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Turkey’s municipal elections: A new chance for democracy?

Amanda Paul , Demir Murat Seyrek

Date: 12/03/2019
Turkey will hold municipal elections on 31 March. It will be the first vote following the establishment of a presidential system in June 2018, which granted Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, sweeping powers. For Erdoğan a decisive victory is crucial, as the elections are more or less a referendum on his rule.

While polls indicate that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) may lose some votes due to ongoing economic turmoil, the party is still expected to retain the majority of the municipalities it won in March 2014. However, there is a chance the AKP could lose Ankara and/or Istanbul as well as some other major cities. This would confirm that support for the AKP is in decline. Erdoğan will, therefore, fight tooth and nail to keep these cities under AKP rule.  

Ever the master campaigner, Erdoğan wants to divert focus away from the economy, not least soaring food prices. He has been appealing to nationalist instincts by talking about a new military intervention into Syria and blaming Turkey’s economic woes on foreign plots. A series of populist measures have also been introduced, including increasing the minimum wage unexpectedly by 26% and selling cheap fruit and vegetables from municipalities in Istanbul and Ankara.

The AKP has also revived its ‘People’s Alliance’, with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). This tactic served the party well in the 2017 constitutional referendum and the 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections. However, the fact that the AKP needs to form alliances, something it never had to do before 2017, is evidence of its declining support. Furthermore, even with MHP’s backing, success is not guaranteed.

With no national elections until 2023, the upcoming municipal elections are the last chance for Turkey’s opposition to show they are not washed-up. The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the IYI (Good) Party, have also reestablished their 2018 alliance in at least 50 cities. Beginning with the 2017 constitutional referendum, cooperation became more institutionalised for the June 2018 elections. Such cooperation was unimaginable a few years ago. It is an important indicator of democratic maturity among opposition parties.

A major challenge for the opposition parties is getting sufficient visibility. Because most mainstream media – television and newspapers – are owned by pro-AKP businessmen, social media and alternative outlets (news portals and web TVs) have become their main communication channel.

There are also concerns about election fraud. During the 2018 elections, there were some irregularities. However, the opposition and international observers were unable to produce sufficient evidence. Still, Turkish democrats have not lost heart. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers will be active on 31 March to ensure the transparency and security of elections. This is a unique engagement for democracy in Turkey.

Being in office and therefore able to both use governmental resources and its well-established networks, also gives the AKP an advantage. Nevertheless, when it comes to Istanbul and Ankara, polls currently indicate success is not guaranteed.

While Istanbulites voted against the presidential system in 2017, they backed the AKP-MHP alliance in the 2018 parliamentary elections – but only by a whisker, with 51%. “To win Turkey, victory in Istanbul is a must” has become Erdoğan’s slogan. The AKP has nominated political heavyweight, former Prime Minister and Parliamentary Speaker Binali Yıldırım, who despite his name and reputation is in a neck-and-neck race with the lesser-known CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoğlu, according to recent polls. In Ankara, CHP nominee Mansur Yavaş, a native of the city and a former member of MHP, has a lead in the polls against the AKP’s nominee Mehmet Özhaseki.

What about the Kurds?

As in 2014, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is expected to win almost all the municipalities in the predominantly Kurdish southeast. HDP is not fielding candidates in several key cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, thereby indirectly supporting the CHP-IYI alliance. The HDP has a significant electorate in nearly all the cities, who are unlikely to vote for the AKP. While this could boost the CHP-IYI alliance, it could also risk alienating the nationalists among the CHP and IYI voters, who view the HDP as not that different from the terrorist PKK (The Kurdistan Workers’ Party).

Erdoğan has already jumped on this, accusing the entire opposition of cooperating with ‘terrorists’. Over the last few years, the government replaced 95 HDP elected mayors with loyal officials, claiming that HDP mayors were supporting the PKK. Many HDP representatives were also prosecuted and jailed, including former HDP Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaş. In recent speeches, Erdoğan has signalled that after 31 March, he may again replace some of the elected HDP mayors.

Consequential elections

Whatever the result of the elections, Erdoğan will continue to hold sweeping executive powers. The outcome will also change little, if anything, in Turkey’s foreign policy. Relations with the EU and the US will remain challenging. Yet, considering the current economic climate and the need for foreign investments, the government will probably want to avoid escalating tensions any further, particularly with the EU.  

However, a weak result for the AKP would be uncomfortable for Erdoğan. The pressure to improve the economy would increase significantly. Such an outcome would also be a major boost for Turkey’s opposition and Turkish democrats more broadly as it would show that Erdoğan is not invincible. This could open the door to new developments, including the possible birth of new political movements/parties.

Therefore, the consequences of these elections go far beyond municipalities. Democrats in Turkey understand this. While many in Europe have declared democracy in Turkey dead and buried, Turkish democrats continue their struggle, using what space they have left to the maximum. While everyone recognises the unfavourable conditions for free and fair elections, millions in Turkey remain cautiously optimistic. These people continue to look to the EU to support them.

The EU should, therefore, calibrate its approach according to this evolving political landscape. The European Parliament’s efforts to suspend the already de facto frozen accession negotiations with Turkey a few weeks before the local elections are a major disappointment for Turkish democrats. For the AKP, this was a gift. The European Parliament still fails to understand the dynamics in Turkey. Rather than letting down Turkish democrats by officially closing doors, the EU should use all possible means to support them – for example with encouraging statements and using EU funds more efficiently to support civil society and journalists.

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