Thursday, 11 April 2024

Not Condemned to the Authoritarian Right: Turkey’s Local Elections Show the Way to a Different Future Featured

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By Halil Karaveli

April 11, 2024

The historic victory of the social democratic CHP in the March 31 local elections has redrawn Turkey’s political map and overturned established truths about Turkish politics. Turkey is not condemned to permanent authoritarian right-wing rule. The CHP won because it combined an inclusive stance toward conservatives and Kurds with a centre-left message. But to reach national power, Turkey’s new leading party will need to show audacity and be prepared to take on entrenched economic interests.


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BACKGROUND: The March 31 local elections in Turkey sensationally redrew the political map of the country. Less than a year after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was reelected and the ruling alliance of the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) kept its parliamentary majority, the main opposition, social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) became the leading party with 37.8 percent of the votes. The last time the CHP was the leading party was 47 years ago, when it received 41.8 percent of the votes in the parliamentary election 1977. The AKP, which received 35.5 percent of the votes, lost its position as the leading party for the first time since 2002, 22 years ago, which was the first election it entered.

The Islamist New Welfare Party came in third with 6.2 percent, followed by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Equality and Democracy (DEM) Party with 5.7 percent and the MHP with 4.7 percent of the votes. The election was a major defeat for the nationalists. The MHP received 3.2 million votes less than in the parliamentary election while the Good (Iyi) Party lost more than half of its support. In total, the share of the nationalist vote – including also the far right Victory Party – retreated from 22 percent last May to 10 percent.

Compared with the last local elections in 2019, the AKP received 3.5 million fewer votes while the CHP won 3.3 million more votes. The CHP significantly enlarged its geographical presence – which until this election besides Istanbul and Ankara was limited to the western and southern coastal rims – making historically unique inroads in central and southern Anatolia as well as along the Black Sea Coast, traditionally conservative strongholds. The CHP also carried the entirety of the Aegean region, a feat not repeated until now by any other party since 1969, when the conservative Justice Party (AP) won. The surveys had pointed to a close race in the crucial Istanbul election, whereas the incumbent CHP mayor – and presidential hopeful – Ekrem İmamoğlu was comfortably reelected with 51 percent against 39 percent for the AKP candidate. The CHP scored its best result in Ankara, where the incumbent mayor Mansur Yavaş – another possible CHP candidate to succeed Erdoğan – was reelected with 60 percent of the votes. Of Turkey’s 81 provinces, the CHP won 35 – compared with 21 in 2019 – and the AKP 24 – compared with 39 in 2019. The CHP wrested 10 provinces from the AKP and 5 from the MHP. 60 percent of Turkey’s population will now be governed by CHP mayors.

IMPLICATIONS: Yet even though the CHP has dethroned the AKP, it is far from enjoying the upper-hand in an ideological sense, which party leader Özgür Özel readily acknowledges. Speaking on election night, Özel pointed out that while “CHP is the party of social democrats,” “also democratic nationalists, democratic conservatives and Kurdish democrats voted for us.”

The CHP is generally credited with having performed well in the administration of the municipalities – notably Istanbul and Ankara – that it won in 2019, but its victory is above all a rejection of the AKP; it is a testimony to the widespread popular discontent with the AKP’s economic policies that have impoverished the lower classes. Nonetheless, it was not expected – with the crushing defeat of the CHP-led opposition alliance in last year’s elections in mind – that the widespread discontent was going to have any electoral consequences, least of all that it would catapult the CHP to the position of leading party. But as it were, and unlike last year, the CHP was better positioned to capitalize on social discontent on March 31.

Özel, who unseated Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as party leader last November, has shifted the CHP to the left. Özel stated his intention to sway conservative voters with leftist policies that “object to poverty, inequality and unemployment.” Özel’s role model is Bülent Ecevit, a leftist populist who led the CHP between 1972 and 1980 and who turned it into a leftist party, scoring its best electoral results to date. Özel praised Ecevit, saying that there are important lessons to draw from the 1970s when the CHP took a social democratic position, embraced labor unions and became a voice for the oppressed.

In contrast, Kılıçdaroğlu sought salvation on the right, embracing religious conservatism, neo-liberal economics, as well as xenophobic nationalism. The attempt did not pay off – ultimately because Kılıçdaroğlu did not inspire any confidence. Yet ironically, his courtship of the right –in particular his abandonment of the militant secularism with which CHP has historically been associated – may have paved the way for the CHP’s March 31 victory. It has likely contributed to making the party – without himself at the helm – a more palatable alternative to conservative voters, not least the working class, who have historically been averse to the left.

The CHP that emerged victorious from the local elections combines an unprejudiced, inclusive stance toward conservative constituencies with an attempt to chart a social democratic course. The election results in two mining regions – the Zonguldak province on the Black Sea coast and the Soma district in the Manisa province in the Aegean region – suggest that this is indeed a recipe for electoral success. Although working class dominated, Zonguldak and Soma have historically voted for the right. This time though, the CHP won in Zonguldak, defeating the AKP for the first time, with 53 percent against 37 percent. In Soma, where the AKP won in 2019 with 44 percent, with the CHP receiving 29 percent, the CHP carried the election with 58 percent against 24 percent for the AKP.

Just as crucially, the CHP succeeded in transcending the ethnic barrier, appealing to Kurdish voters, notably in Istanbul, which is home to the largest concentrated ethnic Kurdish population in Turkey, constituting approximately 2 million or 12 percent of the city’s population. Unlike in 2019, when the Kurdish political movement endorsed the election of İmamoğlu, this time around the pro-Kurdish DEM Party withheld its support, instead fielding its own co-mayoral candidates in Istanbul. But the Kurdish voters in Istanbul ignored the exhortations of Kurdish representatives to exhibit “independence” and rallied to İmamoğlu, with the DEM Party receiving only 2 percent of the votes in Istanbul.

The run-up to the March 31 elections saw the DEM Party officials multiplying overtures to Erdoğan, expressing an expectation that he will re-engage with the Kurdish political movement after the election, overlooking the power that the far right MHP wields in the state. Ahmet Türk, who was reelected mayor of Mardin on March 31, claimed that only Erdoğan can solve the Kurdish issue, “because he has taken control of all state institutions.” “But if the CHP were to attempt such a thing, its project would be shattered,” Türk wagered. That is indeed a case that can be made. But the fact that Kurdish voters outside the Kurdish dominated southeast chose to reinvest in the CHP suggests that they – unlike the Kurdish leadership – recognize that the cause of democracy calls for Turkish and Kurdish progressives to make common cause.

CONCLUSIONS: The historic victory of the social democratic CHP in the local elections has redrawn Turkey’s political map and overturned established truths about Turkish politics. Turkey, it now appears, is not condemned to permanent authoritarian right-wing rule. A party that positions itself to the left was able to break through cultural barriers that until now were deemed impregnable and appeal to conservatives. Conservatism does not have a monopoly on power, and the future does not necessarily belong to the far right nationalists either, as it seemed to do a year ago.

Yet neither can it be assumed that the future belongs to the social democrats. The AKP may well rebound. Assuming full responsibility for the defeat, AKP leader and president Erdoğan vowed to make necessary adjustments in economic policies, absent which, he said “we will melt like ice in the sun.”

Turkey’s new leading party faces what may be a more difficult challenge, to turn what is still a tentative and mostly rhetorical shift into a coherent social democratic alternative to the AKP and address rampant social and economic inequality. İmamoğlu, the party’s leading hope for the future, vows to provide “the best examples of populist (halkçı) and social municipal policies and, starting from the municipal level, make Turkey into one of the exemplary democracies of the world.” Yet it is far from obvious that the CHP is ready– and even if so, has the capacity – to assume such an ambitious mission. İmamoğlu is a centrist who has, correctly as it is, pointed out that “it is a misunderstanding that social democracy is hostile to business.” Nonetheless, a party that aspires to speak for the downtrodden is necessarily going to have to assume positions – on taxes, income and wealth disparities and on labor rights – that will inevitably perturb entrenched economic interests. To reach national power, the CHP will need to be audacious as well as inclusive.

Halil Karaveli is a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center and the Editor of the Turkey Analyst. He is the author of Why Turkey is Authoritarian: From Atatürk to Erdoğan (Pluto Press)


Read 2531 times Last modified on Thursday, 11 April 2024

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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