Local elections in Türkiye: Wind of democracy has arrived in Türkiye this time

Local elections in Türkiye: Wind of democracy has arrived in Türkiye this time
Atatürk. © Faruk, April 12, 2014, via Flickr


Idil Igdir 

Human Rights Researcher, 

Global Human Rights Defence. 

On Sunday, March 31st, 2024, local elections took place in Tükiye and key cities from Istanbul to Ankara were in the spotlight, once again stirring great interest in the elections across the country. The outcome of this election carried particular weight for the current ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), following the loss of key cities such as Ankara, Istanbul, Adana and Antalya to the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) five years ago. Although President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's primary goal was to regain the cities he lost in 2019 (1), the polls turned out to be an "unexpected" political surprise for his party (4). That is, Türkiye's ruling party was defeated in the mayoral elections in a stunning setback, causing Erdogan's party to suffer a historical drop in votes for the first time in years, whereas opposition heavyweight Ekrem İmamoğlu easily won another term in Istanbul. 

A further watershed moment on Sunday was that CHP became the country's leading political party according to the results, for the first time since 1977, the year in which Bülent Ecevit won the general election with 41.4 percent. The reputation of Atatürk's party has come under severe flak over the years due to a lack of effective leadership, internal controversies and collapses, leading it to be labelled as a "25% ceiling" party. Yet the 2024 local elections mirrored this time the deep-rooted effects of hyperinflation, abandonment of the population in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, alarming systematic violations of human and women's rights, attacks on pensioners, ambiguous stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, arbitrary detention of political dissidents, and, above all, the erosion of democracy in the country. 

A record of firsts was also broken for both parties on Sunday, but only one of them had a happy ending. While AKP remained below 35 percent for the first time in more than two decades, CHP broke history, surpassing 30 percent for the first time in a long time (4). This victory of the secular and democratic opposition party (CHP) sparked a beacon of hope in the hearts of the Turkish people and raised the question of whether it heralded a change in the political climate in the country, hence a breaking point in politics after years of the AKP's repressive domination. 

Following the local elections, crowded groups gathered in different cities and celebrated by chanting "Türkiye is secular and will remain secular". Amid these voices echoing in almost every corner of Türkiye, one wonders what impact this election will have on the country's democratic backsliding since 2016, the damage to its relations with the European Union, isolation in foreign relations, increasing hostility and discriminatory policies towards both women and political dissidents, and an economy spiralling out of control. 

Who is Ekrem İmamoğlu and what does his victory mean for Türkiye’s future? 

Ekrem İmamoğlu is the Mayor of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality since 2019. Exactly 5 years ago, he became the centre of attention of Turkish politics for the first time during the Istanbul election with his stance against his rival, former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım. With his calm, prudent and determined attitude, he defeated his rival in the first election on March 31st, 2019, and then in the second election held as a result of major appeals from AKP, becoming the first person in Turkish politics to defeat Erdoğan. However, from that moment on, İmamoğlu has been subjected to massive attacks and a policy of attrition, from the president himself to his ministers. Even a lawsuit was filed against him for allegedly insulting the members of the Supreme Board of Elections (YSK) in his press statement on November 4th, 2019 (3). The court sentenced İmamoğlu to 2 years, 7 months and 15 days in prison and a political ban on December 14th, 2022 (3). While his trial was postponed first to November 30th, 2023 and then to April 25th, 2024, the prosecutor's request for İmamoğlu to be brought by force was rejected by the court. In the 2023 general elections, Imamoğlu was also regarded by the public as the golden candidate. 

So, İmamoğlu's victory on Sunday night in defeating the AKP candidate Murat Kurum by a margin of more than 10 percent and keeping Istanbul in CHP hands is not only a small local election success, but also a sign of the winds of change and the resonances of his highly possible candidacy for the presidency in 2028. 

Istanbul has always been regarded as one of the key cities defining Türkiye's political trajectory. While this theory could not be proven in the 2023 general elections, the Turkish people place more and more faith in him to bring Türkiye back to its roots. 

What awaits Türkiye with CHP's historic victory? 

Türkiye is an important country in the international arena but has become increasingly isolated in recent years due to Erdoğan's aggressive and uncompromising behaviour. The European Parliament's rapporteur on Türkiye, Nacho Sanchez Amor, said in 2023 that “Ankara's abrasive tone in foreign relations” was one of the obstacles to improving relations with Brussels (5). On top of that, the ever-increasing inflation rate in the country, recently announced at 67.10 percent, is making the population poorer by the day, even by the hour, and creating a severe livelihood problem. In 2002, when the AKP first came to power, 1 US dollar was equal to 1.5 Turkish Liras. More than two decades later, under AKP rule, the devaluation of the Turkish lira against the US dollar has reached such a point that people cannot even keep track of it on a daily basis. Today, 32.44 Turkish liras are equal to 1 US dollar. 

Given the current situation, CHP becoming the leading party in the country has the potential to create waves of change in the internal dynamics in Türkiye as well as in the external dynamics in the long run. One can also interpret the fact that people, especially in cities such as Adiyaman, Kilis, Denizli and Afyonkarahisar, which are known to be AKP strongholds, voted for CHP as a cry for help rather than a change of heart. 

Furthermore, it is no secret that Erdoğan is planning to change the constitution, especially after the 2023 elections, and is trying to gradually detach the country from its secular ties and mould it around a religious and more conservative policy. The regression in human rights and women’s rights is one side of the medallion, while the loss of independence of institutions is another. However, if CHP can learn from the mistakes it has made in the past in dealing with political crises both at home and abroad after this election, the shattered trust in the party can be restored by building transparency, consistency and dedication, thus paving the way to become the ruling party in the next elections. 

What impact on gender equality? 

As of the 2024 local elections, 11 out of 81 cities in the country will be led by a woman mayor. While this is not a major accomplishment or even close to achieving absolute equality, one cannot overlook the importance of this step for all women in Türkiye.

Some cities controlled by the AKP that voted for a CHP mayor in 2024 (2) : 

  • Kastamonu with 48.83 percent 
  • Afyonkarahisar with 50.78 percent 
  • Adiyaman with 49.74 percent 
  • Bursa with 47.63 percent 
  • Denizle with 47.77 percent 
  • Kilis with 41.97 percent 

Sources and further reading : 

  1. Michealson R. (2024, April 1). ‘Istanbul mayoral contest takes centre stage as Turkey votes in local elections’. The Guardian.<https://www.theguardian.com/world/2024/mar/31/turkey-local-elections-istanbul-mayor-ekrem-imamoglu-recep-tayyip-erdogan> accessed April 1, 2024. 
  2. NTV. ‘Seçim sonuçları 2024: 31 Mart 2024 Yerel Seçim Sonuçları il il, ilçe ilçe anlık ve canlı öğren’. <https://www.ntv.com.tr/galeri/turkiye/secim-sonuclari-2024-31-mart-2024-yerel-secim-sonuclari-il-il-ilce-ilce-anlik-ve-canli-ogren,71KzvBehbk64UtMeh_i-yg/X0K1KnkFxUiUhxVyh6bLEw> accessed March 31, 2024. 
  3. Human Rights Watch. (2022, December 14) ‘Turkey: Court Convicts Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu’.<https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/12/14/turkey-court-convicts-istanbul-mayor-ekrem-imamoglu> accessed March 31, 2024. 
  4. Fraser S., Kiper C. (2024, April 1). ‘In setback to Turkey's Erdogan, opposition makes huge gains in local election’. The Washington Post. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2024/03/31/turkey-local-elections-erdogan-popularity-test/17cdec9e-ef14-11ee-8f2c-380a821c02db_story.html> accessed April 1, 2024. 
  5. Istanbul AFP. (2023, December 6). Turkey must soften tone to avoid isolation: European envoy’. France24.<https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20231206-turkey-must-soften-tone-to-avoid-isolation-european-envoy> accessed March 31, 2024.