Reading the results of the 2019 local elections in Turkey

While Erdoğan’s party the AKP had previously enjoyed widespread support in Turkey, recent elections showed a decline in the party’s popularity in major cities. What are the factors influencing the recent election results?

“Is Erdoğan losing his grip on Turkey?” was one of the main headlines in the media after local elections of March 2019 in Turkey, and especially in June 2019 after the repeated Istanbul elections. It was a fair question because the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi- AKP), as well as the parties seen as its predecessors, lost the local elections for the first time in Istanbul since 1994 and Ankara since 1999. Istanbul was especially significant for Erdoğan because it was the place where the rise of his political popularity and power started when he was elected as the mayor of Istanbul in 1994. He himself had said, “the one who loses Istanbul, loses Turkey”. These elections also meant that the AKP, a.k.a. ‘Erdoğan’s party’, would not be in the local administration of the three major cities in Turkey: Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, which constitute about half of Turkey’s GDP.

Ekrem İmamoğlu was elected Mayor of Istanbul in the elections of March and June 2019. Photo credit: VOA / Wikimedia Commons

There were many reasons causing the loss of AKP votes in the 2019 elections including those related to the opposition parties such as the election campaign of the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi- CHP), the alliance across opposition parties, and the agency of the opposition candidate in Istanbul. In this blog, I will focus on socio-economic issues and argue that the deterioration of the economic situation, both at the level of the national economy and in individuals’ lives, played a major role in reducing the AKP’s votes in the 2019 local elections in Turkey.

In fact, socio-economic development during the AKP governments and the party’s focus on social and economic policies constituted major reasons for the party’s popularity in the 2000s. The party joined the elections in 2002 with a promise of economic ‘justice’ and ‘development’, which are in its very name, and promoted economic and social policies with this motto. The successive AKP governments in the 2000s pursued a ‘social neo-liberal’ agenda benefiting Turkey’s small and medium enterprises and labour market outsiders, reducing the levels of poverty and inequality in the country. The election campaigns of the party emphasised the ‘service’ (hizmet) done by the party showing examples of the changes in the country such as improvements in the healthcare system. These have also helped the party to maintain its support from these groups, and economic reasons constituted a main motivation for the AKP’s voters in elections in the 2000s.

However, things started to change in the last decade. On the one hand, the country faced several challenges in its domestic and foreign affairs. The negotiations with the EU came to a standstill, the civil war in Syria escalated and Russia and China have become important alternatives to the West. The peace process with the Kurdish movement was abandoned and the war in the south-east of Turkey restarted. On the other hand, the AKP started to change its discourse and election campaigns, whereby cultural interests and ideology started to replace the party’s previous focus on the economic interests, especially in general elections. The party intensified its nationalist discourse and aligned with the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi- MHP) in the elections. These modifications helped the party to maintain its majority in the elections in the 2010s when ideology played a more critical role in voting for AKP. This is in spite of Turkey facing economic and social problems during the last 10 years and allegations of corruption within the AKP in 2014. The party strengthened its position further after the coup attempt in July 2016 through several changes in the legislative, executive and judiciary systems.

Nonetheless, by March 2019, the economic problems had become severe. Although there were economic slowdowns in the years before, the GDP growth rate in 2018 came down to 2.6 per cent, which was the lowest level during the rule of the AKP government (excluding the global financial crisis). The Turkish Lira has rapidly lost value since 2018 (Figure 1), making daily life more expensive and boosting the inflation rate in the country (Figure 2). In January 2019, prior to the local elections, the level of unemployment reached 14.7 per cent; the highest level since the 2008 crisis. These factors had a substantial impact on individual lives, including the lives of those voting for the AKP. Concerns about socio-economic issues, which have been decreasing during the AKP governments, started to escalate (Figure 3). The cost of living/inflation became one of the major concerns in the country by 2018, which previously was not the case (Figure 3).

Figure 1: Quarterly currency exchange rates a

a National currency per US dollar. Source: OECD (2019), “Table 45 – Exchange rates, national currency per US dollar, monthly averages: “, in Main Economic Indicators, Volume 2019 Issue 8, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Figure 2: Quarterly inflation rates b

b Consumer prices: all items; Growth on the same period of the previous year
OECD (2019), “Prices: Consumer prices”, Main Economic Indicators (database).

Figure 3: Most important issues facing the country c

c “What do you think are the two most important issues facing (OUR COUNTRY) at the moment?” Eurobarometer Interactive

In February 2019, just before the March elections, the government set up temporary stores in Ankara and Istanbul for selling fruit and vegetables at lower prices, with the aim of alleviating the impact of high inflation. These stores were operated by the municipalities and became very popular with long queues forming. Despite their popularity, this temporary measure to the economic problems was not sufficient to maintain the AKP’s support in the elections in 2019 in Istanbul and Ankara.

There are other reasons for voting or not voting for the AKP and the loss of AKP’s popularity in the 2019 local elections. In this post, I highlighted the socio-economic issues. Whether these elections mean ‘a loss of grip’, however, will depend on several elements including the AKP’s future economic and social policies, the opposition parties’ activities and the AKP’s position regarding the opposition. For example, recently (in August 2019), the elected mayors of three major cities in the east and south-east of Turkey were removed based on terrorism allegations and an administrator was appointed by the central government, which led to demonstrations in these cities.