Turkey: What led Erdogan to his biggest defeat for 22 years

It seemed undefeated that for 22 years it seemed to have been “graked” in the leadership of the country. Many were the ones who believed that its president, who faced a coup d’état, would remain in power until deep old age… All this until yesterday… Erdogan’s AKP party’s overwhelming defeat and CHP’s historic victory in the municipal elections change the country’s political scene and everyone now has eyes on the next Erdogan and Erem Imamoglu moves. The Turks seem to have punished Erdogan after the prolonged economic crisis. The almost final election results give the People’s Democratic Party (CHP) a broad victory, even in the provinces of Anatolia that were until yesterday a stronghold of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In Istanbul, Ankara, Smyrna, Adana, Antalya, the CHP, whose candidate suffered defeat in the May 2023 presidential election, prevails in the larger cities, even in Bursa, a stronghold of the conservatives, as well as in other Anatolia provinces that were considered for granted to the ruling party. According to observers, this is President Erdogan’s biggest election defeat since his party came to power in 2002. Last night, and as the vote count continued, the president of Turkey admitted that it was a “deep” and promised “to respect the country’s decision”. The pro-government newspapers Hürriyet et Yeni Safak speak on their headlines about the “message” the Turks sought to send to the government, facing a serious economic crisis. However, the editor of Hürriyet’s main article, Abdulkadir Selvi, admits that “a new wind” blows in Turkey, “which cannot be explained only by the economy”. In his opinion, Erdogan, who was re-elected just last year, faces a “new political equation”. Imamoglu: Erdogan’s great rival in 2028? “Revolution in the polls”, is the headline of Sözcü, a nationalist popular newspaper hostile to Erdogan, while Cumhuriyet welcomes a “historic victory” with white letters on a red background, the colors of the Turkish flag. The opposition’s election victory was foreseen for Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey’s political and economic capital, already lost in the 2019 municipal elections for Erdogan. But the dimensions of victory surprised political observers. The opposition’s election victory has been considered unprecedented since 1977 and is considered to redesign the country’s electoral geography. Leadership of the Turkish opposition since his victory in the municipal elections in Istanbul five years ago, Erem Imamoglu, very popular throughout the country, is already in the 2028 presidential election race. Ankara mayor Manshur Yavas, who was re-elected in a triumphant manner and a 30 percentage point lead of his opponent AKP, also comes out very strongly reinforced by the election. Abdulkadir Selvi of Hürriyet even heralds “a koursa between Imamoglu and Yavas” ahead of the 2028 presidential election. Tayyip Erdogan had said last month that these municipal elections are the last to be organised under his leadership, suggesting that he is heading towards his retirement policy. Last night, in front of his supporters, 70-year-old Erdogan called for “not to be wasted” the four years remaining until the 2028 presidential election. The reasons that led Erdogan to defeat 1.Local elections, national stakes personally involved in the campaign for municipal elections alongside AKP candidates, mainly in Istanbul, which he wanted to regain at all costs, Erdogan gave these local elections a national character. More than the crash of the AKP candidate in Istanbul, the minimally gifted Murat Kurum, was commented on the defeat of the Turkish president. His party failed to recover the major cities he had lost five years ago, among them Istanbul and Ankara, and also lost provincial capitals in conservative Anatolia, which he considered to be his stronghold for years. Burke Esen, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Sampanji University, mentioned “the biggest election defeat in Erdogan’s career”, pointing out that the CHP, the main opposition party, recorded its “best result after the 1977 election”. 2.The burden of the economic crisis Beyond possible fatigue, ten months after the May 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections, voters, faced with a serious economic crisis, punished the government: inflation that reached 67% on an annual basis and the devaluation of the national currency make the everyday life of many middle-class Turks difficult. This dissatisfaction was also seen at the highest percentage of abstention in the municipal elections than in 2019. “The most important changes in Turkey are made when people can no longer ensure their daily lives when they can no longer eat,” reveals Ali Fike Demir professor at Galatasaray University in Istanbul. 3. Constantinople: the economic capital and a “national” treasure “Whoever wins Constantinople, wins Turkey”, Erdogan used to say. The big city of 16 million inhabitants (nearly one fifth of the Turkish population) is the country’s jewel due to its brilliant history, Turkey’s cultural capital and its “theater” in the narrowest sense of the term, as it represents 30% of the country’s GDP. “It is not easy to manage Istanbul, a city more crowded than more than twenty EU cities (…) This is a commercial, economic and cultural centre. It is a country” in itself, comments Eileen Unver Noy professor at Halits University in Istanbul, for which “those who manage to manage this city and prove their worth,” then see their career take off. Proof by Erdogan himself, who served as mayor of Istanbul. 4.The west of Erdoğan? In power since 2003 as Prime Minister and then as president since 2014, these were the fifth municipal elections held under Erdogan’s leadership. The Turkish president has managed to face various challenges including the major opposition protests in Istanbul in 2013, spread to 80 of the country’s 81 provinces and an attempted coup in July 2016, of which persecution followed. But does defeating AKP mean the end of Erdogan? Analysts had announced its sundown in 2019 after the loss in the Istanbul and Ankara municipal elections. However he managed to maintain himself in power and was re-elected in May 2023 with 52% of the vote. This time he implied that this municipal election would be “his last”. Byram Balgi, a researcher at CER-Sciences Po in Paris, he is convinced of this: “he is capable of causing surprise and ending his career. A way to leave with grace, remaining faithful to the vision of Islam and his religious beliefs, according to which nothing is eternal on this earth.” 5. Imamoglu president? The mayor of Constantinople re-elected is now more than ever the opposition leader: he has the prestige, popularity and above all the desire to rise to the presidency. But what they do not stop criticizing Imamoglu even members of his party is that he deals more with his career than with the affairs of Constantinople. Erem Imamoglu also remains in the eye of the Turkish government. In late 2022 he was sentenced to two years and seven months in prison for “insulting” members of Turkey’s senior electoral committee. The mayor has appealed the decision, but the case still threatens his political future and eliminated him from the presidential race in 2023.