2019 Turkish Local Elections: An Explanation of the Ruling Party’s Failure

2019 Turkish Local Elections: An Explanation of the Ruling Party’s Failure

The Turkish local elections of 2019 resulted in a failure for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling party, which lost votes in the country’s three largest cities: Izmir, Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. This crucial breakdown of the Justice and Development Party is an outcome of enduring political, economic, and social struggles within Turkish society which has expressed its discontent through elections, demonstrating its desire to implement fundamental changes. 

by Badri Belkania

The Turkish local elections of 2019 resulted in a major blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which lost control over the three largest cities of the country (Istanbul, Izmir, and the capital, Ankara) for the first time, after sixteen years in power. The phrase uttered by Erdoğan before the vote highlights the importance of the local elections for the government, especially in Turkey’s largest city: ‘if we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey’ (Barkey 2019). This article examines the crucial reasons behind the AKP’s undeniably historic defeat.

Firstly, the premises behind the AKP’s setback in the 2019 local elections should be placed into the context of the continuous process of Erdoğan’s rising authoritarianism, which had been gradually reaching its peak subsequent to the 2016 failed coup d’etat attempt. 

Since the AKP took power in 2002, this shift toward autocracy and even dictatorship, as it has been frequently labeled in light of the 2016 events, has become more and more apparent. In the first years of his rule, Erdoğan, arguably, worked towards transforming Turkey into a democratic and free market based country, however, after the triumph in the 2007 presidential elections he substituted the party’s pluralistic ruling system for ‘a majoritarian one’ and ‘liberal sensibilities’ with ‘an authoritarian mind-set’ (Özsel et al., 2013, 552). As the 2019 local elections demonstrated, frustration within the Turkish population regarding Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies had accumulated throughout the years, which finally came to a tipping point at the ballot boxes. 

The events following the failed 2016 coup d’etat demonstrated Erdoğan’s intentions of seizing absolute power in Turkey. The thwarted coup d’etat, which was immediately attributed to the former ally of Erdoğan, and exiled Muslim cleric and businessman, Fethullah Gülen, became Erdoğan’s justification for launching an extensive purge against his political opponents and opposing journalists. As a result, by 2018 more than 107,000 people were dismissed from their jobs, approximately 1,000 people allegedly related to the coup were imprisoned, and 2,745 judges lost their seats. This ‘massive liquidation movement’ encompassed almost all professions in the country including soldiers, teachers, academics, and police officers (Azeri 2016; Morris 2018).

Frustration among Turkish citizens has risen in lockstep with autocracy in the country and the results of the 2019 local elections should not be perceived as an unexpected turn of events. For instance, the 2013 Gezi Park protests clearly demonstrated this growing civil discontent in the country. The demonstrations originally opposed the demolition of Gezi Park in Istanbul but expanded into a massive riot of crowds from different backgrounds in opposition to larger issues such as curtailment of civil rights, lack of freedom of speech, media control, corruption, and the turn away from secularism (Demiryol 2018).

Secondly, when analysing Erdoğan’s defeat in the largest cities of the country, the protracted Kurdish issue should not be neglected. There is definite hostility between Erdoğan and the Kurds, and they certainly played a role in the AKP’s defeat in the major cities of the country. There are approximately 20 million Kurds in Turkey (CIA 2018). They make up almost 25% of the country’s entire population, and many of these Kurds live in the largest cities of Turkey where the AKP suffered there most important defeats. We can fairly assume that the majority of this Kurdish population would have voted against the AKP which continues to rigidly pursue improper policies towards minorities.

Considering the minor difference between the final percentages of the competing candidates, it can be concluded that the antipathy of the Kurdish population towards the AKP would have played a fairly significant role in the fall of the ruling party’s contenders. This is supported by the fact that the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the most popular party among Kurds, refrained from putting forward mayoral candidates in seven major municipalities in order to increase chances of the main opposition nominees (Daily Sabah 2019).

Immigration proved to be one of the most crucial points of contention between the public and the government, and to some extent cost Erdoğan votes. The Syrian civil war and Turkey’s involvement in the conflict contributed to the massive flow of Syrian refugees to the country which became an immense challenge for Turkey. 

According to UNHCR (2019), Turkey shelters 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees, which makes it the largest host-country in the world. However, the public position on the AKP’s foreign policy of accepting high amounts of refugees has been critical since the eruption of the Syrian civil war. Turkey witnessed a number of demonstrations against refugee policy in the major cities of the country, some of them ending in violent clashes with authorities (Middle East Eye 2014). 

Lastly, despite rising authoritarianism, oppression, and a number of domestic and foreign political challenges, Erdoğan and his party had still managed to retain public popularity throughout the previous 16 years. The main explanation for this apparent anomaly is found in the rapid economic development of the country during the early years of Erdoğan’s reign. In this particular period, the economy of Turkey reached its highest numbers in the modern history of the republic. However, this situation has worsened gradually since the economic peak in 2008, culminating in a total breakdown in Turkey’s economy last year. Compared to the 7.4% growth in 2017, last year (2018) reached only 2.6% (Pitel 2019). Erdoğan faces his first recession in a decade, while the country suffers from a 20% inflation, 13.5% unemployment rate, and high levels of corruption. 

The AKP’s failure in the 2019 Turkish elections was a complex outcome, one which cannot be explained through consideration of present processes alone and calls for a deeper examination of the party’s political narrative. However, though the existing economic problems cannot solely explain the AKP’s slump in the last vote, it can clarify why this happened this year and not in previous elections. The reason behind this development is that the recent economic crisis became the final piece in the puzzle of the public discontent with the AKP’s rule. Erdoğan’s party managed to retain the necessary popularity throughout previous elections, predominantly due to Turkey’s economic welfare and growth, but last year deprived many supporters of the AKP of their last remaining argument.

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