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Turkish Local Elections: What is at stake? What are the international implications?

Vahit Ozan Posluk

Figure 1: The iconic Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul

Just a little bit less than a year ago, Turkey, a member of NATO and (still) a candidate country of the EU, went through an election process that was deemed as the crossroads for the centennial republic. Although the campaign period was controversial regarding factors such as political freedoms and human rights, and the national agenda was dominated by the ongoing currency crisis and last year’s earthquakes in the country’s southeast that killed more than 50 thousand people, the country’s strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan managed to win the election to the surprise of many.

After the defeat in the national elections, the country’s main opposition bloc, which comprised of parties consisting of different ideologies ranging from secular nationalism to conservative “liberalism”,  fell into deep chaos, resulting in the collapse of the electoral alliance and the resignation of the biggest opposition party’s (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi / Republican People’s Party) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

On the other hand, the already powerful Erdoğan and his electoral alliance consisting of many right-wing parties ranging from the relatively milder neo-conservative party of his own “Ak Parti” to the Kurdish supremacist and Islamist, Hezbollah-connected Hüda-Par, came out even stronger with a strong majority in the parliament and the consolidation of Erdoğan’s increasing efforts to get Turkey out of its relatively new republican and secular identity, something which he consistently attacked since his days as the Mayor of Istanbul in the 90s.  

Even though the current scenario for the country’s opposition seems pessimistic, the biggest and most significant cities (the biggest city, Istanbul; the capital, Ankara; the port city, Izmir) are still under the control of the Republican People’s Party, after a surprising landslide electoral victory in many of the country’s most important cities and districts, all the way back in March 2019, which was the actual source of hope for the national elections held on May 2023.

After that election, despite the wrongful accusations against the newly elected Mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoğlu regarding electoral interference (an ironic one considering the electoral integrity record of Turkey under Erdoğan’s rule), the local administrations accounting for nearly half of the country’s population and more than ¾ of its economy (considering Istanbul’s sheer size) fell into the hands of the opposition, which was a defeat not acceptable neither by Erdoğan nor his party.

Now fast-forwarding today, the upcoming elections in late March are a chance to retake the metropolitan municipalities of the biggest cities for Erdoğan, or a chance to regroup for the opposition to continue their struggle against the anti-republican alliance until the 2028 national elections. But the questions to ask here are, what is truly at stake and what is the international significance of this election?

What is truly at stake?


The easiest answer would be the country’s crown jewel, the biggest city in Europe by population and one of the most important cities in the world, Istanbul. Boasting a population of more than 15 million people, hosting millions of tourists every year (actually claiming the No.1 spot for international arrivals in 2023 according to Euromonitor with 20 million tourists), and accounting for nearly 40% of the country’s GDP and being the country’s biggest transportation hub with major facilities such as the Istanbul Airport. 

Also, the city was ruled by the conservatives between 1994 and 2019, being one of the foundation stones on their walk to power, helping them garner votes in the most important city in the country and also in other parts. The victory in Istanbul back in 1994 was a symbolic one, as the then newcomer in mainstream politics Recep Tayyip Erdoğan managed to rise to power with just 25% of the votes and help establish himself and his then party, the extremely conservative and Western-skeptic Virtue Party, as a major force in Turkish politics. His role as the mayor of Istanbul also was a launchpad to his role as the leader of the conservatives/Islamists and as the prime minister in the coming years. 

Winning Istanbul back might bring back the political legitimacy Erdoğan has been looking for after the May 2023 elections, while also giving his party to use the cultural and economic resources of the city. Also, it might symbolize the re-ascendance to power for Erdoğan’s party, which has been suffering from lower votes each passing year, and winning in major cities, particularly in Istanbul might slow down or reverse that trend.

The Legitimacy of the Main Opposition

As said before, the opposition suffered a humiliating defeat in the May 2023 elections, which was viewed as a slip-up by many and cost the job of its leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, and that wasn’t the only implication for the Republican People’s Party. 

The calls for a so-called “3rd way” have been intensifying in the country’s politics, and even though this also affects the ruling parties, namely the separation of the New Virtue Party from the winning alliance, it is much more significant for the opposition. Since late 2022, efforts led by former MHP (Nationalist Movement Party - now a member of Erdoğan’s alliance) vice-president Ümit Özdağ and his ultra-nationalist Victory Party are aimed at the lack of “enthusiasm” the opposition parties have, meanwhile emphasizing the importance of the growing migrant crisis, a huge burden on the Turkish economy and welfare system. While the disillusioned former presidential candidate Muharrem Ince and his Homeland Party accuse CHP of outright sabotaging the organized opposition attempts against Erdoğan and being too lenient (or even outright aiding them) on the Kurdish movements, particularly DEM Party (formerly HDP) which has been accused countless times of ties with the Kurdish separatist terror organization PKK.

If CHP and their mayors, most notably in Istanbul (Ekrem Imamoğlu) and Ankara (Mansur Yavaş) fail to win this election (and quite possibly lose to AKP), they might lose all of their legitimacy in the opposition camp, as the last source of hope for the opposition to prevent a slip to outright authoritarianism will probably be lost.

The Legitimacy of Erdoğan and AKP

Even though Erdoğan seems to be untouchable at this moment, with a relatively dominant election victory even in the wake of a currency crisis and the worst natural disaster in the country’s history, there are still some points to consider regarding his consolidation of power and his party’s grassroots support, which is sourced in the use of local authorities to provide welfare benefits to their constituents. 

AKP, no matter how powerful it seems, is actually constrained by its partner MHP, the traditional ultra-nationalist party that always had a stable ground in many electorates since its inception in the 1960s, to ultra-nationalist policies. They received the lowest percentage of votes since their establishment in 2002, and are steadily losing ground in the increasingly secular young voter base. 

A loss in the local elections will mean two things for Erdoğan and AKP. First of which is the loss of traction they gained in the May 2023 elections and suffering three consecutive elections to the current Mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoğlu, who was nearly banned from politics by the government-controlled courts a year ago and is seen as one of the biggest threats to Erdoğan’s political system. The other factor connected to this is the plans for a constitutional change (which might enable Erdoğan to run for a 4th term and change the country’s founding principles which is what prevents it from falling into an Islamic “democracy”) might be disrupted if AKP doesn’t feel the support consolidated behind it in the local elections, and the propaganda resources needed for this push located in the hands of local authorities might not be used. 

Turkish Democracy

This might seem like some kind of a stretch, but each day the end of Turkish democracy as we know it seems to get closer. Even though it is highly damaged by various military interventions and 20 years of conservative rule, in which the rule of law has been upended like never seen before, and total media control which the ruling party enjoys, it still exists and takes its legitimacy from the secular republic which was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and preserved by many institutions that still survive today, corrupted or not. 

But a victory in the local elections might change the playing field this time, especially if AKP manages to win in metropolitan centres. As said in the previous part, it might provide them the political legitimacy they have been looking for after the May 2023 elections, and help them eliminate their strongest rivals. This will eventually affect Turkey’s European aspirations, as even though they seem to be impossible now, are still a major talking point in domestic politics, and will have far-reaching international consequences.

International Significance

Even though the campaigns generally tend to be very nationally oriented, the results of the elections will certainly have international consequences, as it might mean the complete slip of one of the most important countries in the world to authoritarianism or the preservation of hope towards the restoration of a healthy political life and the return to a more democratic system. This could be looked at two factors;

Turkish Accession into the EU

Once highly probable, now something little less than a dream, Turkey’s European integration is still a major talking point, despite the years of distancing because of various political scandals and accusations from the two sides.

The elections will still be watched by EU observers, who have stated countless times that the political environment in the country is not fair and as a consequence, with the consideration of additional factors such as media freedom or political freedoms, resulted in the freezing of accession negotiations between the two parties.

Despite the relationship between the two parties had soured, and now Turkish accession seems to be everything but possible, a potential preservation of power by opposition parties might rekindle the hopes of the restoration of the rule of law and democracy in the country, which might give its fruits not in a full EU membership, but rather expanded cooperation between the two, such as the allocation of more EU funds into the country, a visa-free regime and a modernized customs treaty. But in case of an AKP victory, hopes for all of these might be gone forever, as Erdoğan and his accomplices will continue to erode the founding principles and the rule of law in the country.

The Spread of Authoritarianism

In a more general trend, anti-democratic, illiberal regimes are spreading around the world. The increasing aggressiveness of Russia during Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, the victory of Fratelli d’Italia and their allies in Italy, the victory of PVV in the Netherlands and a possible right-wing victory in the upcoming European elections all project this trend in continental Europe. A potential Trump victory on the other side of the Atlantic is an even bigger problem for the more liberal West and might signal a potential return to U.S. isolationism.

What do the local elections in Turkey have to do with this though? The answer is actually a lot. As stated before, a potential AKP victory might end the final hopes for a properly democratic regime in Turkey, and this has enormous consequences internationally too, considering the influence Turkey has in the Middle East, North Africa, the Balkans and Southeast Asia, not to mention that the country is one of the most important members of NATO. This victory might embolden Erdoğan even more and might result in a more aggressive stance taken by Turkey on the international stage while adding another electoral victory to right-wing populism globally.


Despite the rather grim scenario outdrawn in this writing, there are also some doubts over how Erdoğan would proceed with his political stance after a potential victory and even though an opposition victory seems unlikelier compared to the national elections in 2023, as the bloc has collapsed some months ago, nothing is over yet and an opposition victory in big urban centres is still possible. But one thing is certain, which is no matter how the election results come to be, there will be far-reaching consequences in many areas, this might be the most important local election in close memory for the country, and is likely to cause significant changes in every part of the Turkish political life, while also having considerable international significance. 


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