Republican Resurgence?

In Turkey’s local elections, held on 31 March, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) achieved its strongest showing in fifty years, winning 38% of the overall vote. As well as landslide wins in the country’s largest cities – Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Bursa, Antalya – the CHP also claimed several conservative strongholds in Anatolia, where it is traditionally weak and has not governed for decades. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) meanwhile received 35%, its worst results to date. This was a remarkable turnaround. Less than a year ago, Erdoğan and the AKP-led ruling alliance triumphed in the presidential and parliamentary elections with relative ease, seeing off the opposition despite a failing economy and the country having suffered the worst earthquake in its modern history. How might this upset be explained?

First, the economy. The promises of the nationalist-Islamist coalition, made during the May 2023 election campaign, went unfulfilled. The AKP implemented a not entirely consistent return to neoliberal austerity and deflationary policies, a so-called ‘hybrid’ economic regime that has led to contradictory results such as resurgent inflation without a parallel increase in domestic demand. This compounded the dissatisfaction with the AKP that had already been rising since 2018, and was reflected in a large number of abstentions and invalid votes. While voter turnout was 84% in the 2019 local elections, and 88% in last year’s general elections, this year it fell to just under 79%, with the AKP and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) losing the most votes proportionately. So far, dissatisfied voters have mostly turned to other parties within the ruling bloc; the Islamist splinter party YRP jumped from around 2% to over 6%; in Anatolia and Kurdistan in particular, it contested the AKP’s leading position in strongholds and even won two provinces.

This accounts for the erosion of the AKP vote. What of the CHP’s success? The party’s strong presence in local politics was the key factor. Its administration of Ankara and Istanbul has shown that not everything goes down the drain when the AKP is out of power. On the contrary, public services have improved and populist redistributive policies have been passed, as more resources were available without the favouritism afforded to AKP-affiliated Islamist organisations and entrepreneurs. This was viewed favourably in the wider context of the AKP’s economic mismanagement. The party’s internal overhaul – with long-time leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu replaced by Ozgur Ozel, who is close to Istanbul’s prominent mayor, Ekrem Imamoğlu – also appears to have had a salutary effect. In the major cities, CHP victories were huge: they won not only the mayoralties but also swept the city parliaments and most of the neighbourhoods. Crucially, here they were able to win votes from the government bloc and thus – at least at local level – partially reverse the process of electoral polarization.

A further explanation is that, although the main opposition alliance collapsed following a series of internal power struggles prompted by last year’s defeat, the electorate continued to view its candidates as a de facto unified slate and voted accordingly, along tactical lines. This informal alliance gained some support from the left, although the pro-Kurdish DEM (formerly HDP) decided to run its own candidates across the country. This was based on legitimate grievances about how Kurdish support was taken for granted in the last election. Still, supporters of the former opposition alliance voted almost universally for the CHP and punished the opportunism of other parties. The Kurds supported the CHP in the west and their own party in the east. In Kurdistan, the DEM achieved strong results and won back many provinces – results which the politicized judiciary is already trying to repress.

What lessons can be drawn? The electoral disappearance of smaller far-right and Islamist opposition parties shows that opposition is possible without them, disproving liberal theses that you must please everyone if you want to defeat the AKP. Instead, the results suggest that, in principle, a convincing alternative to Erdoğanism can emerge given a favourable conjuncture. Opposition voters have signalled a strong desire for change. In places where leftists worked together to heed this demand, they achieved some notable successes.

Yet it is also important to note that the CHP is still contributing to the rightward drift in Turkish politics that began in 1980, even if it is currently opposed to the AKP’s authoritarian excesses. Its economic programme simply calls for a definitive return to orthodox fiscal and monetary policy. This means that the party could squander its support if the AKP and MHP are able to improve the material situation for the mass of the population. At present, the CHP can also oscillate between promising democratization to the Kurds and making nationalist-conservative overtures to traditionalists. Yet as it makes gains at the national level, it will have to back up its words with deeds, and this balancing act will be much harder to sustain. It will then fall to the left to articulate a counter-hegemonic vision for the country.

Read on: Cengiz Gunes, ‘Turkey’s New Left’, NLR 107.