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Turkey: Polls close in Erdogan's 'last election'

March 31, 2024

Analysts say local elections this Sunday are crucial for Turkey's opposition parties, which are under threat of being utterly sidelined by an increasingly authoritarian regime.

Election banners for AKP candidates including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seen displayed in Beyoglu neighbourhood of Istanbul
These upcoming local elections could be a turning point for TurkeyImage: John Wreford/SOPA Images/ZUMA Press Wire

As millions of eligible voters headed to the polls to elect mayors in 81 Turkish cities and municipalities on March 31, it is a historic local election for one person in particular: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has spoken of his "last election" before handing over responsibility to the next generation.

Turkey's constitution obliges Erdogan to step down in four years due to term limits. But an Erdogan loyalist in the Turkish parliament, former Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, has long teased a constitutional amendment that would allow the head of state to run for another term. And the president's ultranationalist ally Devlet Bahceli has publicly pleaded with Erdogan, telling him: "You cannot leave the Turkish nation alone!"

President Erdogan at a rally where people wave Turkish flags
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, though not on the ballot himself, has attended rallies all over Turkey ahead of Sunday's electionsImage: TUR Presidency/Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Anadolu/picture alliance

Erdogan's AKP takes on Ekrem Imamoglu

Erdogan's political career gained momentum when he was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994. But it was there, too, that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered a major defeat in 2019 local elections.

This year, it hopes to erase that embarrassment. A few weeks ago, Erdogan spoke of "five wasted years." In 2019, a united opposition achieved a historic victory after 25 years and succeeded in taking back 11 cities, including Istanbul and the Turkish capital, Ankara, from the AKP.

Many factors were responsible for the defeat of the ruling party, but one man in particular stood out: Ekrem Imamoglu from the Republican People's Party (CHP), who was elected mayor of Istanbul. His reelection or defeat on March 31 could determine the future of Turkey.

If Imamoglu wins, his chances of running for president in 2028 will significantly increase, predicted Berk Esen, a political scientist at Istanbul's Sabanci University. "In my opinion, Imamoglu is the best possible opposition candidate if Erdogan's power machine is to be beaten," he said.

Ekrem Imamoglu stands on a platform, smiling, addressing supporters
Analysts have said Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu has the potential to beat Erdorgan Image: Anka

Esen said Imamoglu has the necessary qualities to rally a majority. "He can win the votes of very different population groups. He has the potential to reach conservative, left-wing, Kurdish and even pro-Erdogan voters," he said.

Esen also pointed out that Imamoglu was positioning himself as a direct rival to the president on the campaign trail. "Imamoglu is using these elections to attack Erdogan directly," he said.

In Istanbul, AKP may benefit from divided opposition

But it won't be easy for the anti-AKP camp this Sunday. According to a survey by the Turkish ORC research institute, there are only 1.2 percentage points between Imamoglu and AKP candidate Murat Kurum in Istanbul. The job of Istanbul mayor is of paramount importance for the country as a whole: one-fifth of the Turkish population lives in the metropolitan Istanbul region, and half of Turkey's exports as well as 56% of its imports pass through the megacity.

In the 2023 presidential election, the opposition put forward a joint candidate to face Erdogan but fell short. This time, the three biggest opposition parties — the CHP, the nationalist Good Party (IYI) and the pro-Kurdish DEM — are all presenting their own candidates. 

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Esen explained that the united opposition front fell apart after Erdogan's victory in the 2023 presidential election, leading to a loss of trust among voters. "In view of this fragmentation and internal struggles among the opposition parties, there is a sense of hopelessness and disenchantment with politics," he said.

When Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, it was despite the fact that he had received only around 25% of the vote. His four opponents received 22, 20, 15 and 12%. Today, many fear his party's candidate for Istanbul, Kurum, could likewise benefit from such a divided opposition.

Erdogan's opponents seem unmotivated, said Ulas Tol, director of the CORE Research Institute in Istanbul. "Until 2019, Erdogan's party ruled in the big cities and the opposition's ultimate goal was simply winning elections," he said. "Now, those who don't vote for Erdogan are either emotionally politicized to the extreme or turning away from politics altogether."

Erdogan wants to 'get rid of potential 2028 rivals'

These elections will show, "which direction the authoritarian system in Turkey could develop in the coming years," said political scientist Esen.

"Erdogan wants to use these elections to weaken, or completely get rid of potential 2028 rivals," he said. "If he succeeds, the Turkish opposition will be even less able to compete than it is today. The situation is perhaps not comparable with Russia but with Venezuela: elections are held there regularly, but the opposition has no chance of winning. That's why this election is so important for the [Turkish] opposition."

Gülsen Solaker contributed to this article, which was originally written in German.

Burak Ünveren standing in a newsroom, wearing a suit
Burak Ünveren Multimedia editor with a focus on Turkish foreign policy and German-Turkish relations.