Daniel Thorpe

Is this the beginning of the end for Erdogan?

A glum looking president Erdogan waves to supporters in Ankara (Credit: Getty images)

President Erdogan’s political star rose when he won the local elections in Istanbul exactly 30 years ago. ‘The one who wins Istanbul wins the whole of Turkey,’ he once said. His famous sentence is now back to haunt him.

People already talk about ‘the beginning of the end’ for Erdogan

In Istanbul yesterday, tens of thousands of people gathered to celebrate not Erdogan but Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition’s incumbent mayor, in municipal elections. Despite the fatigue from last year’s general elections, over 78 per cent of Turkey’s 61 million-strong electorate turned up to cast their votes yesterday. Their backing for Imamoglu was resounding: his Republican People’s Party (CHP) performed spectacularly, securing 37.7 per cent of the overall vote and control over the biggest cities in Turkey, including the capital, Ankara. Imamoglu’s win makes him the natural leader to challenge Erdogan in the coming years.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came in second with 35.5 per cent. The results in Istanbul and Ankara were the most disappointing for Erdogan, who made retaking these municipalities from the opposition his biggest aim after being elected for another term as president last year. Fearful of being outshined, he chose rather unimpressive candidates who lacked the energy and charisma of CHP’s mayors. Their promises to improve living conditions and make the cities more earthquake-safe were difficult to sell as representatives of the party that has ruled Turkey since 2002.

In the southeast, the pro-Kurdish left-wing Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM) won most of the municipalities. They did so in the last local election too, in 2019, but the municipalities were stripped from them over alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Instead, they were replaced with government-appointed administrators. 

‘After this defeat in the polls, they won’t have the power to take away our municipalities again,’ said Cemil, a taxi driver from the southeastern Batman province. Like many other Kurds living in Istanbul, this time he decided not to support DEM and vote for the main opposition CHP instead. ‘I voted for Ekrem Imamoglu as he is the one that can take this system down.’

In his victory speech, Imamoglu namechecked all the religious and ethnic minorities and promised a more inclusive Turkey. When he mentioned Kurds, the crowd burst out cheering. Undoubtedly, without Kurdish support, he would not have been able to win Istanbul. 

Turkey’s ongoing economic crisis was the main factor behind Erdogan’s defeat. The country still suffers from an eye-watering 67 per cent inflation, despite the central bank ramping up interest rates to 50 per cent. To win the local elections, Erdogan increased the minimum wage by 49 per cent to 17,002 Turkish lira (£420). But with such high inflation, this counted for little. Many workers remain below the poverty line designated by the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions. 

Finance minister Mehmet Simsek is an obvious candidate to get the blame for yesterday’s defeat. His policies of high interest rates, tax increases, and cutting public spending – often dubbed as ‘the IMF programme without the IMF’ – sparked a lot of hostility towards him among Erdogan supporters. Interestingly, now he appears to be more popular with the opposition CHP than the governing AKP, who appointed him. 

The Islamist New Felicity Party (YRP) could also be blamed for AKP’s defeat. Although they joined their coalition in the last general election, this time they decided to field their own candidates after being offered too few municipalities by Erdogan. They won in two counties that were AKP strongholds in the past and secured 6.19 per cent of the votes nationwide, making them the third biggest party. In multiple other counties, they shaved off several crucial per cents from Erdogan’s conservative electorate. 

In the streets of Istanbul, as well as on social media, people already talk about ‘the beginning of the end’ for Erdogan. As with the previous local elections, these results have proven that Erdogan is not invincible and that people are fed up with the cost-of-living crisis that started back in 2018. But whether the end of his 22-year-long rule is in sight is too early to say.

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