2024: The year of the "Great Reset"?

Local elections in Turkey. A "turning point"?

Supporters of Istanbul's incumbent mayor and main opposition party's Republican People's Party (CHP) mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu celebrate after the polls closed in the local elections in Istanbul, Turkey, 31 March 2024.
© EPA-EFE/ERDEM SAHIN   |   Supporters of Istanbul's incumbent mayor and main opposition party's Republican People's Party (CHP) mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu celebrate after the polls closed in the local elections in Istanbul, Turkey, 31 March 2024.

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President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Islamist AKP party sustained a bitter defeat in the local election. Is Turkey heading for a “reset” and the end of the Erdoğan era?

AKP cornered: defeats in electoral clashes with the secular opposition, the pro-Kurdish party, the former ultra-nationalist allies and a new Islamist party

In the 2024 global “super-election” year, what now looks like a majority in Turkey is already relishing the victory of the opposition in the local election held on Sunday, March 31, 2024.

Images broadcast by Turkish television, also picked up on the Internet, are telling in this regard. I saw large crowds celebrating Sunday evening’s victory following the announcement of the first preliminary results, people taking to the main streets of many cities, from Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, to Adıyaman, Artvin or Ardahan in the far east of the country.

President Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) lost many constituencies where it had won the battle for the city halls and local councils in the previous 2019 election. There are several parties that took advantage of AKP’s electoral stumble. The most important of them is the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP), which actually seems to have overtaken AKP by 2-3%. I will revert to this important point later.

Far behind CHP and AKP are three other parties: the new pro-Kurdish party, the People's Democracy and Equality Party (DEM Parti), which, like its predecessors, won the local election in the southeast; AKP's former allies, the ultra-nationalists MHP, lost much of the electorate’s support, but according to partial results following the counting of 99% of the votes, it also managed to win eight districts; finally, the surprise was produced by the New Prosperity Party (Yeni Refah Partisi, YRP), which claims to be the heir to the Islamist-nationalist ideology of Necmettin Erbakan and his party, Refah, which led the government coalition in the mid-1990s. The Erdoğan-AKP duo treated YRP with arrogance, the latter renouncing their plans to enter an alliance with the ruling party and eventually winning the local election in the conservative Yozgat and Şanlıurfa districts. All these victories led to the failure of AKP and Erdoğan.

The secular Republicans, the big winners of the election. Why Istanbul is important

Turkish and international media are focusing, perhaps a little too much, on the victory of the main opposition party, CHP, against the AKP. The small margin of 1% at national level matters little, as news agencies dwell on the victory itself, which they consider the opposition's first victory in the 22 years since the conservative-Islamist government has been in power. However, this point of view is rather false. The Erdoğan-AKP duo faced another setback on June 7, 2015, when it failed to secure a majority in the parliamentary election. Refusing to form a government with the opposition, president Erdoğan then forcefully called a new round of elections on November 1, 2015. And in August, he cut off the government's contacts with the PKK in the series of peace talks that started in 2009. As a result, the conflict was rekindled and the entire political agenda of the country was rehashed to fit the logic of aggressive nationalism. It wasn’t at all surprising when later in the November 1, 2015 election, the ultra-nationalist rhetoric of the AKP-MHP alliance restored its majority, simply stifling the electoral debate with anti-Kurdish and anti-Western narratives. It was only later that the government was faced with domestic and foreign policy backlash against the backdrop of the deepening economic and social crisis. The same context helped Imamoğlu secure a double victory in Istanbul in 2019, as Ankara ordered a rerun. Therefore, this is the third time when this politician has succeeded in defeating the Erdoğan-AKP regime. Istanbul matters a lot. It is the largest and probably the most important city in Turkey, more important, perhaps, than the capital Ankara. Yes, the latter is home to the main state institutions, but the economic, cultural and symbolic center of Turkey is Istanbul. Erdoğan's rise to prominence began in Istanbul, where he was elected mayor in 1994. He was the first in a line of Islamist mayors who would control the city for a quarter of a century, until Imamoğlu started climbing the political ladder.

With regard to the score obtained by CHP nationwide, there are a number of ways to explain it. The new CHP leader, Özgür Özel, is a much younger politician (50 years old) and perhaps more intimately connected to the realities of Turkey today than his predecessor, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (76 years old). Özel organized the party to stand up to new challenges, including throughout the election campaign and during the vote count. He has been talking to all types of media, bluntly explaining the solutions CHP and its candidates have come up with to the never-ending crisis triggered by the current regime in Ankara. Adding to that is the clever choice of candidates for city halls, a list featuring Ekrem Imamoğlu in Istanbul and Mansur Yavaş in Ankara as the party’s star representatives. The subpar performance of the ruling party, its candidates and those responsible for the electoral strategy, also played a key role. Whereas the opposition was weak under the leadership of Kılıçdaroğlu in the spring 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections, the two-headed Erdoğan-AKP administration let down its voters in the March 31, 2024 election.

Erdoğan acknowledges AKP’s defeat and suggests he might be stepping down. His subordinates risk being held responsible for the regime's abuses

Looking to the future, Erdoğan’s recent surprising statements are starting to make sense. Speaking on March 7 at a conference in Istanbul organized by a youth association, Erdoğan surprised everyone by announcing that the March 31 local election 31 would be the last he would ever be involved in. Although it is not the first time Erdoğan has been heard making such statements, his age (70), in addition to rumors regarding his health issues and the worn-out figure of the Turkish leader gave more weight to his statements this time around. Then there was an even bigger shock when, after the preliminary results were announced, Erdoğan left Istanbul, where he was preparing to celebrate a victory for the AKP candidate, and hurried back to Ankara. His speech there was the real shocker. The president acknowledged the election results before the crowd of supporters, saying they reflect the will of the people, and that he and the AKP will analyze the score and act accordingly, to observe the will of the people. Moreover, he described the moment as “a turning point”, marking the victory of democracy in Turkey.

It is quite possible that the two abovementioned public speeches mark a turning point in Turkish politics, possibly with ramifications for the wider region as well. But we’re not there yet. Even though he turned 70 this year and it appears that he is truly struggling with health issues, it would be good for president Erdoğan not to give in so easily. It has become increasingly clear that without Erdoğan, AKP and its regime as a whole are incapable of producing notable electoral results. Moreover, a definitive withdrawal from politics would leave even more room for the opposition, which has a great deal of scores to settle with the current leader in Ankara. Erdoğan used the judicial system for an unprecedented campaign in the country's history to crack down on opponents after the Gezi protests of May–June 2013, and especially after the failed coup attempt of July 15–16, 2016. The political imperatives of that campaign were presented explicitly, but the sentences themselves, lacking no basis on corroborated evidence, in compliance to Turkish law, were passed by judges and prosecutors.

It was not just Erdoğan who took responsibility for major decisions, many of them poor, in the economic and banking sectors, but also in terms of domestic or foreign security policy, but also the people in his inner circle. And the consequences are extremely serious, both internally and externally. The latest example is a number of presumed servicemen and police officers who voted in predominantly Kurdish towns in the southeast on Sunday, although they were not allowed to vote there. I immediately thought of the commanders directly responsible for such offenses. Surely they signed documents for deployment, transport, etc. After Erdoğan’s potential withdrawal, all the people in positions of authority listed above will be left extremely vulnerable. Will they be able to stand up to the new power all by themselves? Could we witness an internal strife pitting those in power at present against those who now rise to replace them, as it has happened so many times in history?

Will Erdoğan attempt a “reset” of Turkey?

These matters and the various scenarios in play are expected to generate heated debates in Ankara. The economic crisis is deeply affecting the country and the judicial crisis is contributing to the decline of internal and external confidence in a regime that continues to threaten the independence of the central bank and refuses to implement final decisions of the Constitutional Court or the European Court of Human Rights. Sooner or later, someone will have to suffer the consequences for everything, and I doubt it will be someone at the top of the current political hierarchy.

One solution might already be at hand. Seeking to go down in the history of Turkey as a greater leader than its founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could attempt a “restoration” - or a reset - of the state. Perhaps this is where the broader debate that Erdoğan often brings up, about a Constitution that would definitively revoke the 1982 Constitution, adopted under the military regime of Kenan Evren, makes more sense. Just like Kenan Evren, Erdoğan could benefit from immunity from prosecution under a special article in the new fundamental law.

The issue is that, for such a move to succeed, the new Constitution would have to be a democratic one. Erdoğan must accept that he and AKP must relinquish control of the state, one they have been struggling to consolidate for more than a decade. The reset must be sold not only to the Turks, but also to Ankara's international partners, especially the West, from whom Erdoğan distanced himself as his anti-democratic practices took deeper roots. Today's world no longer resembles Evren's. Without connections to global markets for capital, technology and energy resources, a country such as Turkey has no way of developing into a “home” for a swiftly growing population. Turkey’s economic and justice troubles, as well as the deterioration of civil rights, have already triggered an accelerated increase in Westward emigration, with the European Union at the top of the list of favorite destinations. We already get a sense that Turkey is facing a turning point, just as the leader in Ankara himself acknowledged, but it is not at all clear what the outcome will be, nor how the Turkish iron-fisted ruler will deal with it.

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Dragoș Mateescu

Dragoș Mateescu




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