Turkish voters sent a strong message to its long-standing ruling party and its leader on 31 March 2019 that the government’s authoritarian turn has not fully succeeded. In nationwide municipal elections, for the first time in a quarter century, the political movement largely associated with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan lost control over both the country’s economic and political capitals, as well as numerous other districts throughout the country.
This unforeseen outcome did not come without its fair share of election night drama, political posturing and conspiracy theories.
On election night state media outlets stopped posting results when it appeared that opposition candidates were emerging victorious. Whenever this happened in previous elections, Erdoǧan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) always emerged victorious after results posting resumed. This time, however, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate, Ekrem İmamoǧlu, anticipated this possibility and immediately countered the posting pause with his own exit polling maintaining that he held a close, but clear, lead.
The next morning most newspapers assumed a tight AKP victory in Istanbul, as if by habit. Yet a miracle AKP victory did not materialize: Supreme Electoral Commission (YSK) chief Sadi Güven announced that İmamoǧlu led the Greater Istanbul municipality vote by nearly 24,000 votes of the 8.29 million total cast, with final certification awaiting the legally mandated objection and recount process. By noon, citing YSK’s preliminary figures, İmamoǧlu declared victory and pledged to lead a conciliatory and inclusive administration.
In a rare break between state institutions and the ruling party, YSK chief Güven disavowed results posted the previous night by Anadolu Ajansı, the state-affiliated media outlet which had declared the AKP candidate, former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, the Istanbul victor with ninety percent of votes counted. Similarly, billboards placed overnight throughout the city, prematurely thanking the electorate for Yıldırım’s victory, prompted opposition calls to audit the Greater Istanbul municipality for its misuse of state assets. Such developments, paradoxically, confirm growing suspicions in recent years that AKP had so completely taken over state institutions that little real distinction remained between the state and its governing party.
Through the first week, AKP leaders declined to concede defeat, with some Erdoǧan supporters hinting darkly about internal conspiracies and foreign interference. Referring directly to the failed coup attempt in 2016 that the government claims was masterminded by what it calls the Fethullah [Gülen] Terrorist Organization (FETÖ), Ibrahim Karagül, a journalist for the hardline Erdoǧanist newspaper New Dawn (Yeni Şafak), tweeted that “the 31 March election needs to be redone, as on that date a coup was openly executed against Turkey, an operation carried out by FETÖ and crypto-PKK elements. This was not an election lost due to lack of direction and trickery, but due to an intervention. However, the logic behind it was that of the 15 July  coup.” The next day, the pro-government Star newspaper ran a headline asking “who organized the ballot box coup?”
Moreover, after US State Department spokesperson Robert Palladino urged Turkey to respect the election results, Erdoǧan accused the United States and European officials of interfering in Turkey’s domestic affairs. AKP supporters were equally upset by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo’s 2 April tweet: “We wish the best for Turkey’s, especially Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir’s, new mayors, who believe in majoritarian democracy, justice, and basic rights and freedoms. Don’t ever doubt Paris’ friendship.”
While the AKP continued to contest the results, Ekrem İmamoǧlu paid tribute to Kemal Atatürk at his Anıtkabir tomb and memorial in Ankara, and urged YSK officials to issue final election certification—leading to AKP calls to let the process play out, along with criticisms of a premature CHP mandate. By the end of the week, İmamoǧlu’s lead had dropped to just over 17,000 votes, as CHP activists continued to sleep on sealed ballot sacks to prevent potential ballot tampering at counting stations.
Results beyond Istanbul reflected no better on AKP’s current standing with the electorate, where they lost four of the country’s largest five cities, leading The Economist to characterize the election as a “revolt of the cities.” Mansur Yavaş, the Nation’s Alliance (Millet İttifakı) coalition candidate backed by both CHP and Iyi Parti (Good Party), won the Greater Ankara municipality by a more comfortable 3.8 percent, handing an Erdoǧan affiliated party its first electoral loss there in twenty-five years. While CHP’s habitual landslide victory in “Gavur İzmir” (Heathen Izmir), this time by nearly twenty percent, surprised nobody, dramatic CHP victories in Adana, Antalya, and Mersin marked a significant shift in the electorate, at least in large urban coastal populations. Even in cities where AKP retained control, their margins of victory shrunk dramatically from those of the last municipal elections held in 2014.
Erdoǧan repeatedly tried to put a positive spin on the bad night’s results by pointing out that the AKP won more votes nationwide by a comfortable margin, with 44.3 percent of the total votes compared to CHP’s 30.1 percent. He frequently stressed that the AKP’s own People’s Alliance (Cumhur İttifakı) with the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) had outpolled the opposition Nation’s Alliance nationwide.
Try as he might, however, there was no discounting the historical significance and political symbolism of the AKP’s defeat in the crucial cities, especially for Erdoǧan. Precisely twenty-five years and four days before this outcome, Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan first rose to national prominence by winning this same Istanbul mayor post as the old Welfare Party’s (Refah) candidate, in another municipal election surprise. In that same 1994 election, another Refah candidate, Melih Gökçek won his first of five successive municipal elections as Ankara mayor. The electoral dominance established by these two rising politicians over Turkey’s two largest cities a generation ago has just been broken.
In addition, the fact that YSK chief Güven refused to buckle under intense AKP pressure during the highly contested and closely watched recount may indicate the surprising resilience of Turkey’s electoral system following several years of Erdoǧan’s carefully cultivated version of “competitive authoritarianism.” Under this model, first articulated by political scientists Levitsky and Way in 2002, and increasingly applied to Turkey in the wake of the state’s mass crackdown following the failed July 2016 coup attempt, such a “hybrid regime” practices competitive authoritarianism by ensuring an institutional democracy in appearance, but not in reality, through effective control over all levers of state power. 
Two distinct factors aligned in such a way to enable Turkey’s opposition parties to manage this historic reversal in the face of a powerful system favoring the ruling party: an unprecedented strategic collaboration between opposition parties, executed successfully, and widespread fears of an economic collapse during a stifling recession. Only time will allow observers to know for sure whether this outcome was the inevitable result of political over-reach by a weakened hybrid regime, or an unlikely outcome requiring a perfect alignment of economic and political factors to succeed.
A major factor behind the AKP’s historic losses was the successful cooperation between Nation’s Alliance coalition partners, as well as between CHP and the predominantly Kurdish and leftist People’s Democratic Party (HDP). In a historically unprecedented degree of opposition unity, the HDP encouraged its voters to give their votes to the Kemalist CHP wherever they had the lead chance to win in exchange for the CHP agreeing not to campaign actively in Kurdish dominated districts of Southeast Anatolia.
This agreement required delicate party diplomacy on several fronts, beginning in November 2018 with a then-secret Ankara meeting between CHP General Secretary Kemal Kılıçdaroǧlu and HDP politician Ahmet Türk. Following multi-party negotiations, in January 2019 the Nation’s Alliance announced their “unity of strength” (güç birliǧi) cooperation agreement. The accord stopped short of admitting HDP to the alliance, as that would have caused the Iyi Parti, itself a small splinter party from the arch-Turkish nationalist MHP, to leave the alliance.
Thus, opposition, if not revulsion, at AKP rule proved so strong that an unlikely coalition uniting staunch Kemalists, right wing ethnic Turkish nationalists, leftists, and Kurdish nationalists managed to maintain sufficient alliance discipline to trade votes and refrain from campaigning in each other’s strongholds. If such an opposition were to ever form a new party, an appropriate ballot symbol might be a pink unicorn.
Not only did the opposition agreement propel the CHP to victory in the major cities of Western Anatolia, it also helped ensure an HDP victory throughout the Kurdish Southeast, where it won eight municipalities, including Diyarbakır, Van, Batman, Kars, Iǧdır, Siirt, Mardin and Hakkari. Some observers saw these results as confirmation of the political power of Selahattin Demirtaş—the HDP politician imprisoned since 2016—who has proven able to bring more electoral success (to both HDP and CHP) from prison than many previous opposition figures had been able to provide from beyond prison. Other observers pointed out that HDP’s increase in votes cast in numerous municipalities precisely mirrored AKP’s decrease, suggesting that Kurdish voters had switched their votes from AKP to HDP, perhaps in response to the government’s imprisonment of Kurdish politicians.
The story of Hatice Çevik, HDP’s victorious candidate in the southern town of Suruç, for example, resonated with many. Ms. Ҫevik lost her daughter and sister-in-law at a protest rally bombing in Suruç, which killed thirty-three on 20 July 2015. Months later, in October 2015, she was herself injured in an even larger protest rally bombing in front of Ankara’s train station. Since both bombings were considered suspicious by government opponents at the time, her victory can only be read as a strong rebuke to AKP rule.
Other results also turned heads in the provinces. In Dersim/Tunceli, a province long associated with Kurdish nationalism and PKK support, Turkish Communist Party (TKP) candidate Fatih Mehmet Maçoǧlu won, announcing that “we will show the entire country that a socialist model is possible.” Meanwhile, in Pazaryeri, a small town in Northwestern Anatolia, a former municipality clerk named Zekiye Tekin who had lost her job to an AKP apparatchik’s daughter, ran as an independent and defeated her former boss, the AKP mayor.
In addition to unprecedented opposition unity, the second factor behind the first serious electoral setback for Erdoǧan and his supporters in a generation was widespread economic anxiety. Turkey officially entered a recession in February, and suffers from twenty-percent inflation and a twenty-eight-percent depreciation in the Turkish lira over the past year. In the week leading up to the election, financial media outlets described desperate efforts by the AKP government to prop the lira up through at least Sunday’s election, leading to speculation that the lira might subsequently drop further from its current 5.6 lira to the dollar to as high as eight lira to the dollar.
In the weeks immediately prior to the election, municipalities in major cities began to offer subsidized vegetable distributions in response to widespread complaints about produce prices. President Erdoǧan, who had hinted darkly in recent years at economic conspiracies driven by a global “interest lobby,” this time blamed “speculators and stockpilers” for attacking Turkish consumers with food “terrorism.” What government officials refused to acknowledge, however, was that such price rises were an inevitable outcome of the year’s currency devaluation and inflation, which drove up input prices throughout the country’s agriculture sector. As AKP’s neo-liberal economic orientation had previously removed guaranteed floor prices and other measures designed to assist this sector, rural farmers proved no better off than urban consumers.
The dominant factor behind Turkey’s tanking economy is exploding government debt, the inevitable outcome of Erdoǧan’s passion for grand infrastructural projects. The list of such projects over the past decade—all united by a predilection for cutting down trees, pouring concrete and lining the pockets of well-connected business conglomerates at the expense of the taxpayer—has grown ever longer. While some projects have proven worthwhile, like most extensions of the Istanbul Metro, others appear to be more shiny boondoggles than necessary infrastructure improvements. These include a Marmara bridge for which no one can afford the toll; a monstrous six-lane highway that has levelled fishing villages along most of the Black Sea coast; a third Bosphorus bridge which necessitated a new road network that will urbanize all forest and farmland north of Istanbul’s Asian side; and a massive resort development on the Marmara’s beautifully barren Yassı island.
Nothing epitomizes this passion for grand projects more than Istanbul’s third airport, an environmental abomination which would never be allowed to proceed so rapidly in a well-regulated democracy. Designed to eventually expand its capacity to two hundred million passengers per year—nearly double today’s busiest airport traffic—the airport has transformed 76.5 square kilometers of farmland into concrete—and that figure does not account for the new road and rail network constructed to reach the airport, which will inevitably urbanize remaining rural space north of the European side of the metropolis. The debt required to finance this behemoth, and the construction conglomerates feeding off the initiative, has broken the proverbial bank.
Istanbul as Symbolic Prize
Although Erdoǧan’s overall grip on power remains robust, and municipal electoral defeats are not as damaging, or significant perhaps, as a major nationwide electoral defeat, the symbolic and economic significance of losing both capitals, especially Istanbul, cannot be discounted.
Erdoǧan won his first election for Istanbul mayor exactly twenty-five years ago, as the old Refah Party’s candidate, in March 1994. Since then, Erdoǧan and/or the AKP has controlled the Greater Istanbul municipality without interruption. It is the only political control of that city many have ever known. Throughout the 1990s, Mayor Erdoǧan and his Refah supporters were widely perceived as religiously inclined reformers, who moved quickly to clean up the endemic corruption of their predecessors, launched the first Istanbul Metro lines and greatly improved mundane municipal services like trash collection, water supply, and sewerage. Although some protested that Refah supporters had merely transferred municipal graft from private profit to party support, most voters were happy to see marked improvements in urban management during those years.
Following his release from prison after Turkey’s Constitutional Court shut down Refah and imprisoned Erdoǧan for several months following the National Security Council’s February 1997 “post-modern coup,” Erdoǧan parlayed his solid record of municipal management to national office. After founding AKP as a coalition of Anatolian business interests and religious conservatives in 2001, consciously modeled on Germany’s CDU/Christian Democratic Union, Erdoǧan became Prime Minister in 2003. As with his tenure as Istanbul’s mayor, Erdoǧan and the AKP were initially widely thought to have done a solid job, credited with stabilizing the currency, refinancing pensions and investing broadly in the state sector.
After the 2007 elections, however, Erdoǧan’s coalition started to overreach, leading to several major crises in the years to come. Notably, Erdoǧan and his AKP supporters radically transformed Istanbul with several massive urban transformation projects. Combined with global investment trends that fueled urban gentrification, such projects helped drive thousands of long-term residents from downtown neighborhoods, destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and forests surrounding metropolitan Istanbul and greatly damaged historical sites and neighborhoods throughout the city. Such policies also bloated what evolved into an unsustainable national debt, all the while enriching political allies and creating a new class of wealthy businessmen (overwhelmingly male and publicly pious).
One prominent example of AKP’s transformative agenda involves Taksim Square, and the Beyoǧlu neighborhoods surrounding it. Every year or so, another construction company wins a municipal contract to renew the square, consistently resulting in yet another dysfunctional urban redesign, each time another study in concrete. Once seen as Istanbul’s central hub, the square is now a dystopian concrete jungle, anchored by a still unfinished mosque on one side, and the ruins of the Atatürk Cultural Center on the other. An earlier iteration of this massive transformation targeting the adjacent Gezi Park was the spark for the largest outbreak of anti-government protests in recent years, the 2013 Gezi Park protests.
Those disillusioned with AKP’s urban transformation have been jubilant since the election. “Karikateist” posted an old television scene of comedian Cem Yılmaz offering a toast with rakı in the normally alcohol-free male preserve of a kiraathane, after which the entire tavern, male and female, pulled out hidden rakı glasses from under their tables to offer response toasts, and then broke out in dance. Most comment thread respondents repeated a mantra common to opposition supporters: “spring has come.” Such a scene particularly resonated with those disillusioned by Beyoǧlu’s gentrification trends, AKP’s alcohol and tobacco sin taxes and government efforts to make Beyoǧlu businesses more upscale, family-friendly, touristy and AKP supporter-owned. The resultant “clean” Beyoǧlu aimed at Gulf tourist shoppers, in addition to forcing out non-AKP affiliated businesses, drove resident nightlife to Kadıköy, Beşiktaş, and other alternative neighborhoods.
When Erdoǧan first won the Istanbul mayor’s race in 1994, the most imaginative municipal project anyone could point to from Erdogan’s predecessors was “Dozer Dalan’s” widening of Tarlabaşı street. While that creative destruction made it possible to close İstiklal street to automobiles and launch Beyoǧlu’s redevelopment, it was not much to brag about at the time. Now, after twenty-five years out of power, only time will tell if Ekrem İmamoǧlu and his CHP supporters will manage to leave a more impressive legacy than Erdoǧan’s municipal predecessors could, in spite of likely obstructionism. They have had an entire generation to ponder the possibilities.
In his first post-election speech, appearing alone with his wife on the balcony of his party’s national headquarters in Ankara election night, Erdoǧan announced that during the next four and a half years, with no elections scheduled, broad national “reforms” would be implemented. As such a statement begs the question of whose policies are to be reformed, much of the country is now left speculating how this surprising turn of events will be allowed to play out.
In a hint of obstructionism to come, Erdoǧan stated that his People’s Alliance candidates controlled more local councils than Nation’s Alliance candidates in both Istanbul and Ankara, providing them with sufficient legislative power to block future municipality budgets. Moreover, analysts now believe that the Istanbul municipality is deeply in debt, suffering from opaque accounting methods, lack of competition for tenders, questionable subsidies and even more questionable privatization of public land. Even if AKP loses the municipality—as appears likely—since governance is now entirely centralized under a strong presidency, it is said that Erdoǧan believes an opposition municipality would be unable to even pay employees’ salaries.
Just over a week after the elections, Erdoǧan threw down a gauntlet many had anticipated, stating that widespread irregularities necessitated the re-running of the Istanbul elections, and adding that he had recordings proving “mafia” irregularities. Although the AKP’s request to rerun the Istanbul election was rejected by YSK, Ekrem İmamoǧlu has still not received certification. Bowing to a wider electoral margin, last week the AKP failed to prevent Ankara’s new CHP mayor, Mansur Yavaş, from attaining certification. In his first municipality meeting a literal floor fight broke out.
Ominously, on 10 April, YSK announced that any candidate who had ever been sacked due to executive decree (kanun hükmünde kararname) would be ineligible for certification, and then applied that rule to seven victorious HDP candidates in four Kurdish majority provinces. Immediately following this announcement, the seven losing AKP candidates in those municipalities applied for certification by default. Considering that this rule could be applied to tens of thousands of state employees fired since the failed 2016 coup, this move argues for the tenacity of Erdoǧan’s hold over the levers of state power, even in the midst of electoral defeat.
On 17 April, Ekrem İmamoǧlu received belated election certification from YSK as Istanbul’s new mayor. Now, three weeks after the election, AKP officials continue to contest Istanbul’s results, searching for any excuse, real or manufactured, to alter the outcome. With multiple HDP candidates disqualified, dark hints by Erdoǧan supporters of foreign subversion, early manifestations of AKP obstruction and widespread economic anxiety throughout the electorate, how long can Turkey’s brand of competitive authoritarianism roll on?
[This article was originally published on MERIP.]
 See Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, “Elections without Democracy: The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism,” Journal of Democracy 13/2 (2002); Berk Esen and Sebnem Gumuscu, “Rising Competitive Authoritarianism in Turkey,” Third World Quarterly 37:9 (2016).