Municipal Landside in Turkey

Against the Current No. 231, July/August 2024

Daniel Johnson

Turkey’s election results have set back Erdoğan’s party and its authoritarian rule.

TURKEY’s RULING JUSTICE and Development Party (AKP) received a major defeat in municipal elections in March of 2024. In addition to losing the country’s three largest cities — Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir — the party lost control of 195 municipalities, most of them to the People’s Republican Party (CHP), a centrist social democratic party.

As a country of major strategic importance in Europe and the Middle East, and after more than two decades of authoritarian presidentialist rule, these results are worthy of international attention. While the municipal landslide of 2024 is good news for progressive forces in Turkey, as we’ll see the significance of the CHP’s triumph is as yet unclear.

Out of 81 provincial municipalities, the CHP now controls 35 while the AKP has just 24. Ruling party losses included traditional conservative strongholds like Bursa, Afyonkarahisar and Adıyaman.(1)

Though not unanticipated, the loss of Istanbul was especially painful for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who began his political career as mayor of the megacity in 1994. And though the AKP had lost the mayoralties of Istanbul and the capital of Ankara after many years of rule in 2019, the CHP’s margins of victory were substantially larger this year, while the party also won majorities on the cities’ municipal councils.(2)

If the CHP’s victory in Turkey’s three biggest cities was not a major surprise, the party’s success in the rest of the country certainly was. Widespread apathy among anti-government voters was expected after a poor performance by the oppositional Nation Alliance in general elections last year.

Many (this writer included) had mistakenly thought in the spring of 2023 that the AKP’s long period of political dominance was coming to an end.(3) That was not to be. But this year, the primary factor in the AKP’s drubbing was a worsening cost-of-living crisis (though the fielding of weak quisling candidates in Istanbul and Ankara didn’t help.)

While the value of the Turkish lira has been falling for years, 2023 saw the imposition of austerity measures. Whereas Erdoğan had long been opposed to raising interest rates and depended on clientelist policies of redistribution (in addition to an explosion in personal debt) for continued support, last year saw the central bank hike interest rates while public expenditures were reduced.

Increases in pensions and the minimum wage did not keep pace with inflation, pushing many retirees and working-class voters to abandon the AKP.

Turnout was low by Turkish standards (78.53%, down 6% from 2023’s general election). The other surprise of the election was the success of the New Welfare Party (YRP), an Islamist party founded in 2018 which came in third after the CHP and AKP. Many traditional AKP supporters stayed home; others voted for the YRP.

Who is the CHP?

As the scale of the CHP victory became clear, new party chair Özgür Özel commented that this was the first time his party had won the most votes in an election in Turkey since 1977.(4) Why, despite being the nation’s oldest political party, has the CHP been historically unable to obtain popular support?

Since its founding in the early years of the Turkish republic, the base of the CHP’s support has laid with the urban professional classes. The Kemalist revolution of the 1920s and ’30s that sought to make Turkey a modern secular nation was an authoritarian one, whose economic and cultural policies generally failed to improve the lives of the rural majority.

The CHP took a left turn in the 1960s, however, after a new constitution made independent trade unionism and socialist (though not communist) parties legal. Industrialization and rural-urban migration created a new mass constituency for the labor movement, while university campuses became hotbeds of radical activism.

Social democracy in Turkey peaked in the 1970s, with the CHP for the first — and only — time able to obtain broad popular support. Despite the introduction of import-substitution policies that contributed to impressive growth in the previous decade, by the later ’70s, an economic crisis moved CHP prime minister Büllent Ecevit (who had been largely responsible for the party’s leftward shift) to negotiate with the IMF, World Bank, and OECD for credit in exchange for austerity measures.

While the CHP had overseen a turn to austerity prior to a 1980 coup, the military banned the party for more than a decade.(5)

Since the AKP’s ascension to power in 2002, the CHP has remained the largest party in a chronically weak opposition. Torn between Kemalist nationalists and a liberal social democratic wing, the party has been unable to obtain more than 25% in any election.

In the unprecedentedly favorable conditions of the 2023 general election, the CHP received just 22.6% of the vote while its leader and Nation Alliance coalition’s candidate for president, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, was unable to break past 45% in the first round.

After that poor showing, Kılıçdaroğlu was ousted from the CHP leadership, with the pharmacist Özel taking over as party chair. Credited by many with orchestrating the party’s 2024 results, Özel has presented a progressive public image with vocal support for organized labor and in criticism of Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza.

Yet the CHP remains ideologically diverse. Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu is a real estate developer and businessman; Ankara mayor Mansur Yavaş was long a member of the far-right National Movement Party (MHP) before joining the CHP in 2013. Despite Özel’s apparent leftward push, historical divisions within the party remain.

The Party Political Map

The constellation and maneuverings of parties in Turkey are somewhat complex, but worth examining especially on the right wing.

In 2018, the year the Turkish lira began a plunge from which it has yet to recover, the AKP formed an alliance with the MHP. With its electoral support declining for years, the MHP did surprisingly well in the 2023 parliamentary elections. The AKP-led government had lowered the threshold for entering parliament from 10% to 7% to help its fascistic junior partner, but the MHP exceeded expectations with over 10%.

In 2024, however, the MHP was unable to obtain even 5% of the vote. The rightwing nationalist party is not going anywhere, however, as such slumps are not unusual and the MHP’s presence extends deep into the machinery of the state. After the election, party leader Devlet Bahçeli ominously distinguished between democracy and the “Nation will,” noting that the republic “wasn’t founded through the ballot box.”(6)

While the MHP’s poor showing is nevertheless a good thing, as noted above a big winner of the election was the New Welfare Party (YRP), which received over 6% and took the southeastern city of Şanlıurfa (with a population of over two million) from the AKP.

The YRP is the successor to the Welfare Party (RP), an Islamist party that came to prominence in the 1990s that was closed by Turkey’s Constitutional Court in 1998. Erdoğan was an early RP member, founding the AKP after the RP’s closure. Like its predecessor, the YRP adheres to a “Nation Vision” (Milli Görüş) ideology, which promotes an Islamist Turkish nationalism in explicit opposition to “decadent” Western culture.

In contrast to 2023, in this year’s election the YRP refused to join the People’s Alliance and fielded its own candidates. Party leader Fatih Erbakan, son of RP founder Necmettin Erbakan, has a penchant for bizarre statements — for example claiming in 2021 that COVID-19 vaccines would lead to people giving birth to “half-human, half-monkey” children.(7)

Previously seen by many as a clownish fringe figure, Erbakan and his YRP must now be taken seriously. In addition to resentment over economic conditions, some social conservatives undoubtedly turned to the YRP because of the latter’s more militant stand on Israel’s war on Gaza.

President Erdoğan, as he has in the past, made significant noise about solidarity with Palestinian suffering in late 2023 and early 2024. However, despite popular demands, the Turkish government refused to alter trade relationships with Israel.

On April 9 — less than two weeks after the election — Turkey belatedly implemented export restrictions on 54 goods going to Israel, and at the beginning of May the trade ministry announced the suspension of all trade with the country.(8)

In the losing corner with the AKP and MHP was the IYI (“Good”) Party. A conservative nationalist group that broke from the MHP in 2017 after the latter joined forces with the AKP, the IYI Party has provided hope for conservative Kemalists disdainful of Erdoğan. The party worked with the CHP in the 2019 municipal elections, with each fielding candidates in agreed upon cities.

This collaboration continued with the Nation Alliance, the group of six opposition parties created to contest the 2023 parliamentary elections. The IYI Party received just under 10% in that election, a respectable but not overwhelming showing.

IYI Party leader Merel Akşener vocally opposed the Nation Alliance’s choice of the CHP’s Kılıçdaroğlu to oppose Erdoğan for president. Akşener very publicly favored the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara over Kılıçdaroğlu, both of whom polled better than the CHP leader prior to the election.

Aşkener even briefly pulled the IYI out of the Nation Alliance after it announced Kılıçdaroğlu’s selection, though she quickly returned after an outcry within her own party.

In retrospect, Aşkener’s suspicion of Kılıçdaroğlu’s ability to defeat Erdoğan proved correct — though she was far from alone in her unhappiness with the uninspiring Kılıçdaroğlu. In contrast to 2019, and no doubt in retaliation for not heeding Akşener’s call, in 2024 the IYI Party decided to field its own candidates in cities like Istanbul, appearing to place incumbent CHP mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu in danger.

Any CHP worries were misplaced, for IYI Party took less than 4% of the vote in an abysmal performance. Akşener announced her resignation from the party leadership shortly after the election.

Struggles of the Left

Excepting the pro-Kurdish Democratic and Equality Party (DEM, formerly the HDP as explained below), parties to the left of the CHP fared badly. Particularly disappointing was the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP), which played a prominent role in earthquake relief efforts in 2023, but whose opportunistic efforts to court celebrity candidates backfired at the polls in 2024.(9)

In what has become a familiar story, the government is attacking local democracy in majority Kurdish areas. Following an attempted military putsch in July of 2016, the Interior Ministry removed more than 90 mayors from the Democratic Regions Party (sister party to the People’s Democracy Party, or HDP), mostly for alleged support of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).(10)

The mayors were replaced by government-appointed “trustees” (kayyum), leading many to joke that they now lived in Kayyumistan, or “Land of the Trustees.”(11)

In 2019 local elections, the HDP won back the overwhelming majority of the municipalities seized by Erdoğan’s regime. However, while Turkish election law requires local election boards’ pre-approval of candidates for office, close to a hundred winning HDP candidates were denied their certificates of election because of previous or pending investigations.

An additional 88 municipal council members were similarly denied certification. In addition to allegations of “terrorism,” the Interior Ministry cited HDP’s co-mayor system (the party pursues a co-chairship system in all organizations in the interest of gender parity) as a reason for the purge.(12)

Mired in legal action and under threat of closure, the HDP renamed itself the Equality and Democracy Party (DEM) in late 2023. While supporters largely voted for the CHP’s Imamoğlu in Istanbul and in many cities the party didn’t field candidates, an implicit endorsement of the CHP, DEM regained control of large eastern cities previously seized by the AKP.

True to form, evidence of meddling during the election has emerged, while the AKP contested DEM victories after. The day after the election, DEM claimed that thousands of security officers had been relocated to majority-Kurdish regions to vote in places they did not reside.

Two days after the election, protests in cities across the nation (notably supported by the CHP) followed authorities’ refusal to allow DEM’s Abdullah Zeydan (who won 55.5% of the votes) to take his position in Van, attempting to place the AKP’s candidate (who won 27.2%) in the post instead. After a public outcry the Supreme Election Board overturned the regional election commission’s removal of Zeydan.(13)

The Interior Ministry has also launched investigations into the Mardin and Diyarbakır municipalities, both won by DEM. The party has responded to charges of not reciting the national anthem and removing the Turkish flag during inauguration ceremonies by focusing on real concerns, like the looting of provincial funds by trustee officials.(14)

At the beginning of June, police raided the Hakkari Municipality, in southeastern Turkey and detained co-mayor Mehmet Sıddık Akış of DEM. Following the party’s call for protests against the appointment of a trustee to Hakkari municipality, the region’s governor’s office banned demonstrations for 10 days.(15)

Attacks on Democracy

Attacks on local democracy will continue in Kurdish regions, despite encouraging recent expressions of widespread support. Central to the state’s hostility to DEM and the pro-Kurdish left is the concept of democratic confederalism, a system of local autonomy theorized by Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Rooted in principles of direct democracy, political ecology, feminism and economic cooperation, Öcalan formulated the concept following his abandonment of Marxist-Leninism in the early 2000s. Strongly influenced by Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism, democratic confederalism is seen by nationalists seen as just another method of separatism.

The government also did not wait to attack labor and left activists after the election. In April trade unions and left parties announced, as they have for years, May 1 demonstrations in the iconic Taksim Square, site of a 1977 massacre in which dozens of leftwing activists were murdered and hundreds were injured.

There was a new spirit of defiance and determination in 2024, largely attributable to the election. The AKP therefore went to greater-than-usual lengths to prevent the election’s symbolic victory from spreading to the labor movement.

The government deployed 42,000 police — more than double the number of the previous year — to prevent demonstrators’ reaching Taksim with public transportation selectively shut down, streets closed, and barriers, checkpoints, and cordons blocking access to the square.

More than 200 were arrested, and on May 3, police raided a number of Istanbul residences and arrested 29 people associated with leftist groups for “participating in an illegal demonstration.”(16)

Since the general election of 2023, a subject of considerable political debate has been whether Erdoğan will attempt to change the constitution to try to run for another term as president in 2028. The municipal election of 2024 has clearly weakened Erdoğan and his party. Whether activists can work within municipal contexts to shape the political future is an open question.


  1. “Turkey’s local election in numbers: AKP lost 195 municipalities, CHP doubled its presence,” bianet, April 1, 2024.
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  2. “Turkey’s local election in numbers: AKP lost 195 municipalities, CHP doubled its presence,” bianet, April 1, 2024.
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  3. Daniel Johnson, “A New Era in Turkey?” New Politics, May 8, 2023.
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  4. “Özgür Özel: CHP 1977’den beri ilk kez TRT ekranlarında birinci parti oldu, görünmez yüzde 25’lik tavanı tuzla buz etti,” T24, March 31, 2024.
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  5. Erik J. Zürcher, Turkey: A Modern History, 3rd ed. (New York: Tauris, 2009), 268.
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  6. “Turkey’s far-right MHP leader undermines election results, says Republic ‘wasn’t founded through ballot box’,” Duvar English, April 9, 2024.
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  7. “Erbakan: ‘Aşı olmadım, yarı insan yarı maymun çocuk doğmasına neden olabilir’,” Ileri Haber, September 13, 2021.
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  8. “Turkey restricts exports of 54 products to Israel until Gaza ceasefire,” Aljazeera, April 9, 2024.
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  9. For more detail see Hakan Yılmaz, “Erdoğan’s colossal defeat in Turkey — and a new hope,” Tempest, April 17, 2024.
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  10. The Democratic Regions Party was a local-level sister party to the People’s Democracy Party (HDP).
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  11. Fehim Tastekin, “Some 40 million Turks ruled by appointed, not elected, mayors,” Al Monitor, March 12, 2018.
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  12. Hişyar Özsoy, HDP press release, November 18, 2019.
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  13. “Turkey’s election authority reinstates pro-Kurdish mayoral election winner,” Al Jazeera, April 3, 2024.
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  14. “DEM Party denounces Interior Ministry probe into municipalities,” Duvar English, April 21, 2024.
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  15. “Turkish governors ban protests after DEM Party’s call against trustee mayors,” Duvar English, June 3, 2024.
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  16. Nicholas Bourcier, “Heavy-handed Istanbul police fend off May Day labor protests from Taksim Square,” Le Monde, May 1, 2024; “Istanbul police detain 29 in morning raids for ‘illegal’ Workers’ Day demonstration,” Duvar English, May 3, 2024.
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July-August 2024, ATC 231

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