Recep Tayyip Erdogan Suffers Worst Defeat in Two Decades in Turkey’s Local Elections

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered their worst defeat in more than 20 years in local elections, losing the mayoralties of both Istanbul and Ankara to opposition candidates.

The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) narrowly won the overall popular vote for the first time in decades, elevating Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu to become Erdogan’s major rival for national influence. The count as of Monday morning gave CHP 37 percent of the popular vote versus 36 percent for AKP.

Some observers thought CHP redrew the political map enough to foreclose Erdogan’s hopes of rewriting the constitution so he could run again in 2028. AKP’s parliamentary majority is no longer large enough to push through a new constitution without a referendum, which the results suggest Erdogan would lose.

Erdogan strove to put a positive spin on the election results, which saw CHP pick up 15 mayor’s offices and 36 municipal governments.

“March 31, is not an end but a turning point for us. In the local government elections, the Turkish nation again used the ballot box as an opportunity to convey its messages to the politicians,” the president said.

“Regardless of the results, the winner of this election is primarily our democracy, the national will. All 85 million people, regardless of their political affiliation, won the election marathon and Turkey was the winner before the candidates,” he said.

“Unfortunately, nine months after our victory in the 28 May elections, we could not get the result we wanted in the local election test,” Erdogan admitted, referring to his most recent reelection victory in May 2023. Erdogan has now held either the prime minister or presidential office for more than 20 years.

“We will correct our mistakes and redress our shortcomings,” he promised.

Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu greets the people in Sarachane after he was elected as mayor on March 31, 2024. (MERT CAN BUKULMEZ/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images)

Erdogan won an unexpectedly strong reelection victory against CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who was backed by an uneasy coalition of opposition parties and seemed well-positioned to exploit public discontent with Erdogan’s handling of the devastating earthquakes of February 2023.

Erdogan wound up besting Kilicdaroglu 52-47 after performing surprisingly well in earthquake-ravaged areas, but on Sunday, his party ran well behind its polling numbers, suggesting voters were more angry about high inflation and cultural issues than pollsters anticipated.

Imamoglu outperformed his polling numbers in Istanbul, turning the relatively young former businessman into the CHP’s new political star. Erdogan himself was born in Istanbul and nursed his national political ambitions in the mayor’s office.

Imamoglu said Istanbul voters “opened the door to a new future” in his victory speech.

“Starting from tomorrow, Turkey will be a different Turkey. You opened the door to the rise of democracy, equality, and freedom,” he said. Some of his supporters responded by chanting for Erdogan to resign immediately.

In the capital city of Ankara, CHP candidate Mansur Yavas won by such a significant margin that he declared victory before half of the votes were counted. His jubilant supporters filled the streets with automobiles, madly honking their horns and waving party flags.

Istanbul, meanwhile, was festooned with posters of both Imamoglu and Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish secular state. Erdogan has been trying to erase Ataturk’s legacy and re-Islamicize the country, while Imamoglu’s supporters are portraying him as the inheritor of the Ataturk revolution.

Sunday’s election more than doubled the number of female mayors in Turkey, another signal that Erdogan’s Islamist grip on Turkish politics might be slipping. Most of the new women mayors were members of the more secular CHP, plus a few from the People’s Democracy Party (DEM), a pro-Kurdish party that is sometimes stripped of its seats by Erdogan’s government because it is supposedly linked to Kurdish separatist militants.

One of the victorious CHP female mayors, Burcu Koksal, actually ran on a promise to keep the DEM Party out of her city of Afyonkarahisar. Koksal became both the first woman and first CHP candidate to win the city’s mayoral office.

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