Turkey’s battered opposition secured key victories in Sunday’s municipal elections, winning back the mayorships of Ankara and Istanbul for the first time in 25 years. While the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the majority of total ballots cast nationwide, the results dealt a major blow to Turkey’s seemingly invincible President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Sunday’s elections were neither fair nor fully free, thanks to Erdogan’s use of government power to tilt the playing field in the AKP’s favor. Turkish media, almost entirely controlled by Erdogan, spared little time for the opposition’s campaign while providing ample fawning coverage of AKP efforts. The Turkish president also explicitly threatened opposition leaders and voters with court cases and the replacement of winning candidates with state-appointed trustees. The election process itself was mired in controversies related to irregularities in the voting and ballot-counting processes, and at least four people were killed during the election.
Given the tilted playing field, the opposition made remarkable gains. As a third of the country’s provinces flipped on Sunday, the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) won back eight provinces from the AKP, while Erdogan’s own ultranationalist allies snatched another seven from the party. The CHP now controls 21 out of 81 provinces, yet those 21 together account for almost half the country’s population and over 60 percent of its GDP. The share of the economy that AKP municipalities control shrank from 75 to 30 percent.
Against all odds, meanwhile, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) secured its rule in many Kurdish-dominated provinces. Branded as “terrorist” by Turkey’s leaders, and with thousands of its members in jail on trumped-up charges, the HDP managed to hold on to at least seven provinces, and even captured another, Kars, from the ultranationalists.
Losing Ankara and Istanbul is both a symbolic and substantive defeat for Erdogan. Ankara is the capital of Turkey’s secular republic, signifying political power. And Istanbul is Erdogan’s hometown, where he launched his political career in the 1990s as mayor – and where he never before lost a major vote. As Turkey’s financial and cultural hub, Istanbul also represents an economic lifeline for Erdogan, who has relied on the flow of Istanbul’s municipal spoils to prop up the AKP and its clients. As the president himself repeatedly said in his campaign, “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey.”
The Turkish president is now at a crossroads. He could either focus on the economic crisis that his mismanagement has brought about, or he could try to contest the ballot results to win back Istanbul and other municipalities. Turkey’s NATO allies should urge Erdogan to respect the election results. As Turkey contends with its first recession in a decade – and with a full-blown economic crisis looming – the Turkish strongman should be reminded that his foul play would be welcomed neither by the tens of millions who voted against him, nor by the global investors who watch his erratic stewardship with concern.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Merve Tahiroglu is a research analyst. Follow Aykan and Merve on Twitter @aykan_erdemir and @MerveTahiroglu. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.