on her head wearing a trenchcoat.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leader of the AKP, leaves a polling station with his wife after voting on March 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Important conversations

Popular leaders like Imamoglu — the most likely Erdoğan challenger — need to break out of the straitjacket of the father/brother symbolism and its potential for authoritarian, populist repercussions.

They need to foster a political culture that shifts the attention from the leader to more participatory democratic politics and enables important conversations across Turkey’s cultural and political divides.

A dark-haired man in glasses speaks at a rally.
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu addresses supporters during a campaign rally, in Istanbul on March 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Imamoglu’s stint as Istanbul mayor has sparked inclusive conversations and prioritized policies that emphasize human development. He’s advocated for services and projects aimed at inclusiveness and social justice, offering a Turkish model for non-populist politics.

His political campaigning, however, has paid lip service to the diversity of the electorate and the different fears and aspirations that motivate and constrain voters. It’s focused too much on his personality.

Democracy in Turkey needs durable yet adaptable institutions, not a cult of personality and the demonization of certain segments of voters. Diversity must be genuinely recognized and embraced. Bringing together all voters by focusing on their common interests, not their differences, is the challenge Turkey’s leaders face today.

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