Turkey’s Erdoğan suffers huge defeat in crucial mayoral elections as secular opposition surges


PHOTO: People celebrate early results pointing to a victory for Ekrem Imamoğlu in Istanbul. ” The only politician who succeeded in beating Erdoğan three times| Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Opposition’s triumph in Istanbul, where the president had invested significant electoral resources, boosts a party that was left reeling by a general election defeat last year.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suffered a major blow on Sunday, with initial results showing the country’s main opposition party notched up regional election victories around the country.

The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) held onto or captured the country’s five biggest cities in Sunday’s vote, which had been seen as a make-or-break moment for a movement still reeling from Erdoğan’s victory in the Turkish presidential contest in May 2023.

The CHP saw its biggest triumph in Istanbul, where Ekrem Imamoğlu was reelected mayor. Europe’s biggest city, Istanbul accounts for 18 percent of Turkey’s population and a third of its economy.

In his victory speech delivered late Sunday, Imamoğlu said the local election results would have big implications for the country’s political future.

“Turkey will blossom into a new era in democracy as of tomorrow. March 31, 2024 is the day when democratic erosion ends and democracy begins to recover,” he told a big crowd in Istanbul. 

Imamoğlu is seen as a future challenger to Erdoğan, and winning the city which catapulted the current president to national prominence when he won the mayorship 30 years ago is a symbolic achievement.

Erdoğan conceded defeat and promised to listen to the message delivered by Turkish voters. “March 31 is not an end for us, but a turning point,” he said.

Turkey’s long-serving leader — in office as president or prime minister since 2003 — had vowed to recapture the city where he had made his political career, and sent no fewer than 17 government ministers to campaign in Istanbul ahead of voting.

The CHP also won in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, as well as Izmir, Bursa and Adana, pushing its support to 37.4 percent nationwide with more than 90 percent of the votes counted.

Erdoğan’s Islamist-based AK party trailed on 35.7 percent, losing conservative strongholds including Adıyaman, Afyonkarahisar and Zonguldak.

Selin Nasi, a visiting fellow at the European Institute of the London School of Economics, said the election suggested economic factors had trumped Erdoğan’s variety of identity politics. 

Turkey has been wrestling with sky-high inflation for several years and according to official figures prices are still rising by 67 percent a year.

“Conservative voters punished the AKP at the ballot box for the cost of living crisis,” Nasi said, adding that the CHP had expanded beyond its coastal strongholds, increasing its vote in Turkey’s Anatolian heartlands.

Nasi added that the election would not only “inject new life into the CHP,” but also consolidate the position of Imamoğlu, who previously won the city’s mayorship twice in 2019 after the authorities annulled his initial election.

“He is the only politician who succeeded in beating Erdoğan three times,” Nasi said.

Imamoğlu swept the megacity with more than 51 percent of the votes, with the AKP’s candidate Murat Kurum trailing almost 10 points behind him.

A victory in Istanbul — widely considered a microcosm of Turkey — could have given Erdoğan the political momentum and economic resources to move ahead with his goal to amend the constitution to prolong his time in office.

Utku Çakırözer, a CHP member of parliament, hailed the result as a warning from voters to Erdoğan’s AKP.

“Voters gave a yellow card to the government,” he told POLITICO, arguing that with massive support behind the opposition he now sees early elections as more likely.




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